Think Again: Book Review

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know (2021), Adam Grant. This is another useful book from psychology; this time about thinking rather than decision-making. “Scientific thinking favors humility over pride, doubt over certainty, curiosity over closure. When we shift out of scientist mode, the rethinking cycle breaks down, giving was to an overconfidence cycle” (p. 28).

Prologue. Using an example of a smoke jumper acting strangely to save his life: “the majority of answer revisions were from wrong to right. This phenomenon is known as the first-instinct fallacy. Rethinking is hard because of “cognitive laziness,” because we’re “mental misers” and “questioning ourselves makes the world more unpredictable” (p. 3). Seizing and freezing: “we favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt” (p. 4), which seems similar to anchoring. Rethinking as a form of mental flexibility/mental pliability. Rethinking was important to the pandemic and leaders were slow to respond.

Part I: Individual Rethinking; updating our own views.

Chapter 1: A Preacher, a Prosecutor, a Politician, and a Scientist Walk into Your Mind. Mindsets of preachers (when sacred beliefs are in jeopardy, then preach), prosecutors (recognize flaws in other people’s reasoning, then prove them wrong) and politicians (to win an audience for approval). We don’t rethink our views. “If you’re a scientist by trade, rethinking is fundamental to your profession. You’re paid to be constantly aware of the limits of your understanding” (p. 19). It’s a frame of mind. For a business startup, a scientist’s perspective: “their strategy is a theory, customer interviews help to develop hypotheses, and their minimum viable product and prototype are experiments to test those hypotheses” (p. 20). Decisions should be slow and unsure with the flexibility to change their minds.

“Mental horsepower doesn’t guarantee mental dexterity” (p. 24). One problem: “Being a quant jock makes you more accurate in interpreting the results—as long as they support your beliefs” (p. 24). Why: confirmation bias (seeing what you expect to see) plus desirability bias (seeing what you want to see). [However, these biases are not confined to quant jocks.] Grant does add the “I’m not biased” bias—or intuition over evidence.

“In prosecutor mode, allowing ourselves to be persuaded is admitting defeat; in scientist mode, it’s a step toward the truth. In politician mode, we flip-flop in response to carrots and sticks; in scientist mode, we shift in the face of sharper logic and strong data” (p. 25). Scientists should have cognitive flexibility to change positions. Great presidents have “intellectual curiosity and openness.” This included listening to new views. This starts with intellectual humility: what am I missing? “If knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom. … Scientific thinking favors humility over pride, doubt over certainty, curiosity over closure” (p. 28). We absolutely want to stay away from overconfidence cycles—preaching. “Pride breeds conviction rather than doubt, which makes us prosecutors” (p. 28). “The curse of knowledge is that it closes our minds to what we don’t know” (p. 31).

Chapter 2: The Armchair Quarterback and the Imposter. Imposter syndrome (doubting one’s skills; competence exceeds confidence). Shouldn’t confidence and competence go together? A problem, especially for women who underestimate their skills (men tend to overestimate theirs, e.g., armchair quarterback syndrome). Dunning-Kruger effect: lacking competence but filled with overconfidence. Both are problems of self-awareness. Note that members of the Dunning-Krueger club don’t know they’re members.

Stranded on the summit of mount stupid [I like this quote]. Apparently, humility is the key: “arrogance is ignorance plus conviction” (p. 45). Plus, ability to learn. Finding the “sweet spot” between armchair quarterback and imposter syndromes. It seems that imposter syndrome is preferred as long as it’s not debilitating.

Chapter 3: The Joy of Being Wrong. 1959 Henry Murray study of students being “assaulted” on their personal philosophy of life. Some seemed to enjoy it, forcing them to rethink their beliefs. “Murry Davis argued that when ideas survive, it’s not because they’re true—it’s because they’re interesting” (p.59). One student was angered, the problem with a totalitarian ego (triggering the amygdala ‘lizard brain’ to fight or flight). He became the Unibomber.

Daniel Kahneman: “My attachment to my ideas is provisional” (p. 62). Good Judgment example: The statisticians were attached to their views about how to aggregate polls. Jean-Pierre paid more attention to factors that were hard to measure and overlooked. … Phil Tetlock finds that forecasting skill is less a matter of what we know than of how we think” (p. 66-7). Updating beliefs particularly important. This suggests continuous Bayesian analysis to me, but Grant says rethinking cycles—probably similar concepts.

Chapter 4: The Good Fight Club; The Psychology of Constructive Conflict. Relationship conflict (personal, emotional clashes) versus task conflict (clashes about ideas and opinions). “The absence of conflict is not harmony, it’s apathy” (p. 80). Wright Brothers were very argumentative, about tasks and they both enjoyed it and learned from it. “Disagreeable people tend to be more critical, skeptical, and challenging—and they’re more likely than their peers to become engineers and lawyers. … Agreeable people make for a great support network” (p 82).

“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. Their role is to activate rethinking cycles by pushing us to be humble about our expertise, doubt our knowledge, and be curious about new perspectives. … They’re fearless about questioning the way things have always been done and holding us accountable for thinking again” (p. 83). One suggestion was “murder boards” to stir up conflict. Conflict should be intellectual not emotional. Avoid HIPPO—highest paid person’s opinion.

Part II: Interpersonal Rethinking; Opening Other People’s Minds

Chapter 5: Dances with Foes; How to Win Debates and Influence People. Debate skills of Harish Natarajan, based on question: should preschools be subsidized by government? He debated a computer that relied on studies citing facts supporting preschools—lots of data, lots of reasons for support. Harish had simple counter-arguments based on trade-offs and this is not the best use of taxpayer money. Who does it help? The usual debate technique is to play adversaries, offense versus defense; prosecuting style. It’s a pair of scales; pile on for your side. Defense-attach spirals.

The right technique according to Grant: make it a dance. What are the points of agreement/common ground? Present fewer reasons to support your case, but the stronger ones that are more defensible. Don’t go on offense or defense. Express curiosity like “so you don’t see any merit in this proposal at all?” Start with common ground, areas of agreement. (We’re scientists trying to get to the truth.) “If you have too many arguments, you’ll dilute the power of each and every one” (p. 110).

Preaching and prosecuting can be more persuasive, based on if people care about the issue and how open they are to our argument. Quantity can be interpreted as a sign of quality. It does assume the audience can rethink. Pose more questions to contemplate, rather than declarative sentences: “We model confident humility, support our arguments with a small number of cohesive, compelling reasons. … When we ask genuine questions, we leave them intrigued to learn more” (p. 112). “The highest form of argument is refuting the central point, and the lowest is name-calling” (p. 114). Between these two are: refutation counterargument, contradiction, responding to tone, and ad hominem attack. Ask questions; e.g., what would open their minds to my data? Other good line: “It’s not how I was trained to have an intellectual debate. Were you? (p. 115). Sidestepping is part of dancing.

Chapter 6: Bad Blood on the Diamond; Diminishing Prejudice by Destabilizing Stereotypes. “People are motivated to seek belonging and status. Identifying with a group checks both boxes” (p. 125). “Stereotypes are so sticky. We tend to interact with people who share them—group polarization” (p.127). “When returning from space, astronauts are less focused on individual achievement and personal happiness, and more concerned about the collective good” (p. 128)—the overview effect. In this case, looking back at the Earth from outer space. Using common identity can build bridges between rivals. Grant considers Israel-Palestine conflict. The two groups could try to empathize about each other. One problem was they could trust individuals, but continue their stereotypes—these people were exceptions. One way to change is counterfactual thinking. What if you were … whatever. Interacting with members of another group does reduce prejudice.

Chapter 7. Vaccine Whisperers and Mild-Mannered Interrogators. How the Right Kind of Listening Motivates People to Change. Focus on addicts. Clinical psychologist Bill Miller asked them questions and listened to their answers, a practice called motivational interviewing. “The central premise is that we can rarely motivate someone else to change. We’re better of helping them find their own motivation to change” (p. 146). Start with humility and curiosity, ask open-ended questions, encourage ability to change: “a less abrasive Socrates” (p. 148).

“There’s a distinction between sustain talk and change talk. Sustain talk is commentary about maintaining the status quo. Change talk is referencing a desire, ability, need, or commitment to make adjustments” (p. 152). Then helping them executing a change: summarizing to understand, being a guide. A guide’s work is done only when people accomplish their goals. “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” (p. 156). Work on sympathy more than solutions; make them less anxious and defensive. Inverse charisma: “capturing the magnetic quality of a great listener” (p. 158).

Part III: Collective Rethinking. Creating Communities of Lifelong Learners.

Chapter 8: Charge Conversations; Depolarizing Our Divided Discussions. Columbia has a Difficult Conversations Lab focusing on controversial topics. Can an arguing pair sign a shared views statement (about abortion)? The mission is to reverse-engineer successful conversations. The pair get a news article about the issue. If the article is balanced, the chance of a consensus is good. To get a 100% agreement requires an article framing the issue as complex with shades of gray (“complexifying”)—“less like a lawyer’s opening statement and more like an anthropologist’s field notes” (p. 165). Presenting two extreme views isn’t the solution: this is called binary bias. Presenting complexity disrupts overconfidence cycles and promotes rethinking cycles. Beliefs are influenced by motivations (desirability bias); believing what we want to believe. On many issues, referring to Rawl’s “veil of ignorance” can be useful.

Consider Al Gore on climate change as a black and white issue. There are multiple camps, ranging from deniers (rejecting ideas without analysis) to alarmists. Extreme alarmists get considerable coverage. Illustrating complexity is helped by indicating contingencies, making them more credible.

Chapter 9: Rewriting the Textbook. Teaching Students to Question Knowledge. Rethinking in schools: “rethinking cycles by instilling intellectual humility, disseminating doubt, and cultivating curiosity” (p. 187). “Focus on building skills to consider different views and argue productively about them” (p. 189). Students enjoy lectures (which is passive) more than active-learning (groups solving problems, worksheets, tutorials), but gain more knowledge in active-learning sessions. “Grapples” problems to work through in phases: “Think-pair-share.” “The hallmark of an open mind is responding to confusion with curiosity and interest. … They would identify problems, develop hypotheses, and design their own experiments to test them” (p.199).

Chapter 10: That’s Not the Way We’ve Always Done It. Building Cultures of Learning at Work. “NASA had been a prime example of a performance culture: excellence of execution was the paramount value…. As people took pride in their standard operating procedures, gained conviction in their routines, and saw their decisions validated through their results, they missed opportunities for rethinking” (p.208). Then the 1986 Challenger disaster because of failing O-rings, followed by Columbia disaster in 2003. An astronaut almost “drowned” on a spacewalk. According to Grant, organizations innovate and make fewer mistakes in learning cultures. Psychological safe teams reported more errors in hospitals, but in fact made fewer errors. They admitted their mistakes. “It’s fostering a climate of respect, trust, and openness in which people can raise concerns and suggestions. … In performance cultures, the emphasis on results often undermines psychological safety” (. 209). Psychological safety means mistakes are opportunities to learn, speaking your mind, and sticking your neck out. It’s useful to ask questions, like what assumptions are make, what uncertainties, disadvantages? What are the values?

At the Gates Foundation: “They normalized vulnerability, making their teams more comfortable opening up about their own struggles. … It shows that we care more about improving ourselves than proving ourselves” (p. 213-5). Psychological safety should exist without accountability, a separate issue. “The ideal time to run experiments is when decisions are relatively inconsequential or reversible” (p. 219).

Part IV. Conclusion.

Chapter 11. Escaping Tunnel Vision. Reconsidering Out Best Laid career and Life Plans. People should rethink a plan that’s failing. A common alternative is escalation of commitment to double down. [This has also been true of many battles and wars (think Vietnam). As an accountant, I understand sunk costs.] Here, Grant introduces the downside of grit—passion and perseverance override thinking [okay, in this book it’s rethinking]. People can have any number of life plans, but commitment to one precludes other possibilities. The result is identity foreclosure based on compensatory conviction. Grant suggests a “career checkup” every six months.

Grant does not put happiness at number one: “Happiness depends more on the frequency of positive emotions than their intensity. … We overemphasize pleasure at the expense of purpose. … Meaning is healthier than happiness, and people who look for purpose in their work are more successful in pursuing their passions.” (p.238). Eastern cultures prioritize social engagement over independent activities. Major change typically does not increase happiness, because to return to “their baseline levels of happiness. … It’s our actions—not our surroundings—that bring us meaning and belonging. … Passions are often developed, not discovered” (p. 239-40). “There are always multiple paths to the same end (equifinality), and the same starting point can be a path to many different ends (multifinality)” (p. 241).

Actions for Impact:

Individual rethinking: think like a scientist; define your identity in terms of values, not opinions (emphasize curiosity, learning, mental flexibility, and searching for knowledge); seek out information that goes against your views (fight confirmation bias). Calibrate your confidence: don’t get stuck on mount stupid (competence over confidence); harness the benefits of doubt; embrace the joy of being wrong. Invite others to question your thinking: learn something new from each person you meet; build a challenge network; embrace constructive conflict (that’s task conflict).

Interpersonal rethinking: ask better questions, use persuasive listening; question how rather than why; ask “what evidence would change your mind?”; ask how people originally formed an opinion. Approach disagreements as dances, not battles: acknowledge common ground; remember that less is often more (lead with the strongest points).

Collective rethinking: have more nuanced conversations; complexify contentious topics, rather than treating as polarized issues; consider caveats and contingencies; expand your emotional range.

Teach kids to think again: use myth-busting discussions; suggest kids do multiple drafts and seek feedback.

Create learning organizations: abandon best practices [I have problems with this. This should be part of continuing research]; establish psychological safety; track different options. Stay open to rethinking your future: actions over surroundings; life checkups.