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Book Review: Think Again

Think Again by Adam Grant Book Review

                Prof. Adam Grant explores why people refuse to give up views that are incorrect and how we can do better.  We cling to our familiar tools – assumptions, habits and instincts.  Missing from our toolkit is an open mind.

                Dr. Grant introduces three professions as emblematic of ways of thinking.  “We go 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 detect flaws in other people’s reasoning: we marshal arguments to prove them wrong and win our case.  We shift into politician mode when we’re seeking to win over an audience: we campaign and lobby for the approval of our constituents.”  The risk in all three behaviors is that we never consider whether our own views may be wrong.  Grant contrasts this with the Scientist approach – making a hypothesis and then attempting to disprove it.  While I am skeptical that scientists today are any more willing to reconsider their cherished assumptions than practitioners of other professions, the analogy is still useful.  Grant carries this analogy through the book.  Counter-intuitively, greater intelligence not only fails to help overcome biases, it can make changing one’s mind even harder.  Smarter people are better at rationalizing their own positions.

                When we learn a subject, we become more aware of what we don’t know.  As a result, those with the least knowledge (or maybe those with a little knowledge) of a subject tend to be the most overconfident.  This is the Dunning-Kruger effect: “it’s when we lack competence that we are most brimming with confidence.”  Put another way, if we do not have the ability to excel in an area, we may also lack the ability to judge who does.  Grant plots a stylized chart of willingness to opine on a topic by knowledge of a subject.  As we learn a little, we get puffed up by our knowledge and consider ourselves experts who should not deprive the world of our views.  As we learn more, our confidence falls because we see how little we know.  Eventually, if we keep learning, we may truly become knowledgeable about a subject, with confidence that roughly matches our competence.  

                Grant suggests that we should take joy in being wrong, as learning of our mistaken views is the only way we can grow.  We generally do not mind having our ideas corrected on issues that meant nothing to us.  This is fun.  We don’t like to learn that we are wrong about something we have taken a stand on or in our area of expertise.  We need to change our mindset.  Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman said, “Being wrong is the only way I feel sure I’ve learned anything.”  

                Team dynamics that favor rethinking and growth are high task disagreement and low personal disagreement.  Rather than agreeing to disagree, these teams embrace disagreement and seek to arrive at a better understanding of the truth without making disagreements personal.  

                If we want to help others rethink their position, we are better off seeking common ground, asking questions and presenting only a few of our best arguments instead of firing off a long list of arguments and data.  It can be effective to simply ask what would cause a person to reconsider their view?   Tribalism can get in the way of us relating to others.  The antidote is to get to know people from the other tribe.  As we do, we may first see them as exceptions, but eventually we will be freed from our biases.  Motivational interviewing is a technique to help people see themselves objectively and to help them reconsider their stance.  The key is that they are not pushed into doing anything they don’t want to do.  Rather, they are asked about their thinking in a non-confrontational way.  The interviewer shows support for the person, who often then relaxes and comes to consider other points of view.  The three key techniques for motivational interviewing are: asking open ended questions, engaging in reflective listening, affirming the other person’s desire and ability to change and summarizing.  What makes motivational interviewing hard to do is that we need to refrain from telling people what they should do and why.   We need to transform from leader to guide.  A companion skill is persuasive listening, which involves asking sincere questions and gently guiding the conversation.

                Often diametrically opposed beliefs both resort to oversimplification.  When we embrace complexity, we can get past our simple belief and be more open to changing our mind.  Those who divide the world into two distinct camps – those who agree with me and some pejorative description of the other side – will only calcify, not convince the other side to change their mind.

                On the topic of education, Prof. Grant suggests it is more important to teach people to think than to teach them facts.  Students should be inspired to be curious and to think about what is presented to them.  They should judge their work without judging themselves.  A first draft is just a start.  Excellence comes from looking at our work with a critical eye and continually improving it.

                Organizations can benefit from building a culture of rethinking.  Psychological safety means people are not punished for taking thoughtful risks.   Admitting you are wrong and have learned something is encouraged.  Ideas are approached as experiments.  The status quo is challenged.  Leaders must model vulnerability and show a desire to receive constructive feedback in order to improve.  

                Think Again’s final chapter looks at how we handle our own lives.  We can get stuck following others’ expectations of ourselves without ever considering them.   Or we may continue down a path we hate just because that is what we have always done, and we do not want to “waste” our efforts to date.  Conversely, we may assume that if we were in a different situation, all of our problems would be gone and we would be happy.  It is not that simple.  We should consider what is really important to us, try to make a difference where we are and be willing to redefine our job creatively.  Sometimes a complete change make sense, but often we need to work on ourselves, not our setting.

                Thinking again takes humility, effort and training.   It is not an easy mindset switch.   It is worthwhile if we want to grow in wisdom and effectiveness.  The appendix of the book gives action items for implementing the concepts discussed in the book.

                This book is fun, thought-provoking and very challenging.  It helped me to think about my thinking differently.  I now look for opinions that I have changed, things I thought I knew, but now think differently about.  I am trying to embrace complexity and to be more empathetic to those who disagree with me.   I am trying to be reflective about matching my confidence to my competence.  All this is hard, but it is worthwhile.