Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know BF441 .G693 2021

We have all been there before, after finishing a test, you have a moment of doubt and panic about one of your answers. You flip back and go over the question again, but erasing that mark can seem like a tremendous effort. Most of us believe that our first instinct is correct, so we leave it as it is, despite our misgivings. We may even have been told by instructors to leave an answer once it is on paper because more often than not our doubts are unfounded and simply products of nervous overthinking. This is known as the first-instinct fallacy. In reality, studies have shown that students usually change their answer to the correct one. Adam Grant uses this example to introduce us to the practice of rethinking.

Grant’s book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know is a primer on becoming a better thinker by remaining open to changing our minds and re-evaluating our beliefs. His concern over the harm of unshakable ideologies has led him to try to find out why people are this way, and what we can do to overcome our inflexible thoughts.

As creatures of habit, we take comfort in our knowledge and opinions, assumptions and instincts, as they help to make the world a more consistent, navigable place. In many ways they are beneficial cognitive tools that make life easier, curbing the paralysis of doubt by allowing us to fall back on things we know for sure. Without them we would flounder between decisions and progress would be stalled; we would get nothing done while our brains worked overtime trying to figure out what to do. But these cognitive tools have a negative side when they are blindly followed and we close off our minds to learning new ideas.

Grant introduces us to three egos that live in our heads: the preacher, the prosecutor, and the politician. Each of these mental modes allow us to justify our ideas and beliefs without the need to really think about them. The preacher delivers sermons to protect and promote our ideals. The prosecutor tries to find flaws in other’s arguments. The politician seeks approval from the audience. Whether or not we have the right argument, these modes of thinking are detrimental to our ability to learn and grow, and can be harmful to our relationships with others. Grant’s solution: Thinking like a scientist.

When beginning an experiment scientists never assume they have the right answer. Rather, they begin with hypotheses; guesses at an outcome that help guide their research but are constantly being redesigned in light of new information. In fact, many scientists enjoy being wrong, as they usually act from a position of curiosity and truth-seeking as opposed to defending an immovable idea. This humility in the face of the unknown is one of Grant’s key lessons, calling it a “critical nutrient for the mind” (45). With humility comes the ability to admit we may not have all the answers and are sometimes even wrong. This is the first step towards being open-minded.

Grant cites research that reveals interesting links between humility (or the lack of it: “arrogance”) and knowledge. One has become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, where people tend to be overconfident in areas where they lack knowledge or skill. This leads to the armchair quarterback syndrome, summed up in the image of a football fan yelling at his TV from his recliner because he thinks he knows more than the coach or quarterback. While some of this effect is attributable to vanity, Grant shows us that it also comes from a deficit in metacognitive skill, or “the ability to think about our thinking” (42). Once we begin to examine our thinking, we begin to see how much we do not know, and from there it is much easier to learn new ideas.

Another major lesson Grant teaches is detachment. Most of us are so attached to our opinions and beliefs that any notion of changing them seems like a personal affront. Our identity is another major comfort to our egos; when we know who we are the world makes more sense. Grant shows that change is a healthy, positive force in life as long as we make it a part of our identity. He advises detaching from your past and your opinions in order to be open to change and growth.

Once we have the ability to change our own minds, we can attempt to change others. Grant devotes the rest of the book to showing how rethinking can be used when trying to convince others, including tips for successful debating and negotiating, and how we can create a society where rethinking and lifelong learning is the norm in our schools and workplaces.

Ultimately, Grant wants us to practice rethinking as a way to a happier you, which may even involve rethinking the notion of happiness itself. Studies show that the more we try to be happy, the more it eludes us. Happiness is actually more attributable to meaning and fulfillment than pleasure. Whether it is in school, careers, or relationships, our ability to rethink what we want and how to get there creates a more meaningful, productive life, which turns out to be the best way to find true happiness.

Written in an easy, conversational style and filled with great quotes, classic studies, inspiring stories, humorous charts and cartoons, and references from Seinfeld to Sandlot to SNL, Think Again humbly challenges us to think about our thinking and learn about how we learn. If you thought you knew all there is to know about knowing, think again.

Think Again is available at Bellevue University Library and is located in the general collection. All books can be borrowed for 21 days with the option of renewal.

Originally posted in the Freeman/Lozier Library’s quarterly newsletter, More Than BooksV. 25 No. 2, Spring 2022.

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