Home > Kadri > Adam Grant: Think again

When people reflect on what it takes to be mentally fit, the first idea that comes to mind is usually intelligence. Yet in a turbulent world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability of rethink and unlearn. We don’t just hesitate to rethink our answers. We hesitate at the very idea of rethinking. Part of the problem is cognitive laziness. Reconsidering something we believe deeply can threaten our identities, making it feel as if we’re losing a part of ourselves. We favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt and we let our beliefs get brittle long before our bones.

Tools we cling to:

  • Assumptions
  • Instincts
  • Habits

But not having an open mind.

Individual rethinking – updating our own views

Most of us take pride in our knowledge and expertise and in staying true to our beliefs and opinions. That makes sense in a stable world, where we get rewarded for having conviction in our ideas. The problem is that we live in a rapidly changing world, where we need to spend much time rethinking as we do thinking. Rethinking is a skill set, but it’s also a mindset.

We favor feeling of being right over being right. Phil Tetlock discovered that as we think and talk, we often slip into the mindset of three different professions:

  • Preachers
  • Prosecutors
  • Politicians

We get into preacher mode when our sacred beliefs are in jeopardy, we deliver sermons to protect and promote our ideals. We enter prosecutor mode when we recognize flaws in other people’s reasoning. We shift into politician mode when we’re seeking to win over audience. If you’re scientist by trade, rethinking is fundamental to your profession. We move into scientist mode when we’re searching for the truth, we run experiments to test hypotheses and discover knowledge.

Scientists morph into preachers when they present their pet theories as gospel and treat thoughtful critiques as sacrilege. They veer into politician terrain when they allow their views to be swayed by popularity rather than accuracy. They enter prosecutor mode when they’re hell-bent on debunking and discrediting rather than discovering.

Two biases can harm our ability to think like scientist. One is confirmation bias – seeing what we expect to see. The other is desirability bias – seeing what we want to see. When we’re in the scientist mode, we refuse to let our ideas become ideologies.

In preacher mode, changing our minds is a mark of moral weakness; in scientist mode, it’s a sign of intellectual integrity. In prosecutor mode, allowing ourselves to be persuaded is admitting defeat; in scientist mode, it’s a step forward the truth. In politician mode, we flip-flop in response to carrots and sticks; in scientist mode, we shift in the face of sharper logic and stronger data.

The purpose of learning isn’t to affirm our beliefs; it’s to evolve our beliefs.

The rethinking comes in cycle. It starts with humility, next step is doubt, then curiosity that can eventually lead to discovery. If knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom. Scientific thinking favors humility over pride, doubt over certainty, curiosity over closure.

Individual rethinking – The Armchair Quarterback and the Impostor

We all have blind spots in our knowledge and opinions. You’ve probably met some football fans who are convinced they know more than the coaches on the sidelines. That’s the armchair quarterback syndrome, where confidence exceeds competence. The opposite of armchair quarterback syndrome is impostor syndrome, where competence exceeds confidence. The ideal confidence level is somewhere between those two.

David Dunning and Justin Kruger are known for their Dunning-Kruger effect. The less intelligent we are in a particular domain, the more we seem to overestimate our actual intelligence in that domain.

Absolute beginners rarely fall into the Dunning-Kruger trap. When we move from novice to amateur is when confidence grows. A bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Humility is often misunderstood. It is not a matter of having low self-confidence. One of the Latin roots of humility means – from the earth. Confident humility should be sweet spot of confidence – meaning being uncertain in your tools, but being secure in yourself.

The first upside of feeling like an impostor is that it can motivate us to work harder. Second, impostor thoughts can motivate us to work smarter. Third, feeling like an impostor can make us better learners.

Plenty of evidence suggests that confidence is just as often the result of progress as the cause of it.

A mark of lifelong learners is recognizing that they can learn something from everyone they meet.

Individual rethinking – The Joy of Being Wrong

When a core belief is questioned, we tend to shut down rather than open up. We should refuse to let our beliefs to become part of our identity. To unlock the joy of being wrong, we need to detach. Let’s start with detaching our present from our past. The second kind of detachment is separating our opinions from our identity.

Most of us are accustomed to defining ourselves in terms of our beliefs, ideas and ideologies. This can become a problem when it prevents us from changing our minds as the world changes and knowledge evolves. Who you are should be a question of what you value, not what you believe?

Forecasting skill is less a matter of what we know than of how we think. The single most important driver of forecasters’ success was how often they updated their beliefs. Where the best forecasters excel is that they are eager to think again. They see their opinions mora as hunches than as truths. It doesn’t become the truth just because you believe it. It’s a sign of wisdom to avoid believing every thought that enters your mind.

Jeff Bezos says: “People who are right a lot listen a lot and they change their mind a lot. If you don’t change your mind frequently, you’re going to be wrong a lot.”[1]

Individual rethinking – The Good Fight Club, The Psychology of Constructive Conflict

One of the world’s leading experts on conflict is an organizational psychologist in Australia named Karen Etty Jehn. When you think about conflict, you’re probably picturing what Etty calls relationship conflict – personal, emotionally clashes. But Etty has identified another flavor called task conflict – clashes of ideas and opinions. Second one is very common in high performing groups. The absence of conflict is not harmony, it’s apathy. Although productive disagreement is a critical life skill, it’s one that many of us never fully develop.

Agreeable people make for a great support network. Rethinking depends on a different kind of network: a challenge network. Agreeableness is about seeking social harmony, not cognitive consensus. It’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable.

A major problem with task conflict is that it often spills over into relationship conflict.

Experiments show that simply framing a dispute as a debate rather than as a disagreement signal that you’re receptive to considering dissenting opinions and changing your mind. We are more likely to have a good fight if we argue about how.

Interpersonal rethinking – dances with foes

At thirty-one, Haris Natarajan has won three dozen international debate tournaments. He also won debate with AI, based on IBM Watson.

A good debate is not a war. It’s more like a dance that hasn’t been choreographed, negotiated with partner who has a different set of steps in mind.

Group of researchers led by Neil Rackham is comparing good negotiators with average ones. They find that skilled negotiators often agree with their counter parts. Agreeing with someone else argument’s is disarming. Most people pile more and more arguments trying to put weight on to their rationalization. But a weak argument generally dilutes strong one. And experts usually use small number of strong arguments. The skilled negotiators rarely went on offense and defense. Instead, they expressed curiosity with questions.

Haris won debate with using above mentioned skills, drawing attention to common grounds, avoiding defend-attack spirals and he was also careful not to come on too strong.

So, finding common areas, supporting arguments with small number of cohesive, compelling reasons and asking genuine questions are techniques that can help us to become better debater.

Paul Graham levels of argument are:

  • Refuting the central point
  • Refutation
  • Counterargument
  • Contradiction
  • Responding to tone
  • Ad hominem
  • Name-calling

By asking questions rather than thinking for the audience, we invite them to join us as a partner and think for themselves.

Interpersonal rethinking – Bad Blood on the Diamond

In every human society, people are motivated to seek belonging and status. Identifying with a group checks both boxes at the same time.

So why do people stick with stereotypes and what can we do to fight them. Author tried few hypotheses: not a league of their own, feeling for our foes, beasts of habit.

In psychology counterfactual thinking involves imagining how the circumstances of our lives could have unfolded differently.

Interpersonal rethinking – Vaccine Whisperers and Mild-Mannered Interrogators

Refuting a point of view produces antibodies against future influence attempts. We become more certain of our opinions and less curious about alternative views. Counterarguments no longer surprise us or stump us – we have our rebuttals ready.

Motivating through interviews is one potential approach. The process of motivational interviewing involves three key techniques:

  • Asking open-ended questions
  • Engaging in reflective listening
  • Affirming the person’s desire and ability to change

Motivational interviewing has a statistically and clinically meaningful effect on behavior change in roughly three out of four studies.

When people ignore device, it isn’t always because they disagree with it. Sometimes they’re resisting the sense of pressure and the feeling that someone else is controlling their decisions.

Influential listening is also good approach. We can all get better at asking truly curious questions that don’t have the hidden agenda of fixing, saving, advising, convincing or correcting. Great listeners have inverse charisma.

Collective rethinking – Charged conversations

Presenting two extremes isn’t the solution; it’s part of the polarization problem. It is called binary bias. It’s basic human tendency to seek clarity and closure by simplifying a complex continuum into two categories. An antidote to this proclivity is complexifying: showcasing the range of perspectives on a given topic.

Multiple experiments have shown that when experts express doubt, they become more persuasive. When someone knowledgeable admits uncertainty, it surprises people, and they end up paying more attention to the substance of the argument.

Perspective-taking consistently fails because we’re terrible mind readers. We’re just guessing.

In a productive conversation, people treat their feelings as a rough draft. Like art, emotions are work in progress. It rarely serves us well to frame our first sketch.

When we’re preaching, prosecuting or politicking, the complexity of reality can seem like an inconvenient truth. In scientist mode, it can be an invigorating truth – it means there are new opportunities for understanding and for progress.

Collective rethinking – Rewriting the Textbook

To teach kids to think like fact-checkers the guidelines include:

  • Interrogate information instead of simply consuming it
  • Reject rank and popularity as a proxy for reliability
  • Understand that the sender of information is often not its source

Active-learning methods included group problem-solving, worksheets and tutorials. Lectures are not always the best method of learning and they are not enough to develop students into lifelong learners.

Achieving excellence in school often requires mastering old ways of thinking. Building an influential career demands new ways of thinking.

Ron Berger was one of the best teachers of rethinking. His approach was think-pair-share. The kids started individually updated their ideas in small groups and then presented their thoughts to the rest of the class, arriving at solutions together.

One of the hallmarks of an open mind is responding to confusion with curiosity and interest.

Good teacher introduces new thoughts, but great teacher introduces new ways of thinking.

Collective rethinking – That’s Not the Way We’ve Always Done It

Rethinking is not just and individual skill. It’s a collective capability and it depends heavily on an organization’s culture.

Psychological safety is important conditions for rethinking environment.

How do you know? It’s a question we need to ask more often, both of ourselves and of others.

It takes confident humility to admit that we’re work in progress. And mindsets are not enough to transform culture. To build a learning culture, we also need to create a specific kind of accountability – one that leads people to think again about the best practices in their workplaces.

In performance culture people often become attached to best practices. The risk is that once we’ve declared a routine the best, it becomes frozen in time. Process accountability is not opposite to safety, the two combined actually create a learning zone.

Requiring a proof is an enemy of progress. This is why companies like Amazon use a principle of disagree and commit. “Look I know we disagree on this but will you game with me on this?”

Rethinking is more likely when we separate the initial decision makers from the later decision evaluators.

Conclusion

When we dedicate ourselves to a plan and it isn’t going as we hoped, our first instinct isn’t usually to rethink it. Instead, we tend to double down and sink more resources in the plan. This pattern is called escalation of commitment. Escalation of commitment is a major factor in preventable failures. Ironically, it can be fueled by one of the most celebrated engines of success: grit. There is a fine line between heroic persistence and foolish stubbornness.

Choosing a career isn’t like finding a soul mate. It’s possible that your ideal job hasn’t been invented yet. Deciding to leave a current career path is often easier than identifying new ones. Hermina Ibbara, a management professor finds that as people consider career choices, it helps to think like scientist.

As we identify past images of our lives that are no longer relevant to our future, we can start to rethink our plans. That can set us for happiness – as long as we’re not too fixated on finding it.

Psychologists find that the more people value happiness, the less happy they often become with their lives. One possibility is that when we’re searching for happiness, we get too busy evaluating life to actually experience it. Our happiness often depends more on what we do than where we are. It’s our actions – not our surroundings – that bring meaning and belonging.

Passions are often developed and not discovered. By investing in learning and problem solving, we can develop our passions.

Our identities are open systems and so are our lives.

Bold, persistent experimentation might be our best tool for rethinking.

Action plan:

  • Individual rethinking
    • Develop the Habit of Thinking Again
      • Think like a scientist
      • Define your identity in terms of values, not opinions
      • Seek our information that goes against your views
    • Calibrate Your Confidence
      • Beware of getting stranded at the summit of Mount Stupid
      • Harness the benefits of doubt
      • Embrace the joy of being wrong
    • Invite Others to Question Your Thinking
      • Learn something new from each person you meet
      • Build a challenge network, not just a support network
      • Don’t shy away from constructive conflict
  • Interpersonal rethinking
    • Ask Better Questions
      • Practice the area of persuasive listening
      • Question how rather than why
      • Ask “What evidence would change your mind?”
      • Ask how people originally formed an opinion
    • Approach Disagreements as Dances, Not Battles
      • Acknowledge common ground
      • Remember that less is often more
      • Reinforce freedom of choice
      • Have a conversation about a conversation
  • Collective rethinking
    • Have More Nuanced Conversations
      • Complexify contentious topics
      • Don’t shy away from caveats and contingencies
      • Expand your emotional range
    • Teach Kids to Think Again
      • Have a weekly myth-busting discussion at dinner
      • Invite kids to do multiple drafts and seek feedback from others
      • Stop asking kids what they want to be when they grow up
    • Create Learning Organizations
      • Abandon best practices
      • Establish psychological safety
      • Keep a rethinking scorecard
    • Stay Open to Rethinking Your Future
      • Throw out the ten-year plan
      • Rethink your actions, not just your surroundings
      • Schedule a life checkup
      • Make time to think again

[1] In the book on page 72

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