Q: What are the key modes of thinking that drive our values and beliefs?
[Adam Grant]: Two decades ago, I read a brilliant paper by Phil Tetlock, who introduced me to this idea of thinking like a preacher, a prosecutor or a politician. Once I’d gotten that framework into my head, I couldn’t let it go. I saw it everywhere… I saw it in my own thinking… in other people’s thinking… I saw it in the way we communicate.
The basic idea is that when you’re preaching, you’re trying to proselytise to other people and defend your sacred beliefs. When you’re prosecuting, you’re trying to win an argument which means you’re going to have to prove the other side wrong. My big worry is when we’re locked into a preacher or prosecutor mindset, we’re not willing to question our own assumptions and opinions… if I’m right, and you’re wrong, then I get to stand still, and you are the one who needs to change. In politicianmode, things are a little more flexible. In that mode, I’m trying to win the approval of an audience – and that means I’m going to lobby or campaign. I might say things you want to hear, but I might not be actually changing what I really think or- if I do- I might be doing it to appease my tribe rather than to find the truth.
Q: How do we hold our own values with healthy scepticism?
[Adam Grant]: There’s a time and a place to be a preacher, prosecutor or politician. If you have an audience that’s receptive to your ideas- or at least open minded– there’s no reason why you can’t be enthusiastic or hypercritical of something you think is snake-oil… or to make sure that you understand what they want to hear to make sure you’re speaking their language… that’s not always nefarious.
Where things become problematic is when we start to get attached to ideas that have never made sense or are no longer true. It’s also problematic when you’re dealing with an audience who are resistant to ideas that you’re putting forward. When those conditions are present, we need to rethink our instinct to preach, prosecute or politic and instead think more like scientists. I’m not saying you have to walk around wearing a lab-coat and carrying a microscope, but rather that adopting a scientific mindset means that you are concerned with the truth most so than trying to achieve something. I think about a scientist as somebody who has the humility and curiosity to know what they don’t know and to doubt some of their existing conventions as they try to discover new information. The scientist mindset says, I will not let my ideas become an ideology. In this mode of thinking, when I start to form an opinion, I should treat it as a hypothesis before doing some observations or experiments to test it. I should be just as excited to find out I was wrong as to prove I am right. Perhaps I should be even more excited about being wrong, because if I am always proving myself right, I’m just affirming my beliefs and not evolving them… and that’s not learning at all, is it?
Q: How can we apply a better understanding of our values and beliefs?
[Adam Grant]: I’ve wasted many hours trying to change people’s values as opposed to just reframing the ideas that I’m excited about in terms of values they already hold. To start, we have to find out what the principles and values are which hold the greatest importance to the person we are conversing with. This comes out of the psychology of motivational interviewing where a counselling psychologist will often deal with people who are facing addiction and try to guide them towards overcoming that addiction. It’s not the right approach to tell the client what to do… to preach at them… or prosecute them…. What they’ll often do is say, ‘OK, you’ve come to talk to me today, what are your goals? What are your values? What are you trying to accomplish?’ The client may say something like, ‘well, I’d really like to live a life where substance abuse doesn’t damage my relationships…’ Most of us would have the natural instinct to say, ‘well, why haven’t you quit yet?’ – but a motivational interviewer would say, ‘….it’s not my place to tell you whether you should be quitting alcohol or drugs or not, but can you help me understand the consequences that your addiction has had on your life? And help me understand the kind of changes you are considering and why?’ – This approach allows the person to look at their own values, share those with you, and then find their own motivations than change. It’s a lot more effective than ramming your reasons for change down their throat!