by Adam Grant
When people reflect on what it takes to be mentally fit, the first idea that comes to mind is usually intelligence. The smarter you are, the more complex the problems you can solve—and the faster you can solve them. Intelligence is traditionally viewed as the ability to think and learn. Yet in a turbulent world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn. Imagine that you’ve just finished taking a multiple-choice test, and you start to second-guess one of your answers. You have some extra time—should you stick with your first instinct or change it? About three quarters of students are convinced that revising their answer will hurt their score. Kaplan, the big test-prep company, once warned students to “exercise great caution if you decide to change an answer. Experience indicates that many students who change answers change to the wrong answer.” With all due respect to the lessons of experience, I prefer the rigor of evidence. When a trio of psychologists conducted a comprehensive review of thirty-three studies, they found that in every one, the majority of answer revisions were from wrong to right. This phenomenon is known as the first-instinct fallacy.
We don’t just hesitate to rethink our answers. We hesitate at the very idea of rethinking.
Part of the problem is cognitive laziness. Some psychologists point out that we’re mental misers: we often prefer the ease of hanging on to old views over the difficulty of grappling with new ones. Yet there are also deeper forces behind our resistance to rethinking. Questioning ourselves makes the world more unpredictable. It requires us to admit that the facts may have changed, that what was once right may now be wrong. Reconsidering something we believe deeply can threaten our identities, making it feel as if we’re losing a part of ourselves.
We favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt, and we let our beliefs get brittle long before our bones. We laugh at people who still use Windows 95, yet we still cling to opinions that we formed in 1995. We listen to views that make us feel good, instead of ideas that make us think hard.
A hallmark of wisdom is knowing when it’s time to abandon some of your most treasured tools—and some of the most cherished parts of your identity.
We’re swift to recognize when other people need to think again. We question the judgment of experts whenever we seek out a second opinion on a medical diagnosis. Unfortunately, when it comes to our own knowledge and opinions, we often favor feeling right over being right. In everyday life, we make many diagnoses of our own, ranging from whom we hire to whom we marry. We need to develop the habit of forming our own second opinions.
Two decades ago my colleague Phil Tetlock discovered something peculiar. As we think and talk, we often slip into the mindsets of three different professions: preachers, prosecutors, and politicians. In each of these modes, we take on a particular identity and use a distinct set of tools. We go into preacher mode when our sacred beliefs are in jeopardy: we deliver sermons to protect and promote our ideals. We enter prosecutor mode when we recognize flaws in other people’s reasoning: we marshal arguments to prove them wrong and win our case. We shift into politician mode when we’re seeking to win over an audience: we campaign and lobby for the approval of our constituents. The risk is that we become so wrapped up in preaching that we’re right, prosecuting others who are wrong, and politicking for support that we don’t bother to rethink our own 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. You’re expected to doubt what you know, be curious about what you don’t know, and update your views based on new data.
Research reveals that the higher you score on an IQ test, the more likely you are to fall for stereotypes, because you’re faster at recognizing patterns. And recent experiments suggest that the smarter you are, the more you might struggle to update your beliefs.
In psychology there are at least two biases that drive this pattern. One is confirmation bias: seeing what we expect to see. The other is desirability bias: seeing what we want to see. These biases don’t just prevent us from applying our intelligence. They can actually contort our intelligence into a weapon against the truth. We find reasons to preach our faith more deeply, prosecute our case more passionately, and ride the tidal wave of our political party. The tragedy is that we’re usually unaware of the resulting flaws in our thinking.
Research shows that when people are resistant to change, it helps to reinforce what will stay the same. Visions for change are more compelling when they include visions of continuity. Although our strategy might evolve, our identity will endure.
In theory, confidence and competence go hand in hand. In practice, they often diverge. You can see it when people rate their own leadership skills and are also evaluated by their colleagues, supervisors, or subordinates. In a meta-analysis of ninety-five studies involving over a hundred thousand people, women typically underestimated their leadership skills, while men overestimated their skills.
They found that in many situations, those who can’t . . . don’t know they can’t. According to what’s now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, it’s when we lack competence that we’re most likely to be brimming with overconfidence.
As Dunning quips, “The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.”
If we’re certain that we know something, we have no reason to look for gaps and flaws in our knowledge—let alone fill or correct them. In one study, the people who scored the lowest on an emotional intelligence test weren’t just the most likely to overestimate their skills. They were also the most likely to dismiss their scores as inaccurate or irrelevant—and the least likely to invest in coaching or self-improvement.
It’s when we progress from novice to amateur that we become overconfident. A bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. In too many domains of our lives, we never gain enough expertise to question our opinions or discover what we don’t know. We have just enough information to feel self-assured about making pronouncements and passing judgment, failing to realize that we’ve climbed to the top of Mount Stupid without making it over to the other side.
What he lacked is a crucial nutrient for the mind: humility. The antidote to getting stuck on Mount Stupid is taking a regular dose of it. “Arrogance is ignorance plus conviction,” blogger Tim Urban explains. “While humility is a permeable filter that absorbs life experience and converts it into knowledge and wisdom, arrogance is a rubber shield that life experience simply bounces off of.”
What we want to attain is confident humility: having faith in our capability while appreciating that we may not have the right solution or even be addressing the right problem. That gives us enough doubt to reexamine our old knowledge and enough confidence to pursue new insights.
From time to time, though, a less crippling sense of doubt waltzes into many of our minds. Some surveys suggest that more than half the people you know have felt like impostors at some point in their careers. It’s thought to be especially common among women and marginalized groups. Strangely, it also seems to be particularly pronounced among high achievers.
Plenty of evidence suggests that confidence is just as often the result of progress as the cause of it. We don’t have to wait for our confidence to rise to achieve challenging goals. We can build it through achieving challenging goals. “I have come to welcome impostor syndrome as a good thing: it’s fuel to do more, try more,” Halla says. “I’ve learned to use it to my advantage. I actually thrive on the growth that comes from the self-doubt.”
In a classic paper, sociologist Murray Davis argued that when ideas survive, it’s not because they’re true—it’s because they’re interesting. What makes an idea interesting is that it challenges our weakly held opinions.
“Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses,” journalist Elizabeth Kolbert writes, but “the positions we’re blind about are our own.”
he genuinely enjoys discovering that he was wrong, because it means he is now less wrong than before.
He’s a scientist devoted to the truth. When I asked him how he stays in that mode, he said he refuses to let his beliefs become part of his identity. “I change my mind at a speed that drives my collaborators crazy,” he explained. “My attachment to my ideas is provisional. There’s no unconditional love for them.”
Most of us are accustomed to defining ourselves in terms of our beliefs, ideas, and ideologies. This can become a problem when it prevents us from changing our minds as the world changes and knowledge evolves. Our opinions can become so sacred that we grow hostile to the mere thought of being wrong, and the totalitarian ego leaps in to silence counterarguments, squash contrary evidence, and close the door on learning. Who you are should be a question of what you value, not what you believe. Values are your core principles in life—they might be excellence and generosity, freedom and fairness, or security and integrity. Basing your identity on these kinds of principles enables you to remain open-minded about the best ways to advance them. You want the doctor whose identity is protecting health, the teacher whose identity is helping students learn, and the police chief whose identity is promoting safety and justice. When they define themselves by values rather than opinions, they buy themselves the flexibility to update their practices in light of new evidence.
The single most important driver of forecasters’ success was how often they updated their beliefs. The best forecasters went through more rethinking cycles. They had the confident humility to doubt their judgments and the curiosity to discover new information that led them to revise their predictions.
That was a common mistake in 2016. Countless experts, pollsters, and pundits underestimated Trump—and Brexit—because they were too emotionally invested in their past predictions and identities. If you want to be a better forecaster today, it helps to let go of your commitment to the opinions you held yesterday. Just wake up in the morning, snap your fingers, and decide you don’t care. It doesn’t matter who’s president or what happens to your country. The world is unjust and the expertise you spent decades developing is obsolete! It’s a piece of cake, right? About as easy as willing yourself to fall out of love. Somehow, Jean-Pierre Beugoms managed to pull it off.
If we’re insecure, we make fun of others. If we’re comfortable being wrong, we’re not afraid to poke fun at ourselves. Laughing at ourselves reminds us that although we might take our decisions seriously, we don’t have to take ourselves too seriously. Research suggests that the more frequently we make fun of ourselves, the happier we tend to be.
What forecasters do in tournaments is good practice in life. When you form an opinion, ask yourself what would have to happen to prove it false. Then keep track of your views so you can see when you were right, when you were wrong, and how your thinking has evolved.
Andrew Lyne is not alone. Psychologists find that admitting we were wrong doesn’t make us look less competent. It’s a display of honesty and a willingness to learn. Although scientists believe it will damage their reputation to admit that their studies failed to replicate, the reverse is true: they’re judged more favorably if they acknowledge the new data rather than deny them. After all, it doesn’t matter “whose fault it is that something is broken if it’s your responsibility to fix it,” actor Will Smith has said. “Taking responsibility is taking your power back.”
Relationship conflict is destructive in part because it stands in the way of rethinking. When a clash gets personal and emotional, we become self-righteous preachers of our own views, spiteful prosecutors of the other side, or single-minded politicians who dismiss opinions that don’t come from our side. Task conflict can be constructive when it brings diversity of thought, preventing us from getting trapped in overconfidence cycles. It can help us stay humble, surface doubts, and make us curious about what we might be missing. That can lead us to think again, moving us closer to the truth without damaging our relationships.
We learn more from people who challenge our thought process than those who affirm our conclusions. Strong leaders engage their critics and make themselves stronger. Weak leaders silence their critics and make themselves weaker. This reaction isn’t limited to people in power. Although we might be on board with the principle, in practice we often miss out on the value of a challenge network.
Agreeableness is about seeking social harmony, not cognitive consensus. It’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable. Although I’m terrified of hurting other people’s feelings, when it comes to challenging their thoughts, I have no fear. In fact, when I argue with someone, it’s not a display of disrespect—it’s a sign of respect. It means I value their views enough to contest them. If their opinions didn’t matter to me, I wouldn’t bother. I know I have chemistry with someone when we find it delightful to prove each other wrong.
Experiments show that simply framing a dispute as a debate rather than as a disagreement signals that you’re receptive to considering dissenting opinions and changing your mind, which in turn motivates the other person to share more information with you. A disagreement feels personal and potentially hostile; we expect a debate to be about ideas, not emotions. Starting a disagreement by asking, “Can we debate?” sends a message that you want to think like a scientist, not a preacher or a prosecutor—and encourages the other person to think that way, too.
A good debate is not a war. It’s not even a tug-of-war, where you can drag your opponent to your side if you pull hard enough on the rope. It’s more like a dance that hasn’t been choreographed, negotiated with a partner who has a different set of steps in mind. If you try too hard to lead, your partner will resist. If you can adapt your moves to hers, and get her to do the same, you’re more likely to end up in rhythm.
In a war, our goal is to gain ground rather than lose it, so we’re often afraid to surrender a few battles. In a negotiation, agreeing with someone else’s argument is disarming. The experts recognized that in their dance they couldn’t stand still and expect the other person to make all the moves. To get in harmony, they needed to step back from time to time.
Most people think of arguments as being like a pair of scales: the more reasons we can pile up on our side, the more it will tip the balance in our favor. Yet the experts did the exact opposite: They actually presented fewer reasons to support their case. They didn’t want to water down their best points. As Rackham put it, “A weak argument generally dilutes a strong one.”
We won’t have much luck changing other people’s minds if we refuse to change ours. We can demonstrate openness by acknowledging where we agree with our critics and even what we’ve learned from them. Then, when we ask what views they might be willing to revise, we’re not hypocrites.
Research suggests that the effectiveness of these approaches hinges on three key factors: how much people care about the issue, how open they are to our particular argument, and how strong-willed they are in general. If they’re not invested in the issue or they’re receptive to our perspective, more reasons can help: people tend to see quantity as a sign of quality. The more the topic matters to them, the more the quality of reasons matters. It’s when audiences are skeptical of our view, have a stake in the issue, and tend to be stubborn that piling on justifications is most likely to backfire. If they’re resistant to rethinking, more reasons simply give them more ammunition to shoot our views down.
When someone becomes hostile, if you respond by viewing the argument as a war, you can either attack or retreat. If instead you treat it as a dance, you have another option—you can sidestep. Having a conversation about the conversation shifts attention away from the substance of the disagreement and toward the process for having a dialogue. The more anger and hostility the other person expresses, the more curiosity and interest you show. When someone is losing control, your tranquility is a sign of strength. It takes the wind out of their emotional sails. It’s pretty rare for someone to respond by screaming “SCREAMING IS MY PREFERRED MODE OF COMMUNICATION!”
Research shows that in courtrooms, expert witnesses and deliberating jurors are more credible and more persuasive when they express moderate confidence, rather than high or low confidence.
there’s evidence that people are more interested in hiring candidates who acknowledge legitimate weaknesses as opposed to bragging or humblebragging.
We might as well get credit for having the humility to look for them, the foresight to spot them, and the integrity to acknowledge them. By emphasizing a small number of core strengths, Michele avoided argument dilution, focusing attention on her strongest points. And by showing curiosity about times the team had been wrong, she may have motivated them to rethink their criteria. They realized that they weren’t looking for a set of skills and credentials—they were looking to hire a human being with the motivation and ability to learn.
In every human society, people are motivated to seek belonging and status. Identifying with a group checks both boxes at the same time: we become part of a tribe, and we take pride when our tribe wins. In classic studies on college campuses, psychologists found that after their team won a football game, students were more likely to walk around wearing school swag. From Arizona State to Notre Dame to USC, students basked in the reflected glory of Saturday victories, donning team shirts and hats and jackets on Sunday. If their team lost, they shunned school apparel, and distanced themselves by saying “they lost” instead of “we lost.” Some economists and finance experts have even found that the stock market rises if a country’s soccer team wins World Cup matches and falls if they lose.
Once we’ve formed those kinds of stereotypes, for both mental and social reasons it’s hard to undo them. Psychologist George Kelly observed that our beliefs are like pairs of reality goggles. We use them to make sense of the world and navigate our surroundings. A threat to our opinions cracks our goggles, leaving our vision blurred. It’s only natural to put up our guard in response—and Kelly noticed that we become especially hostile when trying to defend opinions that we know, deep down, are false. Rather than trying on a different pair of goggles, we become mental contortionists, twisting and turning until we find an angle of vision that keeps our current views intact.
In an ideal world, learning about individual group members will humanize the group, but often getting to know a person better just establishes her as different from the rest of her group. When we meet group members who defy a stereotype, our first instinct isn’t to see them as exemplars and rethink the stereotype. It’s to see them as exceptions and cling to our existing beliefs.
In ancient Greece, Plutarch wrote of a wooden ship that Theseus sailed from Crete to Athens. To preserve the ship, as its old planks decayed, Athenians would replace them with new wood. Eventually all the planks had been replaced. It looked like the same ship, but none of its parts was the same. Was it still the same ship? Later, philosophers added a wrinkle: if you collected all the original planks and fashioned them into a ship, would that be the same ship?
We found that it was thinking about the arbitrariness of their animosity—not the positive qualities of their rival—that mattered. Regardless of whether they generated reasons to like their rivals, fans showed less hostility when they reflected on how silly the rivalry was. Knowing what it felt like to be disliked for ridiculous reasons helped them see that this conflict had real implications, that hatred for opposing fans isn’t all fun and games.
In psychology, counterfactual thinking involves imagining how the circumstances of our lives could have unfolded differently. When we realize how easily we could have held different stereotypes, we might be more willing to update our views.* To activate counterfactual thinking, you might ask people questions like: How would your stereotypes be different if you’d been born Black, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American? What opinions would you hold if you’d been raised on a farm versus in a city, or in a culture on the other side of the world? What beliefs would you cling to if you lived in the 1700s?
Psychologists find that many of our beliefs are cultural truisms: widely shared, but rarely questioned. If we take a closer look at them, we often discover that they rest on shaky foundations. Stereotypes don’t have the structural integrity of a carefully built ship. They’re more like a tower in the game of Jenga—teetering on a small number of blocks, with some key supports missing. To knock it over, sometimes all we need to do is give it a poke. The hope is that people will rise to the occasion and build new beliefs on a stronger foundation.
Motivational interviewing starts with an attitude of humility and curiosity. We don’t know what might motivate someone else to change, but we’re genuinely eager to find out. The goal isn’t to tell people what to do; it’s to help them break out of overconfidence cycles and see new possibilities. Our role is to hold up a mirror so they can see themselves more clearly, and then empower them to examine their beliefs and behaviors.
The process of motivational interviewing involves three key techniques: Asking open-ended questions Engaging in reflective listening Affirming the person’s desire and ability to change
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. We can all get better at asking “truly curious questions that don’t have the hidden agenda of fixing, saving, advising, convincing or correcting,” journalist Kate Murphy writes, and helping to “facilitate the clear expression of another person’s thoughts.”*
New research suggests that when journalists acknowledge the uncertainties around facts on complex issues like climate change and immigration, it doesn’t undermine their readers’ trust. And multiple experiments have shown that when experts express doubt, they become more persuasive. When someone knowledgeable admits uncertainty, it surprises people, and they end up paying more attention to the substance of the argument.
Evidence shows that if false scientific beliefs aren’t addressed in elementary school, they become harder to change later. “Learning counterintuitive scientific ideas [is] akin to becoming a fluent speaker of a second language,” psychologist Deborah Kelemen writes. It’s “a task that becomes increasingly difficult the longer it is delayed, and one that is almost never achieved with only piecemeal instruction and infrequent practice.” That’s what kids really need: frequent practice at unlearning, especially when it comes to the mechanisms of how cause and effect work.
Lectures aren’t designed to accommodate dialogue or disagreement; they turn students into passive receivers of information rather than active thinkers. In the above meta-analysis, lecturing was especially ineffective in debunking known misconceptions—in leading students to think again. And experiments have shown that when a speaker delivers an inspiring message, the audience scrutinizes the material less carefully and forgets more of the content—even while claiming to remember more of it. Social scientists have called this phenomenon the awestruck effect, but I think it’s better described as the dumbstruck effect. The sage-on-the-stage often preaches new thoughts, but rarely teaches us how to think for ourselves. Thoughtful lecturers might prosecute inaccurate arguments and tell us what to think instead, but they don’t necessarily show us how to rethink moving forward.
I was teaching a semester-long class on organizational behavior for juniors and seniors. When I introduced evidence, I wasn’t giving them the space to rethink it. After years of wrestling with this problem, it dawned on me that I could create a new assignment to teach rethinking. I assigned students to work in small groups to record their own mini-podcasts or mini–TED talks. Their charge was to question a popular practice, to champion an idea that went against the grain of conventional wisdom, or to challenge principles covered in class. As they started working on the project, I noticed a surprising pattern. The students who struggled the most were the straight-A students—the perfectionists. It turns out that although perfectionists are more likely than their peers to ace school, they don’t perform any better than their colleagues at work. This tracks with evidence that, across a wide range of industries, grades are not a strong predictor of job performance.
I believe that good teachers introduce new thoughts, but great teachers introduce new ways of thinking. Collecting a teacher’s knowledge may help us solve the challenges of the day, but understanding how a teacher thinks can help us navigate the challenges of a lifetime. Ultimately, education is more than the information we accumulate in our heads.
Rethinking is more likely to happen in a learning culture, where growth is the core value and rethinking cycles are routine. In learning cultures, the norm is for people to know what they don’t know, doubt their existing practices, and stay curious about new routines to try out. Evidence shows that in learning cultures, organizations innovate more and make fewer mistakes.
Over the past few years, psychological safety has become a buzzword in many workplaces. Although leaders might understand its significance, they often misunderstand exactly what it is and how to create it. Edmondson is quick to point out that psychological safety is not a matter of relaxing standards, making people comfortable, being nice and agreeable, or giving unconditional praise. It’s fostering a climate of respect, trust, and openness in which people can raise concerns and suggestions without fear of reprisal. It’s the foundation of a learning culture. In performance cultures, the emphasis on results often undermines psychological safety. When we see people get punished for failures and mistakes, we become worried about proving our competence and protecting our careers. We learn to engage in self-limiting behavior, biting our tongues rather than voicing questions and concerns. Sometimes that’s due to power distance: we’re afraid of challenging the big boss at the top. The pressure to conform to authority is real, and those who dare to deviate run the risk of backlash.
How do you know? It’s a question we need to ask more often, both of ourselves and of others. The power lies in its frankness. It’s nonjudgmental—a straightforward expression of doubt and curiosity that doesn’t put people on the defensive.
It takes confident humility to admit that we’re a work in progress. It shows that we care more about improving ourselves than proving ourselves.* If that mindset spreads far enough within an organization, it can give people the freedom and courage to speak up.
Research shows that when we have to explain the procedures behind our decisions in real time, we think more critically and process the possibilities more thoroughly.
When we dedicate ourselves to a plan and it isn’t going as we hoped, our first instinct isn’t usually to rethink it. Instead, we tend to double down and sink more resources in the plan. This pattern is called escalation of commitment. Evidence shows that entrepreneurs persist with failing strategies when they should pivot, NBA general managers and coaches keep investing in new contracts and more playing time for draft busts, and politicians continue sending soldiers to wars that didn’t need to be fought in the first place. Sunk costs are a factor, but the most important causes appear to be psychological rather than economic. Escalation of commitment happens because we’re rationalizing creatures, constantly searching for self-justifications for our prior beliefs as a way to soothe our egos, shield our images, and validate our past decisions.
In some ways, identity foreclosure is the opposite of an identity crisis: instead of accepting uncertainty about who we want to become, we develop compensatory conviction and plunge head over heels into a career path. I’ve noticed that the students who are the most certain about their career plans at twenty are often the ones with the deepest regrets by thirty. They haven’t done enough rethinking along the way.*
Psychologists find that the more people value happiness, the less happy they often become with their lives. It’s true for people who naturally care about happiness and for people who are randomly assigned to reflect on why happiness matters. There’s even evidence that placing a great deal of importance on happiness is a risk factor for depression. Why? One possibility is that when we’re searching for happiness, we get too busy evaluating life to actually experience it. Instead of savoring our moments of joy, we ruminate about why our lives aren’t more joyful. A second likely culprit is that we spend too much time striving for peak happiness, overlooking the fact that happiness depends more on the frequency of positive emotions than their intensity. A third potential factor is that when we hunt for happiness, we overemphasize pleasure at the expense of purpose. This theory is consistent with data suggesting that meaning is healthier than happiness, and that people who look for purpose in their work are more successful in pursuing their passions—and less likely to quit their jobs—than those who look for joy. While enjoyment waxes and wanes, meaning tends to last. A fourth explanation is that Western conceptions of happiness as an individual state leave us feeling lonely. In more collectivistic Eastern cultures, that pattern is reversed: pursuing happiness predicts higher well-being, because people prioritize social engagement over independent activities.
when it comes to careers, instead of searching for the job where we’ll be happiest, we might be better off pursuing the job where we expect to learn and contribute the most. Psychologists find that passions are often developed, not discovered.
When my students talk about the evolution of self-esteem in their careers, the progression often goes something like this: Phase 1: I’m not important Phase 2: I’m important Phase 3: I want to contribute to something important I’ve noticed that the sooner they get to phase 3, the more impact they have and the more happiness they experience. It’s left me thinking about happiness less as a goal and more as a by-product of mastery and meaning. “Those only are happy,” philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote, “who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.”
At work and in life, the best we can do is plan for what we want to learn and contribute over the next year or two, and stay open to what might come next. To adapt an analogy from E. L. Doctorow, writing out a plan for your life “is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”