Adam Grant: Why rethinking our ideas means we're growing It's easy to stick to our beliefs and much harder to accept views that contradict them. But psychologist Adam Grant argues that rethinking our ideas is good for us—we might even come to enjoy it.

Adam Grant: Why rethinking our ideas means we're growing

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, changing our minds.

OK, so let's talk about rethinking our ideas, our principles. Adam, what have you found? Is it good for us? Can it even make us happy?

ADAM GRANT: Well, Manoush, I don't think that rethinking always makes you happy, but failing to think again is a recipe for misery. I can't tell you how many students I've had, for example, who decide, you know, like at age 3 1/2, I must be a doctor or a lawyer. And they don't bother to question that until they're long through med school or law school. They're like, but I hate this, but this is my identity.

I think they're really misunderstanding what it means to think again, right? So changing your mind does not mean you've abandoned your principles. It means you've evolved - or the world around you has evolved.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: This is Adam Grant. He's an organizational psychologist.

GRANT: And I host the TED podcast "WorkLife."

ZOMORODI: Adam has written many books on human behavior. His latest is called "Think Again," and it's something that he has struggled with himself.

GRANT: You know, I've had a hard time with (laughter) admitting I'm wrong pretty much my whole life.

ZOMORODI: No.

GRANT: I think I've gotten better at it recently. I hope. Although, I might be wrong about that.

(LAUGHTER)

GRANT: So, you know, I think - Manoush, I have these memories. Like, I remember being on the phone with my best friend. I think it was a commercial during "Seinfeld," and we were arguing about a movie quote. I knew I was right, so I played the tape. I had it on a VHS tape. I played the tape, and I was wrong.

ZOMORODI: Oh.

GRANT: And I couldn't believe it, and I couldn't admit it. And finally, he said, shut up, Adam. I won't talk to you until you admit you're wrong. And then he hung up on me. And I think that was the beginning of my journey to try to figure out, why is it so hard to rethink our opinions and our convictions?

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

GRANT: And, you know, fast forward a couple decades, I wrote a book about it.

ZOMORODI: Here's Adam Grant in his TED talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GRANT: You might have heard that if you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it'll jump out right away. But if you put it in lukewarm water and then slowly heat it up, the frog won't survive. The frog's big problem is that it lacks the ability to rethink the situation. It doesn't realize that the warm bath is becoming a death trap until it's too late.

Humans might be smarter than frogs, but our world is full of slow-boiling pots. Think about how slow people were to react to warnings about a pandemic, climate change or a democracy in peril. We fail to recognize the danger because we're reluctant to rethink the situation.

Rethinking isn't a hurdle in every part of our lives. We're happy to refresh our wardrobes and renovate our kitchens. But when it comes to our goals, identities and habits, we tend to stick to our guns. And in a rapidly changing world, that's a huge problem.

ZOMORODI: I mean, we think about today and we think, oh, well, when you stick to your belief and ideas, that means you stand for something or you have a spine. You're not a flip-flopper.

GRANT: Well, I think the problem is people confuse flip-flopping with rethinking, right? Flip-flopping is changing your mind because it's convenient; or not even changing your mind, you know, just telling people what they want to hear without reconsidering what you really think. So when people flip-flop, they're thinking like politicians. They're saying whatever they need to say to appease an audience.

You know, Manoush, one of my biggest frustrations is with the amount of time that I have spent, and also that a lot of people spend, thinking like preachers, prosecutors and politicians. So originally, this research goes back a couple decades. Basically, when you're in preacher mode, you're defending a view that you already hold. When you're in prosecutor mode, you're attacking somebody else's views. And when you're in politician mode, you only listen to people if they already agree with your views.

All three of those mindsets can make it hard to think again because you've concluded that you're right and other people are wrong. So they might need to open their minds, but your cognitive work is done.

And I think one of the most interesting explorations of these tendencies happened in a study back in the late 1950s. There was a psychologist. His name was Henry Murray. And Henry Murray was one of the great personality psychologists of his time.

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ZOMORODI: Murray was a researcher at Harvard who was interested in something that he called stressful interpersonal disputation.

GRANT: Which is essentially, if you have not just an argument with someone, but you really feel like your worldview is threatened, how do you deal with that?

ZOMORODI: So Murray designed an experiment. The subjects were 22 Harvard sophomores.

GRANT: He actually handpicks them based on a range of psychological profiles he's interested in to participate in these experiments that would go all the way through college.

ZOMORODI: And if you're one of these students, for the first month, you answer some questions, you take some tests; basically write out your philosophy of life.

GRANT: You wax poetic about your guiding principles, your core values, your deepest-held beliefs. And that's a great way to get people into the mindset of preaching - right?

ZOMORODI: Right.

GRANT: ...The virtues of their existing opinions and being ready to prosecute anyone who disagrees.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRANT: And then after that month, you show up to submit your portrait of you, essentially, and you're told you're going to be paired with another student who's gone through the same exercise. And you'll each get, I don't know, maybe a day or two to read, and then you're going to have a filmed debate about your worldviews.

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ZOMORODI: But there's a catch.

GRANT: You don't know that the other student is actually a law student who's in cahoots with Henry Murray and his colleagues, and he has been trained to spend 18 minutes just demolishing your worldview. It's brutal.

ZOMORODI: OK, wait. When you say demolishing your worldview - basically saying, like, here's what you think, and here's why it's wrong kind of thing?

GRANT: Yes.

ZOMORODI: Like, that's what we're talking about?

GRANT: Yeah. So I come in as the law student, and I say, you know, Manoush, I read your worldview; it reads like it was written by a 6-year-old.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

GRANT: Your beliefs are completely contradictory. I think your morals are, you know, completely out of whack. And let me tell you why several of the beliefs that you claim or are core to who you are are ignorant and stupid, and you should be - like, how did you get into Harvard?

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ZOMORODI: Wow, OK. So how did these poor young students respond?

GRANT: Most of them did not like it, Manoush. They did not like it.

ZOMORODI: No.

GRANT: One of the students said he felt unabating rage.

(LAUGHTER)

GRANT: There was another who said, quote, "they've deceived me, telling me there was going to be a discussion when, in fact, there was an attack. How could they have done this to me? What is the point of this?"

ZOMORODI: That's how I would have responded.

GRANT: Yeah. So this - I mean, this is just a devastating thing to put a teenager through, let alone any human. But here's the crazy part. A few of the participants liked it.

ZOMORODI: Liked it? How could you possibly like that?

GRANT: You read through some of these transcripts, and one participant looking back basically said, quote, "it was highly agreeable."

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

GRANT: There was another who said it was fun - quote, "fun."

ZOMORODI: What? (Laughter) OK, so - but what is the point of all of this? Like, what does that kind of weirdly positive reaction say about these students?

GRANT: I mean, I think there were some participants in this experiment who felt like the highest form of learning was to have somebody, you know, really hold up a mirror and help them see all their own blind spots so that they could learn to see a little bit more clearly. Real intellectual chemistry exists not when you agree with someone but when you enjoy your disagreements with them.

ZOMORODI: OK, I have to say that this study gives me a little bit of a stomachache...

GRANT: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: ...Because I do think - and the reason being is I think if you come to a place where you feel quite certain about your ideas or you find arguing about core beliefs fun, you are coming from a place where you feel pretty secure in your place in the world, in your intellectualism, in your right to be in that room, right? We're talking about 1950s white dudes at Harvard. And now, I think we're at this place where we are trying to figure out - how do we have these conversations where we challenge each other about our beliefs when there are some people who have never been asked what their beliefs are or other people who will resort to violence if you question their beliefs? Or I hear a lot of conversations where there is no argument because that's considered to be unkind, and we're in a world where a lot of people are talking about kindness and bringing people into a conversation.

GRANT: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: It's hard, right? Like, we're at a moment where we're really struggling to make people feel good about having their ideas challenged.

GRANT: I think that's true. I might quibble, though, with one of the premises.

ZOMORODI: OK, and I'm open to that. Go ahead.

GRANT: I don't think you always have to be intellectually secure, you know, to be open minded. You just have to be curious and humble, right? You have to know that you don't know everything, and you have to want to learn more. But I guess that requires you then to not make your ideas your identity.

ZOMORODI: Yes.

GRANT: That's a huge part of what thinking like a scientist is about, right? When I say, think like a scientist, sometimes people think, oh, wait, so I have to go buy a microscope or own a telescope. No. For me, thinking like a scientist is about not letting your ideas become your identity, saying what I believe is not who I am.

ZOMORODI: Right. And I should say that that is one of the main points in your book, that instead of being, like, a preacher, prosecutor or politician, we should think like a scientist. But to me, that could mean I have to come up with a hypothesis, an idea of what I think is right. But then I need to prove it, right?

GRANT: No.

ZOMORODI: No?

GRANT: No, don't do that. Bad.

ZOMORODI: OK, tell me.

GRANT: You definitely want to come up with hypotheses, but then good scientists are as motivated to disprove their hypotheses as they are to support them.

ZOMORODI: Ah, yes.

GRANT: And I think what a scientist is after is actually discovering the truth, not selling it.

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ZOMORODI: There is one person you mentioned who has made this kind of thinking - or rethinking, I should say - a habit. And it really made me chuckle because it's a Nobel Prize winner...

GRANT: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: ...Daniel Kahneman. And I would think that that is someone who is probably right, if not all of the time, then most of the time. But he responds to having his ideas challenged exactly as you just described - kind of like the students in the study, like he enjoys being challenged or even being wrong.

GRANT: Yeah, I had this surprising experience with him a few years ago where I went to give a talk at a conference. I finished the presentation. I got off the stage. I'm walking out, and I see Danny (ph) Kahneman in the audience. And he pulls me aside as I'm walking out, and he says that was wonderful; I was wrong.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WORKLIFE")

DANIEL KAHNEMAN: You know, those are situations in which you're surprised. I've really enjoyed changing my mind because I enjoy being surprised. And I enjoy being surprised because I feel I'm learning something.

ZOMORODI: Adam, you got to interview Danny Kahneman for your podcast. And when he describes that moment of being - realizing he's wrong, it sounds like it brought him so much joy.

GRANT: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: But wait - just to clarify, what was it that he was so wrong about?

GRANT: Oh, it was - I was presenting on my research on givers and takers, and I think he had made a prediction about who was going to be more successful in the short run versus long run, and then the results were different from what he expected.

ZOMORODI: Just like a scientist.

GRANT: Yeah, I mean, he's - right? He has a hypothesis. He finds out the hypothesis is, if not false, at least incomplete. And he's like, wow, this is a moment of discovery.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "WORKLIFE")

KAHNEMAN: I have never thought that ideas are rare. So being less identified with your ideas is also associated, I think, with having many of them, discovering that most of them are no good and trying to do the best you can with the few that are good.

GRANT: I think the mindset that Danny brings to the table as a scientist is really different, right? The joy of engaging with this kind of interpersonal and intellectual challenge is not that I get to win and make you lose; it's that we're both going to discover something. And that's really shifted the way that I deal with some of the most heated conversations in my life and sometimes even online.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

GRANT: I - you know, every once in a while, someone will say, well, let's just agree to disagree.

ZOMORODI: What do you think of that?

GRANT: I don't believe in that. If you say, let's agree to disagree, you're giving up. You're saying, we are incapable of having a thoughtful discussion about this issue. And so when someone says, let's agree to disagree, I know it's time to stop arguing to win and start asking questions to learn. And I'll ask, where did I lose you? (Laughter). Where did this conversation go off the rails? What could I have done differently? And recognize that - I don't know what would change your mind. I'm really curious to find out. And the best thing I can do then is try to help you find your own reasons for change.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRANT: So I did this with a friend who's strongly opposed to vaccines.

ZOMORODI: Oh, wow.

GRANT: Yeah. A couple years ago, I swore that we would never talk about vaccines again. I was worried that it was going to damage our friendship. And, you know, I thought he was being stubborn and pigheaded. He thought I was being naive and Pollyanna and gullible. And those are generally not good perceptions, you know, to sustain a 30-year friendship, right?

(LAUGHTER)

GRANT: But then COVID happened, and I decided that, you know, as someone who cares about him and his family, I owed it to them to at least see if he was open to the possibility. You know, I'm not someone who thinks that every newborn should get every vaccine ever developed, but it seemed like the best way out of this pandemic, according to science that I had read.

Let me just start by saying, he has not gotten vaccinated, nor have his children. But I had a much better conversation with him than I had ever had before, and all I did was - I went into the discussion, and I said, I'm really curious. What are the odds that you'll get a COVID vaccine in your lifetime? And he said, it's got to be pretty low. I was stunned, and I was like, what? I thought you were going to say zero. What do you mean, pretty low? And he said, well, no. You always have to weigh the pros and the cons. I mean, if I were 80 years old, I wouldn't be worried about long-term risks. You know, if there's a variant that has a 100% fatality rate and is highly transmissible, you know, of course, you go for it.

And what was so powerful for me about that conversation was for the first time in the three decades that I've known him, he committed to at least being open to rethinking. And, you know, all of a sudden I didn't see him as an anti-vaxxer, and he didn't see me as a preacher or a prosecutor.

ZOMORODI: Right.

GRANT: So I think that's what I'm looking for more of. When somebody starts to launch an assault on your worldview, it's not that difficult to ask, like, how did you arrive at that view? I'm really curious. Or I've never heard this perspective before. Was there a time when you didn't hold it? I think as people reflect on those questions, they're a little bit more likely to recognize that their beliefs are malleable and that also you're probably more than your worst opinion.

ZOMORODI: You're externalizing the topic. You're sticking to the topic and not whether you're a good or bad person for thinking what you do, which I have to say brings me back to your story, Adam, when you were a teenager and you were so sure that you remembered this movie quote correctly. And to me, it sounded like you were embarrassed, like you dug in even more because you wanted to save face. But now I think you're saying, like, let's just take that element of shame out of the equation.

GRANT: At least in the short run. Yeah, I think (laughter) the goals are really different. The goal is not to prove myself; it's to improve myself. And we know that it takes curiosity to learn. What we forget is that it takes courage to unlearn. So I guess what I - what I'm hoping people will do is realize if learning is how you evolve, unlearning is how you keep up as the world evolves. I want to keep having versions of myself that look back and say, I am much wiser than I was before, and that requires a balance of knowing that the information you have today is probably more accurate and more likely to be true than what you had yesterday but also knowing that it's always incomplete and that tomorrow you're probably going to discover something new.

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ZOMORODI: That's organizational psychologist Adam Grant. He's a professor at the Wharton School of Business. His book is "Think Again." And he hosts the TED podcast "WorkLife" with Adam Grant. Oh, and back to that saying about the frog slowly boiling to death? Turns out it's a myth. Adam says they jump out of the pot as soon as it gets too hot. We humans just haven't bothered to rethink that old story.

On the show today, Changing Our Minds. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

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