Books Driving Change: Adam Grant and Think Again

If you change your mind because you’re telling people what they want to hear, and you’re trying to curry favor or get the approval of your constituents, you’re doing that for purely political reasons. And you are flip flopping, and we should be critical of that. But what if you change because you’ve encountered stronger evidence or sharper logic? That’s not flip flopping, that’s called learning. And I think we ought to separate the two and start to recognize that some leaders when they change their position, it’s because they’ve actually evolved their thinking, and they have better ideas than they did when they developed their earlier stance. – Adam Grant

Matthew Bishop (MB): Hello, this is Matthew Bishop with Books Driving Change. Today, I’m talking with Adam Grant, the author of Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.

Adam is an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School and the author of a number of bestselling books, including Originals and Give and Take. In this book, he addresses one of the big themes of today, which is that we seem to be in a world where our leaders feel they have to be right about everything. They don’t seem to think again. They seem to double down on bad ideas when those ideas don’t work. People are becoming more entrenched in their opinions. There seems to be less concern about facts and learning and more sort of just sticking to your guns come what may. And this book is really a challenge to that mindset and, actually drawing on a lot of science, about how do we create an open mind, both as individuals and also in society?

So, Adam, I wanted to start by asking you this question: our audience is made up of people who are feeling some kind of call in this pandemic to public service to building back better. I’d like you to tell us in one sentence, why should they read your book?

Adam Grant (AG): I think they should read my book, because 2020 forced us to do a lot of rethinking and my hope for 2021 is that we do our rethinking more deliberately, and more proactively. And this book is about the science of how we can question a lot of the assumptions and opinions and even outdated knowledge and beliefs that are holding us back.

MB: So, in the book, you talk a lot about how to create a learning mindset, to be open to being wrong, and so forth. What are the practical tips that you would highlight for leaders as they try and move us in this world of entrenched opinions back to that more open-minded approach to leadership?

AG: As far as practical tips, I think the first thing I would say is, when you make a plan, make a list of the conditions that would change your mind. It’s so common for leaders to roll out a plan, and then find out that maybe it was the wrong choice. And get stuck in this trap of escalation, of commitment to a losing course of action, where they double down, they invest more time, more energy, and more resources. And then the cost of failure just gets higher and higher.

One of the major reasons that escalation of commitment happens is people are too motivated to rationalize their behavior. They want to convince themselves and everyone else that they made the right call. And that means they actually stay wrong longer. As opposed to recognizing that the faster I admit I was wrong, the faster I can move toward getting it right, which last time I checked is where they want to land. I think the danger of committing publicly to a plan is that it becomes attached to you and you become attached to it. It becomes your baby. If you can separate your ideas from your identity, and say, “Okay, this is a plan I’m going to test. And right up front here are the things that might happen. Here are the early signals that would lead me to course correct or maybe pause to rethink it. “If I identify those upfront, then I can keep myself honest.

[People] want to convince themselves and everyone else that they made the right call. That means they actually stay wrong longer.

MB: It’s interesting that I think social media and, in fact, many of the forces that are shaping the world we live in at the moment, seem to play well to the kind of leader that is the opposite to the sort that you talk about in the book. The sort of person that is really about simple opinions, polarizing opinions, never being wrong, sticking to their guns. Seems like we live in a world where it’s incredibly hard for our leaders to be humble. To admit that they are fallible human beings. That they can get things wrong.

AG: I think that we put so much of a premium on conviction, confidence, and certainty; when what we should be elevating in leadership is the confidence to be humble. I think it takes an extraordinary amount of security to admit what you don’t know. You have to be fairly confident in your strengths to acknowledge your weaknesses out loud. I think that we’ve had too many leaders, especially over the past 15 months, who have felt tremendous pressure to say I have all the answers, as opposed to taking what I would say Jacinda Ardern modelled much more effectively, which is to open with, we don’t have the answers. We’re not sure what it’s going to take to stop COVID. And because of that, we’re going to take some pretty drastic measures. As the science evolves, as we learn, this may change.

MB: One of the forces that you talk about very persuasively in the book is this human tendency to what you call the escalation of commitment? Can you tell us a bit about that?

AG: Well, a lot of people think that escalation of commitment is driven by sunk costs, right? You put your name, your reputation, your money, your time behind a course of action and then it seems like it’s not going to pan out. You think, well, if only I try a little harder, especially in this world that worships at the altar of hustle and praises to the high priest of grit. If only I just persist a little bit longer, I can turn this thing around. And, yeah, the economic factors do matter. But the biggest drivers of escalation are not economic, they’re emotional. It’s about ego and image. I don’t want to admit to myself that I made a stupid decision, or I might be an idiot. And I don’t want anybody else to think I am either. So, it’s easier to try to convince myself and everybody else that, you know, I’m not throwing good money after bad. I am heroically persevering.

MB: And in that moment when you are faced with a choice of admitting you were wrong or the error is more complex than you think, why is it that today so many of our leaders are choosing to sort of double down on being wrong?

AG: That’s a great question. I mean, there’s been a lot of social science trying to dig into that in the last few years. And I think one of the most compelling answers is that we’ve made the mistake of equating consistency with integrity. That when somebody changes their mind, we call them a flip flopper or a hypocrite. And I think we need to be more nuanced about that. If you change your mind because you’re telling people what they want to hear. And you’re trying to curry favor or get the approval of your constituents. You’re doing that for purely political reasons. You are flip flopping, and we should be critical of that. But what if you change because you’ve encountered stronger evidence or sharper logic? That’s not flip flopping, that’s called learning. I think we ought to separate the two and start to recognize that some leaders when they change their position, it’s because they’ve actually evolved their thinking, and they have better ideas than they did when they developed their earlier stance.

MB: You quote the case of Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York, who has had quite an interesting year or so where he’s been flavor of the month and quite hated by the public, and the media response to him quite early in the pandemic, saying we don’t know what to do, so we’re going to do something and see how it works. You quote approvingly that the New York Times was very critical at the time. I wonder about the role of the media. You know I spent all my career in the media, even in one of the more nuanced publications like The Economist, but the media is always wanting to reduce complexity to simple narratives of this person versus that person, this tribe versus that tribe, this country versus that country. I mean, how do we change the way the media helps society be more open to thinking again, and to dealing with doubts and complexity and experimentation?

AG: Oh, good question. Well, first of all, I disapprove of Andrew Cuomo’s leadership. And, in fact, that anecdote was a little bit of a head fake, and the real source of the quote and the story is Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So, there’s a little bit of a twist in there. But I think the fundamental question of how we can get the media to help is something that I rethought while I was writing Think Again.

I believed going in that the solution to all this polarization was for people to see the other side. And the data convinced me that, in fact, seeing the other side is not a solution, it’s actually part of the polarization problem. The biggest mistake that the media consistently makes is they amplify two extremes. What does that do? Let’s say, for example, you’re on one side of the abortion debate or the gun debate or the climate change issue. If you see only the opposite extreme, those people sound stupid and wrong and crazy. You might even think they’re evil. So, what are you going to do? You’re going to become even more extreme and more entrenched in your own camp.

What we need to see is the complexity of the issue. We need to see the nuances, the shades of grey. And so, whenever somebody in the media says, “Well, here’s one side and here’s the other side,” what I want to know is, what’s the third angle? What’s the fourth perspective that’s missing here? There’s some research by Peter Coleman and his colleagues in Difficult Conversations Lab at Columbia, where they show that just presenting the same issue, not as two sides of a coin, but instead as if you’re looking through many lenses of a prism, is enough to get people to rethink some of their extreme convictions and become a little bit more open minded and more nuanced in their thinking.

I think the climate issue is a great example of this. Because if you look at the data, the media has actually paid more attention to and done more amplification of climate deniers, then they have of climate scientists. And if you look at where people’s stances actually are in most developed countries, the vast majority of people are not in a denial camp. If they’re skeptical, they might be uncertain about how severe climate change is. Or what exactly is causing it. Or what all the different solutions might be. What we need to do is raise up those voices and say, you know what, there are a lot of people who recognize that climate change is happening, that there are human decisions that are contributing to it, and there are things we can do about it.

The biggest drivers of escalation are not economic, they’re emotional. It’s about ego and image.

MB: I suppose the simple response that a media executive would give to me if I made that pitch to them would be, actually simple conflict sells and some black and white messages. Things that reinforce people’s existing positions will play into deeper psychological biases and trends that are in there, than complexity and nuance. How do you make complexity and nuance engaging to an audience that is willing to pay for it?

AG: Well, I would say to that media executive, that’s your job to be creative about telling the truth in all of its complexity and shades of grey. And, I think obviously, it’s very hard to make nuance go viral. But I don’t think it always takes that much to signal complexity and to add a little bit more of it into the conversation.

For example, there’s some research, this is a little bit meta, but the evidence tells us that just saying “more research needs to be done” is enough to trigger people’s awareness. Okay, you know, we haven’t fully understood this problem yet. Or we don’t have all the answers yet, right. That’s a helpful step for journalists to take.

Another example would be just to cue the complexity of the problem or the solution. So, you know, one of my favorite headlines reads, “Scientists say that planning a trillion trees is probably not going to fix climate change.” Right? And immediately, what does that do? That activates for you an awareness that, okay, this is a really thorny issue. And we can’t just fix it by planting a bunch of trees. I wonder what else would work. And that ignites my curiosity. Makes me more skeptical of a silver bullet that somebody might be trying to shoot at the problem. That seems to be good for the conversation. It doesn’t stop people from clicking and engaging, right? In fact, it makes me want to know, it creates a curiosity gap. I want to know, well, what’s wrong with planting a trillion trees? What else might be helpful here?

MB: I did wonder whether a late-night politics show called 50 Shades of Grey might sort of attracting an interesting audience, maybe the wrong way audience.

But another area that you touch on in the book is vaccination denial and how to address that problem, not actually in the context of the COVID virus, but obviously with massive resonance for that issue. You talk a lot about persuasive listening as a way to change minds. Can you just talk a little bit about that, specifically, in terms of maybe what we should be doing now with the vaccine refusers and COVID?

AG: Yeah, I think one of the systematic mistakes that we’re making is we’re doing way too much preaching and prosecuting, right. So preaching is “vaccines are safe and effective, and everyone should get one.” Prosecuting is “you’re wrong if you’re not getting one. Why don’t you believe the science? Why are you endangering yourself and, you know, your community?” What seems to be much more effective is showing humility and curiosity. Approaching the conversation by saying, “You know what? I don’t know what’s motivating somebody to be resistant, and I’m awfully eager to find out.”

The research on this has been spearheaded by a vaccine whisperer named Arnaud Gagneur. He applies a technique called motivational interviewing, where you say instead of forcing somebody to change their mind, what if you try to help them uncover their own motivation to change.

So, Matthew, I’ll give you an example of this. I have a friend who is very resistant to the idea of any vaccination. I swore a few years ago that I was never going to talk to him about the topic again. Because, you know, I saw him as stubborn and pigheaded, and he saw me the same way. It was not good for our friendship. Then COVID happened. I’d written this whole chapter about persuasive listening and I thought it was an opportunity to figure out whether I could practice what I teach, and have a thoughtful, open-minded discussion with somebody who I knew did not share my views. I approached it really differently. Instead of going into logic bully mode and trying to win a debate with him. I started asking questions to learn. The pivotal question that I asked was, “How likely do you think you are to get a COVID vaccine?” And he said, “Well, not very. Like, the odds are pretty low.” And I was stunned. I said, “Why didn’t you say zero? I was sure you were going to say I will never get one of these.” He started listing all these reasons why. He said, “Well, you know, maybe if I’m 85 years old, I’m not concerned about the long-term risks. And, you know, if the contagion rate is really high, and the mortality rate is extremely high, then I probably roll the dice and take my chances.” All of a sudden, I saw all this complexity and ambivalence that I had never heard from him before.

What those kinds of questions do, is they allow people to recognize all of the uncertainty in their own attitudes. To say, yeah, I have some reasons for staying the course and not getting vaccinated. But there are also some forces that would lead me to consider getting vaccinated. Then you can try to encourage them to reflect on what would have to happen for them to say yes. Ultimately, it’s not your place to change their mind, right? What you want to do is get them to reflect on what might lead them to opt-in.

Seeing the other side is not a solution, it’s actually part of the polarization problem.

MB: That’s very helpful. And you talked about preaching and prosecution, and you also have politician. You have these three Ps, these types of personalities we get into when we do get into this sort of unthinking mode. I wonder a lot, and going throughout the book, you have great moments of humor throughout, whether you thought about offering up the comedian as the sort of figure that actually is the one figure in society at the moment who can speak these truths about uncertainty and experimentation and not being black and white about things. Because, you have this great example of Melinda Gates reading feedback from her staff at the Gates Foundation about some things where she actually ends up reading a tweet that has a swear word in it, and how that completely changed the dynamics in the room between her and her team. I do wonder, is humor going to be the way that we navigate to a better place as a society? Is that what leaders should be trying to figure out how they can deploy? Self-deprecating humor, I mean, more often than attacking humor.

AG: I think it could be helpful. This is such an interesting idea to consider because my first reaction was no. If you look at the data on The Colbert Report, for example. Yeah, liberals found him hilarious and brilliant in pointing out what they saw as all of the fallacies and contradictions and flaws in conservative thinking. And conservatives took him as sort of making fun of a liberal’s caricature of a conservative and said, yeah, the joke’s on the liberals. Right? And so, it didn’t get through to the people that he was trying to persuade.

But then when you shift this into self-deprecation, I find myself thinking again and saying, yes. I think one of the hallmarks of humility is being willing and able to laugh at yourself. To say, I take my work seriously, but I don’t take myself too seriously. If you can’t laugh at yourself, every time you make a mistake, you’re going to feel pressure to cover it up, to hide it, to rationalize it, to explain it away. Instead of saying, I was a little bit dumber yesterday than I am today, and here’s what I’ve learned from that experience. And yeah, I think comedians are a great model for self-deprecation.

I will say that, unfortunately, the research on gender stereotypes that’s been published recently suggests that men can get away with self-deprecation, whereas women tend to be vilified for it. When men make fun of themselves, they’re judged as more competent. Wow, he’s really confident in his strengths. He’s willing to laugh at his weaknesses. When women do it, they are judged as incompetent. It’s seen as a signal of insecurity and that is obviously ridiculous. Right? This is the 21st century. We should stop judging people when they self-deprecate based on their gender, and we should start recognizing well, you know what, she has the integrity and the humility to be willing to poke a little bit of fun at herself. That’s probably something that’s good for our culture.

MB: So, one final question. You’ve written this book now, because obviously you feel this is a moment in time where we really need to be thinking again and open to experimentation and self-doubt, and all those things. For our audience of people trying to get involved in building a better world and wondering if it’s possible, what words of encouragement do you have for them that reading your book and taking onboard some of your insights, of which there are very many, is a good idea and that can succeed in this moment?

AG: Well, I’m not here to sell anyone on buying my book. I think you should be the judge of whether the insights I bring as an organizational psychologist are going to make you think again, and whether that’s helpful in your life. I think the reason I was persuaded to write the book is I have had too many moments of sticking with the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt. I’ve had too many moments of stubbornness, where I refuse to change my mind for too long and I’ve regretted it. I wanted to try to spare other people those regrets.

My goal is not to get you to believe everything that I think. What I want to do is challenge some of the things that you think and invite you to rethink. I think that’s something most of us could benefit from doing more of, but I think that you know that’s something that everyone has to judge in their own lives. I think there are people who do too much rethinking, and they get stuck in analysis paralysis. My read of the data and my experience is that most of us are too far to the opposite end of that curve. We’re a little bit too hesitant when we should be eager to think again. And, I guess, my hope in writing the book was to say, next time you discover yourself caught in one of these dilemmas of should I say, “I don’t know”, or “I was wrong”, that instead of being threatened by that, you could look at that and say, “Oh, this is an opportunity to think again”, which means I might actually evolve and learn something.

MB: Are you optimistic that as a society, we can become more of that kind of society?

AG: I am cautiously optimistic. I think as a social scientist, I’m impressed by the range of techniques for opening our own minds and for opening other people’s minds that I wasn’t aware of before writing this book, despite the fact that my job is to make me think again, and I’ve been doing research on this topic in one flavor or another for two decades. And just the sheer amount of knowledge I gained from the evidence made me think there’s a big gap between the expertise that’s available on how to build a culture of lifelong learners, and what most of us do every day, and I think we could probably make progress toward closing that gap.

MB: Well, on that cautiously optimistic note, we will end. Thank you very much, Adam Grant for talking with Books Driving Change. It’s been a pleasure. Though you aren’t selling the book, I would certainly recommend the book to everyone that’s listening. I say, personally, I’ve learned a lot from reading it and will make changes in my own life that I think will open my mind a bit more. So, thank you very much for writing it, Adam.

AG: Well, thank you, Matthew, I’m honored that you read it, I hope you don’t rethink that. And yeah, there are some things we should never rethink.

MB: I think that’s a sunk cost at this point.

AG: Exactly, escalation of commitment, here we are. But I do think that, you know, the idea that books can drive change is something that I was resistant to early on. I thought I’m really writing to share some of the things that I’ve learned and hope I have accumulated some evidence and some experience that might teach someone something else. I think I was resistant to the idea because I was afraid that my books wouldn’t drive change. I felt handicapped a little bit and said, “No, no, no, this book is really just about helping you think differently about a topic and maybe even rethink it.” But the way we think shapes the way we act. It shapes the world we create. And I don’t know if the pen is actually mightier than the sword, I do know that it’s in class longer. And so, I think the work you’re doing here is extremely important.

MB: Thank you very much, Adam. Best wishes for the rest of your work in this area and your next project.

AG: Right back at you. Thank you, Matthew.

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This transcript has been lightly edited for context and clarity.

Matthew Bishop

Matthew is an editorial consultant to Driving Change. An award-winning journalist, Matthew is an internationally recognized expert on the trends and innovations shaping global business, finance and politics, particularly the role of public policy and philanthropy. A graduate of the University of Oxford, Matthew is a former member of the faculty of London Business School. He is best known for his work on "philanthrocapitalism", a word he coined in The Economist to describe how businesses and philanthropists can make a big positive difference in the world. Matthew was a writer and editor at The Economist for over 25 years, including a decade as the magazine's New York Bureau Chief. He then led the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center. Matthew has authored several books, including Philanthrocapitalism: How Giving Can Save the World, and The Road from Ruin: A New Capitalism for a Big Society. He co-founded the Social Progress Index, an increasingly influential new measure of how well a society serves its citizens, and the #GivingTuesday movement, which harnesses social media to celebrate giving and drive more effective charity. He launched the 17 Rooms partnership between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Brookings Institution and is a co-funder of the Catalyst 2030 network of proven social entrepreneurs. Matthew was honored by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader and was the official report author of the G8 Taskforce on Impact Investing.

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