Think Again

The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

I heard good things, so I picked this up at our local library on that impulse. It's pretty good. I'm not sure how much new stuff I learned, but it was an entertaining and interesting read.

Adam Grant's overarching thesis is the benefit of maintaining an open mind, the better to avoid the horrors of the well-known paths to error: confirmation bias ("seeing what we expect to see") and desirability bias ("seeing what we want to see"). And it's not just having an open mind, but an active open mind: always checking our belief systems for holes, not just wondering if we're wrong, but searching for ways we could be wrong. Specifically, avoiding yet another bias: what he calls the "I'm not biased" bias.

Sounds exhausting for someone at my age, but …

Early on, Grant distinguishes four models of thought, and you can guess their characteristics by the labels he sticks on them: the Preacher, the Prosecutor, the Politician, and the Scientist. We should hit the Scientist model more often, Grant says. And it's hard to disagree, especially in these days when actual scientists sometimes don't think like scientists. (Grant's example here is Einstein, who famously dissented from the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Which is kind of a bad rap, when Einstein's objections caused decades of tough-minded research into QM foundations, and arguably opened the door to quantum computing, networking, cryptography,…)

Grant takes this simple idea, and applies it in various manifestations; basically, everywhere hard thinking is required: handling your career trajectory; educating the kiddos; engineering the workplace to be friendlier to innovation and flexibility; how to be a better debater on contentious issues; and more.

Grant does a lot of TED-talking, and it shows here: there are many anecdotes, graphs, cartoons, PowerPoint slides, … Many very funny.

But one anecdote wasn't funny at all: the story of a "wildly unethical" study carried out by a psychologist on Harvard students in the 1950s, where they were subjected to verbal attacks on their cherished beliefs. One of the victimized subjects, dubbed "Lawful", only became more convinced in his odd opinions, and Grant goes on to quote from Lawful's later "magnum opus" (page 60) to demonstrate.

Hm. Magnum opus? That sent me to the references at the back of the book, and… ohmigod, is Grant not really gonna reveal "Lawful's" identity?

Never fear, though: a dozen or so pages later, Lawful is unmasked. That's the kind of dramatic reveal that makes your TED talk punchy.