3 April 2021
Think Again, The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know – Adam Grant
When a trio of psychologists conducted a comprehensive review of thirty-three studies, they found that in every one, the majority of answer revisions were from wrong to right. This phenomenon is known as the first-instinct fallacy.
Of course, it’s possible that second answers aren’t inherently better; they’re only better because students are generally so reluctant to switch that they only make changes when they’re fairly confident. But recent studies point to a different explanation: it’s not so much changing your answer that improves your score as considering whether you should change it.
You’ve probably heard that if you drop a frog in a pot of scalding hot water, it will immediately leap out. But if you drop the frog in lukewarm water and gradually raise the temperature, the frog will die. It lacks the ability to rethink the situation, and doesn’t realize the threat until it’s too late. I did some research on this popular story recently and discovered a wrinkle: it isn’t true. Tossed into the scalding pot, the frog will get burned badly and may or may not escape. The frog is actually better off in the slow-boiling pot: it will leap out as soon as the water starts to get uncomfortably warm. It’s not the frogs who fail to reevaluate. It’s us. Once we hear the story and accept it as true, we rarely bother to question it.
Under acute stress, people typically revert to their automatic, well-learned responses. That’s evolutionarily adaptive – as long as you find yourself in the same kind of environment in which those reactions were necessary. If you’re a smokejumper, your well-learned response is to put out a fire, not start another one. If you’re fleeing for your life, your well-learned response is to run away from the fire, not toward it. In normal circumstances, those instincts might save your life. Dodge survived Mann Gulch because he swiftly overrode both of those responses. No one had taught Dodge to build an escape fire. He hadn’t even heard of the concept; it was pure improvisation.
Moments earlier at Mann Gulch, the smokejumpers missed another opportunity to think again – and that one was right at their fingertips. Just before Dodge started tossing matches into the grass, he ordered his crew to drop their heavy equipment.
If you’re a firefighter, dropping your tools doesn’t just require you to unlearn habits and disregard instincts. Discarding your equipment means admitting failure and shedding part of your identity. You have to rethink your goal in your job – and your role in life.
Dodge’s impulse to drop his heavy tools and take shelter in a fire of his own making made the difference between life and death. But his inventiveness wouldn’t have even been necessary if not for a deeper, more systemic failure to think again. The greatest tragedy of Mann Gulch is that a dozen smokejumpers died fighting a fire that never needed to be fought. As early as the 1880s, scientists had begun highlighting the important role that wildfires play in the life cycles of forests. Fires remove dead matter, send nutrients into the soil, and clear a path for sunlight. When fires are suppressed, forests are left too dense. The accumulation of brush, dry leaves, and twigs becomes fuel for more explosive wildfires.
This book is an invitation to let go of knowledge and opinions that are no longer serving you well, and to anchor your sense of self in flexibility rather than consistency. If you can master the art of rethinking, I believe you’ll be better positioned for success at work and happiness in life. Thinking again can help you generate new solutions to old problems and revisit old solutions to new problems.
Part I: Individual Rethinking
Research reveals that the higher you score on an IQ test, the more likely you are to fall for stereotypes, because you’re faster at recognizing patterns. And recent experiments suggest that the smarter you are, the more you might struggle to update your beliefs.
The better you are at crunching numbers, the more spectacularly you fail at analyzing patterns that contradict your views. If they were liberals, math geniuses did worse than their peers at evaluating evidence that gun bans failed. If they were conservatives, they did worse at assessing evidence that gun bans worked.
In psychology there are at least two biases that drive this pattern. One is confirmation bias: seeing what we expect to see. The other is desirability bias: seeing what we want to see.
The brighter you are, the harder it can be to see your own limitations. Being good at thinking can make you worse at rethinking.
Thinking like a scientist involves more than just reacting with an open mind. It means being actively open-minded. It requires searching for reasons why we might be wrong – not for reasons why we must be right – and revising our views based on what we learn.
In 2004, a small group of engineers, designers, and marketers pitched Jobs on turning their hit product, the iPod, into a phone. “Why the f@*& would we want to do that?” Jobs snapped. “That is the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.” The team had recognized that mobile phones were starting to feature the ability to play music, but Jobs was worried about cannibalizing Apple’s thriving iPod business. He hated cell-phone companies and didn’t want to design products within the constraints that carriers imposed. When his calls dropped or the software crashed, he would sometimes smash his phone to pieces in frustration. In private meetings and on public stages, he swore over and over that he would never make a phone.
Visions for change are more compelling when they include visions of continuity. Although our strategy might evolve, our identity will endure. The engineers who worked closely with Jobs understood that this was one of the best ways to convince him. They assured him that they weren’t trying to turn Apple into a phone company. It would remain a computer company – they were just taking their existing products and adding a phone on the side. Apple was already putting twenty thousand songs in your pocket, so why wouldn’t they put everything else in your pocket, too?
After six months of discussion, Jobs finally became curious enough to give the effort his blessing, and two different teams were off to the races in an experiment to test whether they should add calling capabilities to the iPod or turn the Mac into a miniature tablet that doubled as a phone.
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. Think of the people you know who believe that they don’t deserve their success. They’re genuinely unaware of just how intelligent, creative, or charming they are, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t get them to rethink their views.
The ideal level of confidence probably lies somewhere between being an armchair quarterback and an impostor. How do we find that sweet spot?
Dunning-Kruger effect, it’s when we lack competence that we’re most likely to be brimming with overconfidence.
Compared to most people, how much do you think you know about each of the following topics – more, less, or the same?
- Why English became the official language of the United States
- Why women were burned at the stake in Salem
- What job Walt Disney had before he drew Mickey Mouse
- On which spaceflight humans first laid eyes on the Great Wall of China
- Why eating candy affects how kids behave
On the questions above, if you felt you knew anything at all, think again. America has no official language, suspected witches were hanged in Salem but not burned, Walt Disney didn’t draw Mickey Mouse (it was the work of an animator named Ub Iwerks), you can’t actually see the Great Wall of China from space, and the average effect of sugar on children’s behavior is zero.
Absolute beginners rarely fall into the Dunning-Kruger trap. (...) It’s when we progress from novice to amateur that we become overconfident. A bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. (...) We have just enough information to feel self-assured about making pronouncements and passing judgment, failing to realize that we’ve climbed to the top of Mount Stupid without making it over to the other side. (...) As we gain experience, we lose some of our humility. We take pride in making rapid progress, which promotes a false sense of mastery.
You can be confident in your ability to achieve a goal in the future while maintaining the humility to question whether you have the right tools in the present. That’s the sweet spot of confidence.
The most effective leaders score high in both confidence and humility. Although they have faith in their strengths, they’re also keenly aware of their weaknesses.
we’re sometimes better off underestimating ourselves.
Feeling like an impostor is typically viewed as a bad thing, and for good reason – a chronic sense of being unworthy can breed misery, crush motivation, and hold us back from pursuing our ambitions.
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. When we don’t believe we’re going to win, we have nothing to lose by rethinking our strategy.
Third, feeling like an impostor can make us better learners. Having some doubts about our knowledge and skills takes us off a pedestal, encouraging us to seek out insights from others.
“ Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses,” journalist Elizabeth Kolbert writes, but “the positions we’re blind about are our own.” I find this odd, because we weren’t born with our opinions. Unlike our height or raw intelligence, we have full control over what we believe is true. We choose our views, and we can choose to rethink them any time we want. This should be a familiar task, because we have a lifetime of evidence that we’re wrong on a regular basis. I was sure I’d finish a draft of this chapter by Friday. I was certain the cereal with the toucan on the box was Fruit Loops, but I just noticed the box says Froot Loops.
I’ve learned that two kinds of detachment are especially useful: detaching your present from your past and detaching your opinions from your identity.
In one study, when people felt detached from their past selves, they became less depressed over the course of the year.
My past self was Mr. Facts – I was too fixated on knowing. Now I’m more interested in finding out what I don’t know. As Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio told me, “If you don’t look back at yourself and think, ‘Wow, how stupid I was a year ago,’ then you must not have learned much in the last year.”
Who you are should be a question of what you value, not what you believe. Values are your core principles in life – they might be excellence and generosity, freedom and fairness, or security and integrity. Basing your identity on these kinds of principles enables you to remain open-minded about the best ways to advance them.
My colleague Phil Tetlock finds that forecasting skill is less a matter of what we know than of how we think. When he and his collaborators studied a host of factors that predict excellence in forecasting, grit and ambition didn’t rise to the top. Neither did intelligence, which came in second. There was another factor that had roughly triple the predictive power of brainpower. The single most important driver of forecasters’ success was how often they updated their beliefs. The best forecasters went through more rethinking cycles. They had the confident humility to doubt their judgments and the curiosity to discover new information that led them to revise their predictions. A key question here is how much rethinking is necessary.
The superforecasters updated their predictions more than four times per question.
Just a few more efforts at rethinking can move the needle.
How many of us can even remember the last time we admitted being wrong and revised our opinions accordingly? As journalist Kathryn Schulz observes, “ Although small amounts of evidence are sufficient to make us draw conclusions, they are seldom sufficient to make us revise them.”
Laughing at ourselves reminds us that although we might take our decisions seriously, we don’t have to take ourselves too seriously. Research suggests that the more frequently we make fun of ourselves, the happier we tend to be.* Instead of beating ourselves up about our mistakes, we can turn some of our past misconceptions into sources of present amusement.
* If you choose to make fun of yourself out loud, there’s evidence that how people react depends on your gender. When men make self-deprecating jokes, they’re seen as more capable leaders, but when women do it, they’re judged as less capable. Apparently, many people have missed the memo that if a woman pokes fun at herself, it’s not a reflection of incompetence or inadequacy. It’s a symbol of confident humility and wit.
Being wrong won’t always be joyful. The path to embracing mistakes is full of painful moments, and we handle those moments better when we remember they’re essential for progress. But if we can’t learn to find occasional glee in discovering we were wrong, it will be awfully hard to get anything right.
Psychologists find that admitting we were wrong doesn’t make us look less competent. It’s a display of honesty and a willingness to learn.
When we find out we might be wrong, a standard defense is “I’m entitled to my opinion.” I’d like to modify that: yes, we’re entitled to hold opinions inside our own heads. If we choose to express them out loud, though, I think it’s our responsibility to ground them in logic and facts, share our reasoning with others, and change our minds when better evidence emerges.
- relationship conflict – personal, emotional clashes that are filled not just with friction but also with animosity.
- another flavor called task conflict – clashes about ideas and opinions.
Task conflict can be constructive when it brings diversity of thought, preventing us from getting trapped in overconfidence cycles. It can help us stay humble, surface doubts, and make us curious about what we might be missing.
What matters is how respectfully parents argue, not how frequently.
Disagreeable people tend to be more critical, skeptical, and challenging – and they’re more likely than their peers to become engineers and lawyers. They’re not just comfortable with conflict; it energizes them. If you’re highly disagreeable, you might be happier in an argument than in a friendly conversation.
That quality often comes with a bad rap: disagreeable people get stereotyped as curmudgeons who complain about every idea, or Dementors who suck the joy out of every meeting.
Notice what Brad didn’t do. He didn’t stock his team with agreeable people. Agreeable people make for a great support network: they’re excited to encourage us and cheerlead for us. Rethinking depends on a different kind of network: a challenge network, a group of people we trust to point out our blind spots and help us overcome our weaknesses.
The ideal members of a challenge network are disagreeable, because they’re fearless about questioning the way things have always been done and holding us accountable for thinking again.
Harnessing disagreeable people isn’t always easy.
many leaders shield themselves from task conflict. As they gain power, they tune out boat-rockers and listen to bootlickers. They become politicians, surrounding themselves with agreeable yes-men and becoming more susceptible to seduction by sycophants.
We learn more from people who challenge our thought process than those who affirm our conclusions. Strong leaders engage their critics and make themselves stronger.
This reaction isn’t limited to people in power.
Disagreeable givers often make the best critics: their intent is to elevate the work, not feed their own egos. They don’t criticize because they’re insecure; they challenge because they care. They dish out tough love.*
* How well we take criticism can depend as much on our relationship with the messenger as it does on the message. In one experiment, people were at least 40 percent more receptive to criticism after they were told “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” It’s surprisingly easy to hear a hard truth when it comes from someone who believes in your potential and cares about your success.
It’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable. Although I’m terrified of hurting other people’s feelings, when it comes to challenging their thoughts, I have no fear. In fact, when I argue with someone, it’s not a display of disrespect – it’s a sign of respect. It means I value their views enough to contest them. If their opinions didn’t matter to me, I wouldn’t bother. I know I have chemistry with someone when we find it delightful to prove each other wrong.
Experiments show that simply framing a dispute as a debate rather than as a disagreement signals that you’re receptive to considering dissenting opinions and changing your mind, which in turn motivates the other person to share more information with you. A disagreement feels personal and potentially hostile; we expect a debate to be about ideas, not emotions.
When we argue about why, we run the risk of becoming emotionally attached to our positions and dismissive of the other side’s. We’re more likely to have a good fight if we argue about how. When social scientists asked people why they favor particular policies on taxes, health care, or nuclear sanctions, they often doubled down on their convictions. Asking people to explain how those policies would work in practice – or how they’d explain them to an expert – activated a rethinking cycle. They noticed gaps in their knowledge, doubted their conclusions, and became less extreme; they were now more curious about alternative options. Psychologists find that many of us are vulnerable to an illusion of explanatory depth. Take everyday objects like a bicycle, a piano, or earbuds: how well do you understand them? People tend to be overconfident in their knowledge: they believe they know much more than they actually do about how these objects work. We can help them see the limits of their understanding by asking them to unpack the mechanisms. How do the gears on a bike work? How does a piano key make music? How do earbuds transmit sound from your phone to your ears? People are surprised by how much they struggle to answer those questions and quickly realize how little they actually know.
Part II: Interpersonal Rethinking
In a war, our goal is to gain ground rather than lose it, so we’re often afraid to surrender a few battles. In a negotiation, agreeing with someone else’s argument is disarming.
One difference was visible before anyone even arrived at the bargaining table. Prior to the negotiations, the researchers interviewed both groups about their plans. The average negotiators went in armed for battle, hardly taking note of any anticipated areas of agreement. The experts, in contrast, mapped out a series of dance steps they might be able to take with the other side, devoting more than a third of their planning comments to finding common ground. As the negotiators started discussing options and making proposals, a second difference emerged.
Most people think of arguments as being like a pair of scales: the more reasons we can pile up on our side, the more it will tip the balance in our favor. Yet the experts did the exact opposite: They actually presented fewer reasons to support their case. They didn’t want to water down their best points.
These habits led to a third contrast: the average negotiators were more likely to enter into defend-attack spirals. They dismissively shot down their opponents’ proposals and doubled down on their own positions, which prevented both sides from opening their minds. The skilled negotiators rarely went on offense or defense. Instead, they expressed curiosity with questions like “So you don’t see any merit in this proposal at all?” Questions were the fourth difference between the two groups. Of every five comments the experts made, at least one ended in a question mark. They appeared less assertive, but much like in a dance, they led by letting their partners step forward.
We can demonstrate openness by acknowledging where we agree with our critics and even what we’ve learned from them. Then, when we ask what views they might be willing to revise, we’re not hypocrites.
how to improve at finding common ground, he offered a surprisingly practical tip. Most people immediately start with a straw man, poking holes in the weakest version of the other side’s case. He does the reverse: he considers the strongest version of their case, which is known as the steel man. A politician might occasionally adopt that tactic to pander or persuade, but like a good scientist, Harish does it to learn.
There are times when preaching and prosecuting can make us more persuasive. Research suggests that the effectiveness of these approaches hinges on three key factors: how much people care about the issue, how open they are to our particular argument, and how strong-willed they are in general. If they’re not invested in the issue or they’re receptive to our perspective, more reasons can help: people tend to see quantity as a sign of quality. The more the topic matters to them, the more the quality of reasons matters. It’s when audiences are skeptical of our view, have a stake in the issue, and tend to be stubborn that piling on justifications is most likely to backfire. If they’re resistant to rethinking, more reasons simply give them more ammunition to shoot our views down.
A single line of argument feels like a conversation; multiple lines of argument can become an onslaught.
As important as the quantity and quality of reasons might be, the source matters, too. And the most convincing source is often the one closest to your audience.
Taken together, these techniques increase the odds that during a disagreement, other people will abandon an overconfidence cycle and engage in a rethinking cycle. When we point out that there are areas where we agree and acknowledge that they have some valid points, we model confident humility and encourage them to follow suit. When we support our argument with a small number of cohesive, compelling reasons, we encourage them to start doubting their own opinion. And when we ask genuine questions, we leave them intrigued to learn more. We don’t have to convince them that we’re right – we just need to open their minds to the possibility that they might be wrong. Their natural curiosity might do the rest. That said, these steps aren’t always enough. No matter how nicely we ask, other people don’t always want to dance.
It’s not my opinion – it’s the independent finding of two different social scientists. What evidence would change your mind?
When someone is losing control, your tranquility is a sign of strength.
This is a fifth move that expert negotiators made more often than average negotiators. They were more likely to comment on their feelings about the process and test their understanding of the other side’s feelings: I’m disappointed in the way this discussion has unfolded – are you frustrated with it? I was hoping you’d see this proposal as fair – do I understand correctly that you don’t see any merit in this approach at all? Honestly, I’m a little confused by your reaction to my data – if you don’t value the kind of work I do, why did you hire me? In a heated argument, you can always stop and ask, “What evidence would change your mind?” If the answer is “nothing,” then there’s no point in continuing the debate.
A few years ago, I argued in my book Originals that if we want to fight groupthink, it helps to have “strong opinions, weakly held.” Since then I’ve changed my mind – I now believe that’s a mistake. If we hold an opinion weakly, expressing it strongly can backfire.
Communicating it with some uncertainty signals confident humility, invites curiosity, and leads to a more nuanced discussion. Research shows that in courtrooms, expert witnesses and deliberating jurors are more credible and more persuasive when they express moderate confidence, rather than high or low confidence.
Rather than trying to hide her shortcomings, Michele opened with them. “I’m probably not the candidate you’ve been envisioning,” her cover letter began. “I don’t have a decade of experience as a Product Manager nor am I a Certified Financial Planner.” After establishing the drawbacks of her case, she emphasized a few reasons to hire her anyway: But what I do have are skills that can’t be taught. I take ownership of projects far beyond my pay grade and what is in my defined scope of responsibilities. I don’t wait for people to tell me what to do and go seek for myself what needs to be done. I invest myself deeply in my projects and it shows in everything I do, from my projects at work to my projects that I undertake on my own time at night. I’m entrepreneurial, I get things done, and I know I would make an excellent right hand for the co-founder leading this project. I love breaking new ground and starting with a blank slate. (And any of my previous bosses would be able to attest to these traits.)
An informed audience is going to spot the holes in our case anyway. We might as well get credit for having the humility to look for them, the foresight to spot them, and the integrity to acknowledge them. By emphasizing a small number of core strengths, Michele avoided argument dilution, focusing attention on her strongest points.
As stereotypes stick and prejudice deepens, we don’t just identify with our own group; we disidentify with our adversaries, coming to define who we are by what we’re not.
people can feel animosity toward other groups even when the boundaries between them are trivial.
In every human society, people are motivated to seek belonging and status. Identifying with a group checks both boxes at the same time: we become part of a tribe, and we take pride when our tribe wins.
we become especially hostile when trying to defend opinions that we know, deep down, are false. Rather than trying on a different pair of goggles, we become mental contortionists, twisting and turning until we find an angle of vision that keeps our current views intact. Socially, there’s another reason stereotypes are so sticky. We tend to interact with people who share them, which makes them even more extreme. This phenomenon is called group polarization.
Polarization is reinforced by conformity: peripheral members fit in and gain status by following the lead of the most prototypical member of the group, who often holds the most intense views.
When you get to see an overview of the Earth from outer space, you realize you share a common identity with all human beings. I wanted to create a version of the overview effect for baseball fans. There’s some evidence that common identity can build bridges between rivals.
Shared identity doesn’t stick in every circumstance. If a rival fan has just had an accident, thinking about a common identity might motivate us to help. If he’s not in danger or dire need, though, it’s too easy to dismiss him as just another jerk – or not our responsibility.
In the problem-solving workshops, they came to trust the individuals across the table, but they still held on to their stereotypes of the group. In an ideal world, learning about individual group members will humanize the group, but often getting to know a person better just establishes her as different from the rest of her group. When we meet group members who defy a stereotype, our first instinct isn’t to see them as exemplars and rethink the stereotype. It’s to see them as exceptions and cling to our existing beliefs.
“You’re actually rooting for the clothes,” Jerry Seinfeld quipped. “Fans will be so in love with a player, but if he goes to a different team, they boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt; they hate him now. Boo! Different shirt! Boo!”
People gain humility when they reflect on how different circumstances could have led them to different beliefs. They might conclude that some of their past convictions had been too simplistic and begin to question some of their negative views. That doubt could leave them more curious about groups they’ve stereotyped, and they might end up discovering some unexpected commonalities.
The most effective way to help people pull the unsteady Jenga blocks out of their stereotype towers is to talk with them in person.
This is a common problem in persuasion: what doesn’t sway us can make our beliefs stronger. Much like a vaccine inoculates our physical immune system against a virus, the act of resistance fortifies our psychological immune system. Refuting a point of view produces antibodies against future influence attempts. We become more certain of our opinions and less curious about alternative views.
we can rarely motivate someone else to change. We’re better off helping them find their own motivation to change.
The goal isn’t to tell people what to do; it’s to help them break out of overconfidence cycles and see new possibilities. Our role is to hold up a mirror so they can see themselves more clearly, and then empower them to examine their beliefs and behaviors. That can activate a rethinking cycle, in which people approach their own views more scientifically. They develop more humility about their knowledge, doubt in their convictions, and curiosity about alternative points of view. 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, and psychologists and physicians using it have a success rate of four in five. There aren’t many practical theories in the behavioral sciences with a body of evidence this robust.
Motivational interviewing isn’t limited to professional settings – it’s relevant to everyday decisions and interactions. One day a friend called me for advice on whether she should get back together with her ex. I was a fan of the idea, but I didn’t think it was my place to tell her what to do. Instead of offering my opinion, I asked her to walk through the pros and cons and tell me how they stacked up against what she wanted in a partner.
When people ignore advice, 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 decision. To protect their freedom, instead of giving commands or offering recommendations, a motivational interviewer might say something along the lines of “Here are a few things that have helped me – do you think any of them might work for you?”
The most effective way to help others open their minds is often to listen.
There’s a fourth technique of motivational interviewing, which is often recommended for the end of a conversation and for transition points: summarizing. The idea is to explain your understanding of other people’s reasons for change, to check on whether you’ve missed or misrepresented anything, and to inquire about their plans and possible next steps. The objective is not to be a leader or a follower, but a guide.
the technique shouldn’t be used manipulatively. Psychologists have found that when people detect an attempt at influence, they have sophisticated defense mechanisms.
Listening well is more than a matter of talking less. It’s a set of skills in asking and responding. It starts with showing more interest in other people’s interests rather than trying to judge their status or prove our own. We can all get better at asking “ truly curious questions that don’t have the hidden agenda of fixing, saving, advising, convincing or correcting,” journalist Kate Murphy writes, and helping to “facilitate the clear expression of another person’s thoughts.”
Psychologists recommend practicing this skill by sitting down with people whom we sometimes have a hard time understanding. The idea is to tell them that we’re working on being better listeners, we’d like to hear their thoughts, and we’ll listen for a few minutes before responding.
Among managers rated as the worst listeners by their employees, 94 percent of them evaluated themselves as good or very good listeners. Dunning and Kruger might have something to say about that. In one poll, a third of women said their pets were better listeners than their partners.
Arnaud didn’t bombard her with a barrage of scientific facts. He asked what her sources were. (...) Arnaud asked if he could share some information about vaccines based on his own expertise. “I started a dialogue,” he told me. “The aim was to build a trusting relationship. If you present information without permission, no one will listen to you.”
Every step of the way, Arnaud avoided putting pressure on her. Even after talking through the science, he concluded the conversation by telling her he would let her think about it, affirming her freedom to make up her own mind.
Part III: Collective Rethinking
He randomly assigned some pairs to read another version of the same article, which led 100 percent of them to generate and sign a joint statement about abortion laws. That version of the article featured the same information but presented it differently. Instead of describing the issue as a black-and-white disagreement between two sides, the article framed the debate as a complex problem with many shades of gray, representing a number of different viewpoints.
where complicated issues are concerned, seeing the opinions of the other side is not enough. Social media platforms have exposed us to them, but they haven’t changed our minds.
Presenting two extremes isn’t the solution; it’s part of the polarization problem. Psychologists have a name for this: binary bias. It’s a basic human tendency to seek clarity and closure by simplifying a complex continuum into two categories. To paraphrase the humorist Robert Benchley, there are two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. An antidote to this proclivity is complexifying: showcasing the range of perspectives on a given topic.
A dose of complexity can disrupt overconfidence cycles and spur rethinking cycles.
To overcome binary bias, a good starting point is to become aware of the range of perspectives across a given spectrum.
It’s especially important to distinguish skeptics from deniers. Skeptics have a healthy scientific stance: They don’t believe everything they see, hear, or read. They ask critical questions and update their thinking as they gain access to new information. Deniers are in the dismissive camp, locked in preacher, prosecutor, or politician mode: They don’t believe anything that comes from the other side. They ignore or twist facts to support their predetermined conclusions.
When someone knowledgeable admits uncertainty, it surprises people, and they end up paying more attention to the substance of the argument. Of course, a potential challenge of nuance is that it doesn’t seem to go viral. Attention spans are short: we have only a few seconds to capture eyeballs with a catchy headline. It’s true that complexity doesn’t always make for good sound bites, but it does seed great conversations.
climate change. Scientists overwhelmingly agree about its human causes, but even they have a range of views on the actual effects – and the potential remedies. It’s possible to be alarmed about the situation while recognizing the variety of ways to improve it.* Psychologists find that people will ignore or even deny the existence of a problem if they’re not fond of the solution. Liberals were more dismissive of the issue of intruder violence when they read an argument that strict gun control laws could make it difficult for homeowners to protect themselves. Conservatives were more receptive to climate science when they read about a green technology policy proposal than about an emissions restriction proposal.
asking “how” tends to reduce polarization, setting the stage for more constructive conversations about action.
psychologists demonstrated that when news reports about science included caveats, they succeeded in capturing readers’ interest and keeping their minds open.
people are more likely to promote diversity and inclusion when the message is more nuanced (and more accurate): “Diversity is good, but it isn’t easy.”
I’ve inadvertently offended members of idea cults when I’ve shared evidence that meditation isn’t the only way to prevent stress or promote mindfulness; that when it comes to reliability and validity, the Myers-Briggs personality tool falls somewhere between a horoscope and a heart monitor; and that being more authentic can sometimes make us less successful.
In polarized discussions, a common piece of advice is to take the other side’s perspective. In theory, putting ourselves in another person’s shoes enables us to walk in lockstep with them. In practice, though, it’s not that simple.
imagining other people’s perspectives failed to elicit more accurate insights – and occasionally made participants more confident in their own inaccurate judgments.
What works is not perspective-taking but perspective-seeking: actually talking to people to gain insight into the nuances of their views.
It can help to make that respect explicit at the start of a conversation. In one experiment, if an ideological opponent merely began by acknowledging that “I have a lot of respect for people like you who stand by their principles,” people were less likely to see her as an adversary – and showed her more generosity.
What stands in the way of rethinking isn’t the expression of emotion; it’s a restricted range of emotion.
we can fall victim to binary bias with emotions, not only with issues. Just as the spectrum of beliefs on charged topics is much more complex than two extremes, our emotions are often more mixed than we realize.* If you come across evidence that you might be wrong about the best path to gun safety, you can simultaneously feel upset by and intrigued with what you’ve learned.
* When reporters and activists discuss the consequences of climate change, complexity is often lacking there as well. The gloom-and-doom message can create a burning platform for those who fear a burning planet. But research across twenty-four countries suggests that people are more motivated to act and advocate when they see the collective benefits of doing so – like economic and scientific advancement and building a more moral and caring community. People across the spectrum of climate skepticism, from alarmed to doubtful, are more determined to take initiative when they believe it would produce identifiable benefits. And instead of just appealing to stereotypical liberal values like compassion and justice, research suggests that journalists can spur more action by emphasizing crosscutting values like defending freedom as well as more conservative values like preserving the purity of nature or protecting the planet as an act of patriotism.
As historian Ibram X. Kendi writes, “Racist and antiracist are not fixed identities. We can be a racist one minute and an antiracist the next.” Humans, like polarizing issues, rarely come in binaries.
Despite enjoying the lectures more, they actually gained more knowledge and skill from the active-learning session. It required more mental effort, which made it less fun but led to deeper understanding.
he turned the classroom into a challenge network. Every week – and sometimes every day – the entire class would do a critique session. One format was a gallery critique: Ron put everyone’s work on display, sent students around the room to observe, and then facilitated a discussion of what they saw as excellent and why. This method wasn’t used only for art and science projects; for a writing assignment, they would evaluate a sentence or a paragraph. The other format was an in-depth critique: for a single session, the class would focus on the work of one student or group. The authors would explain their goals and where they needed help, and Ron guided the class through a discussion of strengths and areas for development. He encouraged students to be specific and kind: to critique the work rather than the author.
The class didn’t just critique projects. Each day they would discuss what excellence looked like. With each new project they updated their criteria. Along with rethinking their own work, they were learning to continually rethink their standards. To help them further evolve those standards, Ron regularly brought in outside experts.
how quickly children can become comfortable rethinking and revising. Ever since, I’ve encouraged our kids to do multiple drafts of their own drawings. As excited as they were to see their first draft hanging on the wall, they’re that much prouder of their fourth version.
good teachers introduce new thoughts, but great teachers introduce new ways of thinking.
factors that distinguish teams with high performance and well-being, the most important differentiator wasn’t who was on the team or even how meaningful their work was. What mattered most was psychological safety.
psychological safety is not a matter of relaxing standards, making people comfortable, being nice and agreeable, or giving unconditional praise. It’s fostering a climate of respect, trust, and openness in which people can raise concerns and suggestions without fear of reprisal. It’s the foundation of a learning culture.
Her list included: What leads you to that assumption? Why do you think it is correct? What might happen if it’s wrong? What are the uncertainties in your analysis? I understand the advantages of your recommendation. What are the disadvantages?
How do you know? It’s a question we need to ask more often, both of ourselves and of others. The power lies in its frankness.
The standard advice for managers on building psychological safety is to model openness and inclusiveness. Ask for feedback on how you can improve, and people will feel safe to take risks. (...) as we anticipated, it didn’t last. Some managers who asked for feedback didn’t like what they heard and got defensive. Others found the feedback useless or felt helpless to act on it, which discouraged them from continuing to seek feedback and their teams from continuing to offer it. Another group of managers took a different approach, one that had less immediate impact in the first week but led to sustainable gains in psychological safety a full year later. Instead of asking them to seek feedback, we had randomly assigned those managers to share their past experiences with receiving feedback and their future development goals. We advised them to tell their teams about a time when they benefited from constructive criticism and to identify the areas that they were working to improve now. By admitting some of their imperfections out loud, managers demonstrated that they could take it – and made a public commitment to remain open to feedback. They normalized vulnerability, making their teams more comfortable opening up about their own struggles. Their employees gave more useful feedback because they knew where their managers were working to grow. That motivated managers to create practices to keep the door open: they started holding “ask me anything” coffee chats, opening weekly one-on-one meetings by asking for constructive criticism, and setting up monthly team sessions where everyone shared their development goals and progress.
It takes confident humility to admit that we’re a work in progress.
It shows that we care more about improving ourselves than proving ourselves.*
* Sharing our imperfections can be risky if we haven’t yet established our competence.
In performance cultures, people often become attached to best practices. The risk is that once we’ve declared a routine the best, it becomes frozen in time. We preach about its virtues and stop questioning its vices, no longer curious about where it’s imperfect and where it could improve. Organizational learning should be an ongoing activity, but best practices imply it has reached an endpoint. We might be better off looking for better practices.
Focusing on results might be good for short-term performance, but it can be an obstacle to long-term learning. Sure enough, social scientists find that when people are held accountable only for whether the outcome was a success or failure, they are more likely to continue with ill-fated courses of action. Exclusively praising and rewarding results is dangerous because it breeds overconfidence in poor strategies, incentivizing people to keep doing things the way they’ve always done them. It isn’t until a high-stakes decision goes horribly wrong that people pause to reexamine their practices.
Along with outcome accountability, we can create process accountability by evaluating how carefully different options are considered as people make decisions.
Process accountability might sound like the opposite of psychological safety, but they’re actually independent. Amy Edmondson finds that when psychological safety exists without accountability, people tend to stay within their comfort zone, and when there’s accountability but not safety, people tend to stay silent in an anxiety zone. When we combine the two, we create a learning zone. People feel free to experiment – and to poke holes in one another’s experiments in service of making them better. They become a challenge network. One of the most effective steps toward process accountability that I’ve seen is at Amazon, where important decisions aren’t made based on simple PowerPoint presentations. They’re informed by a six-page memo that lays out a problem, the different approaches that have been considered in the past, and how the proposed solutions serve the customer. At the start of the meeting, to avoid groupthink, everyone reads the memo silently. This isn’t practical in every situation, but it’s paramount when choices are both consequential and irreversible. Long before the results of the decision are known, the quality of the process can be evaluated based on the rigor and creativity of the author’s thinking in the memo and in the thoroughness of the discussion that ensues in the meeting.
Even if the outcome of a decision is positive, it doesn’t necessarily qualify as a success. If the process was shallow, you were lucky. If the decision process was deep, you can count it as an improvement: you’ve discovered a better practice. If the outcome is negative, it’s a failure only if the decision process was shallow. If the result was negative but you evaluated the decision thoroughly, you’ve run a smart experiment. The ideal time to run those experiments is when decisions are relatively inconsequential or reversible. In too many organizations, leaders look for guarantees that the results will be favorable before testing or investing in something new.
Requiring proof is an enemy of progress. This is why companies like Amazon use a principle of disagree and commit.
Rethinking is more likely when we separate the initial decision makers from the later decision evaluators.
Part IV: Conclusion
Grit is the combination of passion and perseverance, and research shows that it can play an important role in motivating us to accomplish long-term goals. When it comes to rethinking, though, grit may have a dark side. Experiments show that gritty people are more likely to overplay their hands in roulette and more willing to stay the course in tasks at which they’re failing and success is impossible.
There’s a fine line between heroic persistence and foolish stubbornness.
Identity foreclosure can stop us from evolving.
By the time they discover it was the wrong fit, they feel it’s too late to think again. The stakes seem too high to walk away; the sacrifices of salary, status, skill, and time seem too great. For the record, I think it’s better to lose the past two years of progress than to waste the next twenty. In hindsight, identity foreclosure is a Band-Aid: it covers up an identity crisis, but fails to cure it.
they should schedule checkups on their careers. I encourage them to put a reminder in their calendars to ask some key questions twice a year. When did you form the aspirations you’re currently pursuing, and how have you changed since then? Have you reached a learning plateau in your role or your workplace, and is it time to consider a pivot? Answering these career checkup questions is a way to periodically activate rethinking cycles.
* they can also be useful for students at the opposite end of the rethinking spectrum: overthinkers. They often report back that when they’re dissatisfied at work, knowing a reminder will pop up twice a year helps them resist the temptation to think about quitting every day.
She finds that as people consider career choices and transitions, it helps to think like scientists. A first step is to entertain possible selves: identify some people you admire within or outside your field, and observe what they actually do at work day by day. A second step is to develop hypotheses about how these paths might align with your own interests, skills, and values. A third step is to test out the different identities by running experiments: do informational interviews, job shadowing, and sample projects to get a taste of the work. The goal is not to confirm a particular plan but to expand your repertoire of possible selves.
Psychologists find that the more people value happiness, the less happy they often become with their lives. It’s true for people who naturally care about happiness and for people who are randomly assigned to reflect on why happiness matters. There’s even evidence that placing a great deal of importance on happiness is a risk factor for depression. Why? One possibility is that when we’re searching for happiness, we get too busy evaluating life to actually experience it. Instead of savoring our moments of joy, we ruminate about why our lives aren’t more joyful. A second likely culprit is that we spend too much time striving for peak happiness, overlooking the fact that happiness depends more on the frequency of positive emotions than their intensity. A third potential factor is that when we hunt for happiness, we overemphasize pleasure at the expense of purpose. (...) A fourth explanation is that Western conceptions of happiness as an individual state leave us feeling lonely. In more collectivistic Eastern cultures, that pattern is reversed: pursuing happiness predicts higher well-being, because people prioritize social engagement over independent activities.
instead of searching for the job where we’ll be happiest, we might be better off pursuing the job where we expect to learn and contribute the most. Psychologists find that passions are often developed, not discovered.
As we get older, we become more focused on searching for meaning – and we’re most likely to find it in actions that benefit others.
Actions for Impact
I. INDIVIDUAL RETHINKING
A. Develop the Habit of Thinking Again
1. Think like a scientist. When you start forming an opinion, resist the temptation to preach, prosecute, or politick. Treat your emerging view as a hunch or a hypothesis and test it with data. Like the entrepreneurs who learned to approach their business strategies as experiments, you’ll maintain the agility to pivot.
2. Define your identity in terms of values, not opinions. It’s easier to avoid getting stuck to your past beliefs if you don’t become attached to them as part of your present self-concept. See yourself as someone who values curiosity, learning, mental flexibility, and searching for knowledge. As you form opinions, keep a list of factors that would change your mind.
3. Seek out information that goes against your views. You can fight confirmation bias, burst filter bubbles, and escape echo chambers by actively engaging with ideas that challenge your assumptions. An easy place to start is to follow people who make you think – even if you usually disagree with what they think.
B. Calibrate Your Confidence
4. Beware of getting stranded at the summit of Mount Stupid. Don’t confuse confidence with competence. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a good reminder that the better you think you are, the greater the risk that you’re overestimating yourself – and the greater the odds that you’ll stop improving. To prevent overconfidence in your knowledge, reflect on how well you can explain a given subject.
5. Harness the benefits of doubt. When you find yourself doubting your ability, reframe the situation as an opportunity for growth. You can have confidence in your capacity to learn while questioning your current solution to a problem. Knowing what you don’t know is often the first step toward developing expertise.
6. Embrace the joy of being wrong. When you find out you’ve made a mistake, take it as a sign that you’ve just discovered something new. Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself. It helps you focus less on proving yourself – and more on improving yourself.
C. Invite Others to Question Your Thinking
7. Learn something new from each person you meet. Everyone knows more than you about something. Ask people what they’ve been rethinking lately, or start a conversation about times you’ve changed your mind in the past year.
8. Build a challenge network, not just a support network. It’s helpful to have cheerleaders encouraging you, but you also need critics to challenge you. Who are your most thoughtful critics? Once you’ve identified them, invite them to question your thinking. To make sure they know you’re open to dissenting views, tell them why you respect their pushback – and where they usually add the most value.
9. Don’t shy away from constructive conflict. Disagreements don’t have to be disagreeable. Although relationship conflict is usually counterproductive, task conflict can help you think again. Try framing disagreement as a debate: people are more likely to approach it intellectually and less likely to take it personally.
II. INTERPERSONAL RETHINKING
A. Ask Better Questions
10. Practice the art of persuasive listening. When we’re trying to open other people’s minds, we can frequently accomplish more by listening than by talking. How can you show an interest in helping people crystallize their own views and uncover their own reasons for change? A good way to start is to increase your question-to-statement ratio.
11. Question how rather than why. When people describe why they hold extreme views, they often intensify their commitment and double down. When they try to explain how they would make their views a reality, they often realize the limits of their understanding and start to temper some of their opinions.
12. Ask “What evidence would change your mind?” You can’t bully someone into agreeing with you. It’s often more effective to inquire about what would open their minds, and then see if you can convince them on their own terms.
13. Ask how people originally formed an opinion. Many of our opinions, like our stereotypes, are arbitrary; we’ve developed them without rigorous data or deep reflection. To help people reevaluate, prompt them to consider how they’d believe different things if they’d been born at a different time or in a different place.
B. Approach Disagreements as Dances, Not Battles
14. Acknowledge common ground. A debate is like a dance, not a war. Admitting points of convergence doesn’t make you weaker – it shows that you’re willing to negotiate about what’s true, and it motivates the other side to consider your point of view.
15. Remember that less is often more. If you pile on too many different reasons to support your case, it can make your audiences defensive – and cause them to reject your entire argument based on its least compelling points. Instead of diluting your argument, lead with a few of your strongest points.
16. Reinforce freedom of choice. Sometimes people resist not because they’re dismissing the argument but because they’re rejecting the feeling of their behavior being controlled. It helps to respect their autonomy by reminding them that it’s up to them to choose what they believe.
17. Have a conversation about the conversation. If emotions are running hot, try redirecting the discussion to the process. Like the expert negotiators who comment on their feelings and test their understanding of the other side’s feelings, you can sometimes make progress by expressing your disappointment or frustration and asking people if they share it.
III. COLLECTIVE RETHINKING
A. Have More Nuanced Conversations
18. Complexify contentious topics. There are more than two sides to every story. Instead of treating polarizing issues like two sides of a coin, look at them through the many lenses of a prism. Seeing the shades of gray can make us more open.
19. Don’t shy away from caveats and contingencies. Acknowledging competing claims and conflicting results doesn’t sacrifice interest or credibility. It’s an effective way to engage audiences while encouraging them to stay curious.
20. Expand your emotional range. You don’t have to eliminate frustration or even indignation to have a productive conversation. You just need to mix in a broader set of emotions along with them – you might try showing some curiosity or even admitting confusion or ambivalence.
B. Teach Kids to Think Again
21. Have a weekly myth-busting discussion at dinner. It’s easier to debunk false beliefs at an early age, and it’s a great way to teach kids to become comfortable with rethinking. Pick a different topic each week – one day it might be dinosaurs, the next it could be outer space – and rotate responsibility around the family for bringing a myth for discussion.
22. Invite kids to do multiple drafts and seek feedback from others. Creating different versions of a drawing or a story can encourage kids to learn the value of revising their ideas. Getting input from others can also help them to continue evolving their standards. They might learn to embrace confusion – and to stop expecting perfection on the first try.
23. Stop asking kids what they want to be when they grow up. They don’t have to define themselves in terms of a career. A single identity can close the door to alternatives. Instead of trying to narrow their options, help them broaden their possibilities. They don’t have to be one thing – they can do many things.
C. Create Learning Organizations
24. Abandon best practices. Best practices suggest that the ideal routines are already in place. If we want people to keep rethinking the way they work, we might be better off adopting process accountability and continually striving for better practices.
25. Establish psychological safety. In learning cultures, people feel confident that they can question and challenge the status quo without being punished. Psychological safety often starts with leaders role-modeling humility.
26. Keep a rethinking scorecard. Don’t evaluate decisions based only on the results; track how thoroughly different options are considered in the process. A bad process with a good outcome is luck. A good process with a bad outcome might be a smart experiment.
D. Stay Open to Rethinking Your Future
27. Throw out the ten-year plan. What interested you last year might bore you this year – and what confused you yesterday might become exciting tomorrow. Passions are developed, not just discovered. Planning just one step ahead can keep you open to rethinking.
28. Rethink your actions, not just your surroundings. Chasing happiness can chase it away. Trading one set of circumstances for another isn’t always enough. Joy can wax and wane, but meaning is more likely to last. Building a sense of purpose often starts with taking actions to enhance your learning or your contribution to others.
29. Schedule a life checkup. It’s easy to get caught in escalation of commitment to an unfulfilling path. Just as you schedule health checkups with your doctor, it’s worth having a life checkup on your calendar once or twice a year. It’s a way to assess how much you’re learning, how your beliefs and goals are evolving, and whether your next steps warrant some rethinking.
30. Make time to think again. When I looked at my calendar, I noticed that it was mostly full of doing. I set a goal of spending an hour a day thinking and learning. Now I’ve decided to go further: I’m scheduling a weekly time for rethinking and unlearning. I reach out to my challenge network and ask what ideas and opinions they think I should be reconsidering. Recently, my wife, Allison, told me that I need to rethink the way I pronounce the word mayonnaise.