A Conversation with Adam Grant on Why We Need to Think Again, About Everything.

Adam Grant

Intelligence is usually seen as the ability to think and learn, but in a rapidly changing world, the most crucial skill may be the ability to rethink and unlearn. Recent global and political changes have forced many of us to re-evaluate our opinions and decisions. Yet we often still favour the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt, and prefer opinions that make us feel good, instead of ideas that make us think hard. Intelligence is no cure and can even be a curse. The brighter we are, the blinder we can become to our own limitations.

In his latest book Think Again, Adam Grant – Wharton’s top-rated professor and #1 bestselling author – offers bold ideas and rigorous evidence to show how we can embrace the joy of being wrong, encourage others to rethink topics as wide-ranging as abortion and climate change, and build schools, workplaces, and communities of lifelong learners. How shows us how international debate champion wins arguments, a Black musician persuades white supremacists to abandon hate, and how a vaccine whisperer convinces anti-vaxxers to immunize their children. Think Again is an invitation to let go of stale opinions and prize mental flexibility, humility, and curiosity over foolish consistency. If knowledge is power, knowing what you don’t know is wisdom.

In this exclusive interview, I speak to Adam Grant about why we need to re-evaluate what we know, what we think we know, and how we know it.

Q:  What is emotional intelligence?

[Adam Grant]: I started out as a sceptic on emotional intelligence, I even once had a colleague tell me that emotional intelligence was intelligence for dumb people! This is obviously not the case… The research on emotional intelligence defines it as the skill of dealing with emotions. Emotional intelligence allows you to recognise, understand, manage and regulate emotions and that latter case regulation is often the hardest part that we face as individuals and leaders.

There’s a lot of rethinking that can be done when it comes to emotion. Any time you get angry, frustrated or disappointed, it’s worth remembering that those emotions are just a first draft. You would never publish a draft version of your blog, right? You’d edit it to make sure it’s the best version, the same way that I would never publish the first draft of a book! The same is true of emotion- a lot of people just go ahead and ‘publish’ – internalising how they feel – without stopping for a second and thinking that maybe they ought to do a revision, first or second draft.

Q: What are the key modes of thinking that drive our values and beliefs?

[Adam Grant]: Two decades ago, I read a brilliant paper by Phil Tetlock, who introduced me to this idea of thinking like a preacher, a prosecutor or a politician. Once I’d gotten that framework into my head, I couldn’t let it go. I saw it everywhere… I saw it in my own thinking… in other people’s thinking… I saw it in the way we communicate.

The basic idea is that when you’re preaching, you’re trying to proselytise to other people and defend your sacred beliefs. When you’re prosecuting, you’re trying to win an argument which means you’re going to have to prove the other side wrong. My big worry is when we’re locked into a preacher or prosecutor mindset, we’re not willing to question our own assumptions and opinions… if I’m right, and you’re wrong, then I get to stand still, and you are the one who needs to change. In politician mode, things are a little more flexible. In that mode, I’m trying to win the approval of an audience – and that means I’m going to lobby or campaign. I might say things you want to hear, but I might not be actually changing what I really think or- if I do- I might be doing it to appease my tribe rather than to find the truth.

Q: How do we hold our own values with healthy scepticism? 

[Adam Grant]: There’s a time and a place to be a preacher, prosecutor or politician. If you have an audience that’s receptive to your ideas- or at least open minded– there’s no reason why you can’t be enthusiastic or hypercritical of something you think is snake-oil… or to make sure that you understand what they want to hear to make sure you’re speaking their language… that’s not always nefarious.

Where things become problematic is when we start to get attached to ideas that have never made sense or are no longer true. It’s also problematic when you’re dealing with an audience who are resistant to ideas that you’re putting forward. When those conditions are present, we need to rethink our instinct to preach, prosecute or politic and instead think more like scientists. I’m not saying you have to walk around wearing a lab-coat and carrying a microscope, but rather that adopting a scientific mindset means that you are concerned with the truth most so than trying to achieve something. I think about a scientist as somebody who has the humility and curiosity to know what they don’t know and to doubt some of their existing conventions as they try to discover new information. The scientist mindset says, I will not let my ideas become an ideology. In this mode of thinking, when I start to form an opinion, I should treat it as a hypothesis before doing some observations or experiments to test it. I should be just as excited to find out I was wrong as to prove I am right. Perhaps I should be even more excited about being wrong, because if I am always proving myself right, I’m just affirming my beliefs and not evolving them… and that’s not learning at all, is it?

Q:  How should we defuse conflict and polarisation with interpersonal relationships?

[Adam Grant]: We have learned a lot in psychology over the past few years on how to depolarise situations, but there is no silver bullet I’m afraid. Our starting point is to recognise that if you want other people to open their minds, you have to open yours too.

I know I have a tendency to go into prosecutor mode, I’ve even been called a logic bully from time to time… but that’s not my intent. I have this habit when someone has an extreme view, I tend to want to take the opposite extreme and push the boundaries of an argument. To me, that’s part of the fun of a feisty debate. It can- though- come across as an attack. I sometimes tell people that I have that tendency, and to flag it if they catch me doing that. I want people to let me know if I’ve gone into prosecutor mode, and if I need to shift into scientific mode and show more curiosity and humility. That bit of self-disclosure is helpful, it gives people permission to point out each other’s approach, and allows an openness to ideas and conversation without overreaction if things get heated. This is just the beginning of course, but it’s a good opening volley.

At a macro level, I think it would be great if we could begin trying to figure out how to evolve social media algorithms to behave more like scientific thinking, and less like the outrage machines they seem to have become which focus on preaching and prosecuting.

Too often when we find someone disagreeing with us, our question is about why. Why do you believe this ridiculous thing? Psychologists have found that the why question results in a list of reasons to double-down on those pre-existing beliefs. What tends to work better is a how question… for example, ‘Whatever policy you think makes sense… whether you are for or against the position… let’s just try to unpack how things would work practically and what this [policy] would mean for all of us?’ This kind of approach helps to view the real complexity of a situation or problem and reveals gaps in knowledge. That tends to make people more humble, more likely to doubt what they know, and makes their thinking more nuanced and less polarised. It’s a good starting point for conversations online or in the real world.

Q: What are the implications of the social cost of changing our minds?

[Adam Grant]: Adam Fetterman and his colleagues have conducted research around wrongness admission which is the idea that people who are prepared to say, ‘I made a mistake…’ or ‘What I believed before, I found out was not actually true, I was incorrect…’ are not judged negatively and- in general- are seen as people who are committed to learning, who have the humility and integrity to acknowledge some of their prior shortcomings and who want to improve. Those are things we all value when people around us show them- we all want to work with people, learn from them and be surrounded by people who are more interested in improving themselves than participating in the mental complexity of foolish inconsistencies.

The problem is that we call people who change their mind flip-floppers and act like they have no integrity. We need to be more nuanced about how we define integrity. For me, it’s not about sticking to opinions, but about sticking to values.

My personal values are generosity, excellence, integrity and freedom. I’m very flexible about the best way to live those values. If I am of the opinion that generosity means volunteering, and if you could convince me with some good evidence or analysis that volunteering is not the most efficient way for me to be making an impact, I’m quite happy to admit that I was wrong and change course. I’m just trying to find better ways to pursue my values.

One of the most effective flip-floppers in American history was Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln came into the White House, he was convinced that if he tried to abolish slavery that it would tear the union apart and that America wouldn’t survive. How lucky are we that he was willing to change that particular opinion? His values didn’t evolve – he always wanted to end slavery – he believed that everyone deserved opportunity and freedom and that nobody should be discriminated against, let alone owned because of the colour of their skin. In order to advance that value, he had to stay flexible about what policy was going to be effective. We need to hold up these values and be clear that Lincoln was not flip-flopping. He stayed true to his values and adjusted his policies to advance those values.

In the UK, Margaret Thatcher famously said, ‘this lady is not for turning…’ yet if you look at the biggest mistakes that politicians make, it’s when they are stuck to their convictions and do not change course when needed. 

Q: How can we apply a better understanding of our values and beliefs?

[Adam Grant]: I’ve wasted many hours trying to change people’s values as opposed to just reframing the ideas that I’m excited about in terms of values they already hold. To start, we have to find out what the principles and values are which hold the greatest importance to the person we are conversing with. This comes out of the psychology of motivational interviewing where a counselling psychologist will often deal with people who are facing addiction and try to guide them towards overcoming that addiction. It’s not the right approach to tell the client what to do… to preach at them… or prosecute them…. What they’ll often do is say, ‘OK, you’ve come to talk to me today, what are your goals? What are your values? What are you trying to accomplish?’ The client may say something like, ‘well, I’d really like to live a life where substance abuse doesn’t damage my relationships…’ Most of us would have the natural instinct to say, ‘well, why haven’t you quit yet?’ – but a motivational interviewer would say, ‘….it’s not my place to tell you whether you should be quitting alcohol or drugs or not, but can you help me understand the consequences that your addiction has had on your life? And help me understand the kind of changes you are considering and why?’ – This approach allows the person to look at their own values, share those with you, and then find their own motivations than change. It’s a lot more effective than ramming your reasons for change down their throat! 

Q: Do you ever think about your own legacy?

[Adam Grant]: I think about legacy often; it’s part of the way I focus on the questions that are meaningful, and important, rather than just the ones that are interesting.

I used to think I wanted people to adopt my ideas. I thought that if I spent decades doing experiments and studies, that the evidence would make people take my ideas seriously and adopt them into their own lives. Now, I care much less about people adopting my thoughts but care much more about people learning from my way of thinking.  I don’t want you to agree with all my conclusions, my hope is that you think again because of my thought process.

In that sense, the legacy I would want to have as a social scientist is to be a good ancestor. I don’t expect to have all the answers to the big questions of our time, but I hope that people want to ask me questions and maybe approach their own answers in more sophisticated way as a result. I hope that I am able to make people think again.

Thinking again doesn’t always mean you have to change your mind, but it means that you are open to re-examining and reconsidering your thoughts and beliefs. At the end of the day, if you decide that your first instincts and beliefs were correct? I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas S. Shah MBE is an award winning entrepreneur, strategist and educator who has built businesses in diverse sectors around the world for almost 20 years. He is also a consultant and advisor to numerous entrepreneurs, business and organisations globally.

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