When beliefs become identities, truth-seeking becomes hard

post by Writer · 2021-07-16T09:02:45.257Z · LW · GW · 2 comments

This is a link post for https://youtu.be/NxqTOm3TzsY

This is Rational Animation's script for the video linked above. This time, the topic is the "Rethinking Identity" section in the book "The Scout Mindset" by Julia Galef. As always, feedback is welcome.

Previously, we made a video about how scorn for ideas and communities is often damaging for truth-seeking and truth-telling. In this video, we’ll talk about another way in which social reality might interfere with your ability to pursue what's true and what's best for you to do: identity.

Julia Galef talks about this topic in her book “The Scout Mindset.” The scout mindset is the mindset of truth-seeking, and she opposes it to the soldier mindset. Having a soldier mindset means defending your beliefs for reasons other than truth as if you were fighting a war of ideas instead of trying to figure out what’s going on. She makes the case that the scout mindset is way more helpful than the soldier mindset.

The soldier mindset has advantages, such as avoiding unpleasant emotions, increasing motivation, and persuasion. But Julia Galef outlines strategies to keep the advantages of the soldier mindset without actually sacrificing truth-seeking and truth-telling. Seems cool, right? 

In her book, there are also useful sections about how to be a better scout. One of those sections is called “rethinking identity”, which is the topic of this video. 

Julia observes that it’s often the case that certain kinds of beliefs are prone to become identities. Communities form around them and, in a sense, fight to defend them. She makes the example of the “mommy wars”, in which one faction believes that it's better to feed babies with breast milk and the other thinks that baby formula is fine. In theory, this should be a straightforward empirical question, but you can observe the two factions arguing passionately and calling each other epithets in an ideological battle that spans years and transcends geography. 

There are many other examples you could come up with [on screen]. 
 
When your beliefs are central to your identity, it is way more difficult to change your mind if they turn out to be wrong. And the discussions you have will not be about the facts that make those beliefs true or false, but about either how much you identify with them or how your opponent is stupid. For example, you may wear t-shirts with slogans or engage in personal attacks. When someone makes an argument against beliefs that are central to your identity, you may feel attacked even when no personal attack has been made. If you merely disagreed with the person making that argument instead of also identifying with your belief, you wouldn’t feel attacked.
 
Julia Galef observes two ways in which beliefs become identities: when the belief causes the person to feel embattled or proud.

Feeling embattled happens when you are part of a group that holds a belief that attracts mockery, scorn, persecution, or stigmatization from the rest of society or from another group. When society holds a negative attitude towards groups that hold a minority belief, the belief becomes even stronger and gets defended more passionately. People in the embattled group will want to stand up for their beliefs even more and will become more cohesive in solidarity towards each other.

An obvious example is groups that hold beliefs against the scientific consensus, such as anti-vaccinists and flat-earthers. Hating them passionately and publicly is in many cases going to reinforce their beliefs. If someone writes an article that explains the benefit of vaccines but at the same time heavily mocks anti-vaccinists, who is the audience for that article? Not anti-vaccinists, for sure.
 
This brings us to the next reason why beliefs become identities: feeling proud. 
The writer of that article against anti-vaccinists is not really talking with them, but he is writing to reinforce his own identity and appeal to his group. He feels proud of his anti-anti-vaccinists identity, preventing him from productively engaging with the other side. 

Sometimes feeling proud doesn’t come from holding a belief that society considers virtuous but can also be a direct consequence of feeling embattled. In the words of Julia Galef: “When the world around you is constantly shouting about how wrong you are, declaring your superiority can feel like a legitimate response, the only way to oppose such negative messaging.” 

In her book, Galef proposes a solution to the problem of identity interfering with truth-seeking. She suggests, in her words, to “hold your identity lightly.” It is often impractical to avoid labels such as “I’m a vegan” or “I’m a Democrat”, or “I’m Republican”. Therefore it’s better to use such labels but thinking of them as just collections of beliefs rather than identities. You can say out loud, “I am x,” but you should always keep in mind what beliefs entailed by the label “x” you actually hold and what beliefs you don’t actually hold. You think of beliefs as something external to your identity that you can keep or discard when you have evidence to do so, not as flags to wave or clothes to wear, or things that make you superior to other people.

Julia Galef makes a final suggestion: hold a scout identity. She suggests this because having an identity that says, “I’m the kind of person who pursues the truth” makes truth-seeking easier and more meaningful. Identities are something extremely useful to humans. Holding a particular identity makes it easier to do difficult, unrewarding things associated with that identity. If you identify as a math person, it will be easier for you to study math. Even if the practical rewards for studying math usually appear in the long term, your identity means you find the short-term actions more rewarding.

Identifying as a scout enables you to keep only the best things about identities. You don’t sacrifice truth, but you can still feel motivated.

Now here’s a consideration: making your identity a scout identity might still feel a bit weird. Identities are usually slowly formed, not chosen. Plus, what if, for any reason at all, you want to shed your scout identity? You might consider if choosing a scout identity still means that you are artificially putting limits on your freedom. Realistically, it shouldn’t be the case, and yet… let me know what you think.

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2 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Viliam · 2021-07-16T18:30:54.995Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The best one so far, in my opinion. Not sure what you changed, but whatever it was, please consider keeping it.

comment by Pattern · 2021-07-16T17:51:28.602Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What are identities about if not beliefs? Values, goals, utility, etc.

When your beliefs are central to your identity, it is way more difficult to change your mind if they turn out to be wrong.

Arguably, what you value may never changed and so you may never change your mind about it. Only means of achieving your ends.

If you merely disagreed with the person making that argument instead of also identifying with your belief, you wouldn’t feel attacked.

How would you feel if this website was flooded with spam? A massive influx of 'flat earth'-ers?


Julia Galef observes two ways in which beliefs become identities: when the belief causes the person to feel embattled or proud.

Another way you might believe something, if it seems to work, towards achieving your ends.


An obvious example is

groups that hold beliefs in line with scientific consensus, yet are unpopular.


In her book, Galef proposes a solution to the problem of identity interfering with truth-seeking. She suggests, in her words, to “hold your identity lightly.”

And we're back to 'what is identity?' If anything, going after what you value...seems a driver for (related) truth seeking. If you don't want to die, knowledge about covid19 and the vaccine are probably important to you, while you might be entirely indifferent to dinosaurs, their existence, or information about them as long as you know:

a) they don't still exist and thus:

b) aren't a threat.

This is just equivocating between 'belief turned identity' and 'identity'.


or things that make you superior to other people.

"Look at us, the truth seekers. Better than everybody else because we're right."

Julia Galef makes a final suggestion: hold a scout identity.
  • There's no way that could backfire.
  • And here it is! Acknowledgement that identity isn't just belief.

Even if the practical rewards for studying math usually appear in the long term, your identity means you find the short-term actions more rewarding.

Or just find:

  • What you want that can be achieved that way, or how to use it to improve/advance toward your goals
  • The parts you enjoy studying? If you don't enjoy studying some subset of math, then maybe...don't? The issue also might be the way you're studying. And if what you want doesn't exist, you might have to make it yourself.