Introducing HxA’s new “What We’re Reading” series, where we chat with authors about their thought-provoking work on issues around viewpoint diversity, constructive disagreement, and open inquiry.
Today’s exchange is with Adam Grant, organizational psychologist at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and host of the TED podcast WorkLife, about his new book, the #1 New York Times bestseller, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know (2021). Think Again examines the critical art of learning to question your opinions and open other people’s minds.
Q. Adam, can you give us the one-paragraph elevator pitch of your book?
A. We get ourselves in trouble by thinking too much like preachers, prosecutors, and politicians. In preacher mode, we’re determined to defend our own views. In prosecutor mode, we focus on attacking someone else’s views. In politician mode, we only listen to people if they share our views. The risk is that we become so wrapped up in preaching, prosecuting, and politicking that we don’t bother to rethink our opinions. We’re better off in scientist mode. Thinking like a scientist doesn’t mean you need to own a telescope or buy a microscope. It means you don’t let your ideas become your identity. You listen to the views that make you think hard, not just the ones that make you feel good.
Q. Why did you decide to write a book about the value of rethinking?
A. We live in a polarized world where calcified opinions are standing in the way of progress. It’s high time that we learn how to find joy in being wrong, have productive disagreements, and build communities that prize truth over tribe.
Q. We love the practical tips you offer at the end of your book (called “actions for impact”). If you had to share three takeaway practical applications of your book to our audience, what would they be?
A. One: Stop asking kids what they want to be when they grow up. It pushes them to define their identities in terms of work, and to foreclose too soon on a single career. Let’s teach them that they don’t have to be one thing — they can do many things.
Two: Challenge students to rewrite a section of their textbook. It prevents them from accepting information uncritically and encourages them to question what they learn.
Three: Hold a weekly myth-busting discussion. It’s a fun way to encourage students (and teachers) to embrace the joy of being wrong.
Q. Relatedly, how can professors and students best harness rethinking?
A. One of my favorite assignments in my own class is to have students rethink something they’ve learned in class. They work in pairs to find relevant evidence and record a mini podcast episode or mini TED Talk. In several cases, it has led me to evolve what I teach the following year.
Q. How do you create a culture of healthy disagreement in the classroom, especially regarding controversial topics that students hold close to their hearts?
A. Drop what you’re doing and read Amanda Ripley’s book High Conflict.
Q. To what extent do you think ideological homogeneity prevents our ability to rethink our assumptions?
A. I see ideological homogeneity as part of the problem, but I think ideological conviction is equally to blame. We don’t just need more diversity of thought; we also need thoughts to be less extreme and less entrenched. When you let your ideas become your identity, you’re making a choice to close your mind and stop learning. A friend accused me recently of having an anti-ideology ideology, and I took it as a compliment.
Q. As the saying goes, “Birds of feather flock together.” How do we prevent our natural inclinations to avoid people who think and act differently from us, and to move toward people who share our assumptions and ideals, especially in the context of making decisions such as departmental hiring, promotion, etc?
A. In hiring and promotions, instead of focusing only on cultural fit, consider cultural contribution. Fit is important on your 3-5 core values — your non-negotiable guiding principles, like integrity, care, and safety. Beyond those values, rather than trying to replicate your existing culture, you’re better off asking what’s missing from your culture and striving to hire and promote people who enrich it.
Q. Here is a question from one of our members: I would like Adam to comment on how “rethinking” can be placed in a wider civilizational context. Specifically, I have in mind Joseph Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World. Doesn’t “rethinking” involve a “mentality” (individualistic orientation, openness to new experience, openness to new ideas, analytical reasoning) that is supported and cultivated by institutions like science, universalistic value systems, markets, and political democracy that are unique to a WEIRD society? But, it is clear that there are forces operating in WEIRD societies that can work against a rethinking mentality. The interplay of “mentality” and “institutions” is critically important. Does Adam have any thoughts on this issue?
A. I love the idea of examining institutional influences on rethinking. I think you’re right that science, free markets, democracy, and universalism are likely to both promote openness and facilitate the expression of preexisting openness. As a psychologist, I’m no expert on these macro forces — I defer to political scientists and sociologists.
That said, I’m intrigued by the idea of testing systems that allow people to gain status for pursuing the truth and changing their minds in the face of compelling evidence. In schools, what if we scored students on how quickly they admitted it when they were wrong? On social media, what if we had independent panels give credibility scores, with points awarded for updating opinions as new data emerge?