I’ve been reading Think Again by Adam Grant, a book which I confess is taking me a while to get through. The gist of the book is that our ways of thinking are entrenched in such a way to give us overconfidence in our positions, and that unless we deliberately challenge our beliefs, our thinking is designed to lead us into error. He suggests the following model as a hierarchy for thinking styles:
Although he makes the (predictable? condescending?) carve-out for his wife’s correctness, the pyramid suggests that most people exist in the lower eschelons of thought pattern, and only a few enlightened people break free from these patterns to truly challenge their deeply held assumptions. The book dismantles how organizations like NASA (and basically all organizations) lead to shallow thinking, superficial changes, and avoidance of conflict. We’ve doubtless all seen this in the workplace, the unwillingness to tackle the sacred cows, or the elephant in the room nobody will discuss, a veritable zoo of unaddressed assumptions.
I suspect the larger population, at large and in the Church, is the “Politician” approach. We don’t necessarily invent the ideas of our community or team, but we will defend those ideas from anyone who feels like an attacker or outsider. Those who believe they are always right, when in a leader role, can do great damage, but mostly because of the “Politicians” who support their ideas and fight all who oppose them. That has long felt like where we are in the Church, often defending the indefensible because a leader (sometimes long dead) has supported an idea or said a thing. Even if it’s clear they said such a thing as a product of their time, we sometimes still fight to make their statements relevant today. We do this with scripture. We do it with the founders of our faith. We do it with subsequent leaders, both living and dead, whose observations may not jibe with contemporary life, but we do it because we are on team Mormon, and we have to be right for our sacrifices to matter and our salvation to be secure. If you’ve heard someone being taken to task for using the term “Mormon” in the last few years, you’ve seen a very contemporary example of this.
Actually, I’ll revise the claim that most are in “politician” mode with this slight caveat: the words and ideas of others are always interpreted by the hearer. If the ideas reflect (or can be twisted) to match our deeply held beliefs, then we are still the one who is right. So perhaps, per this model, we can be “cult leaders” in our own lives and minds. No followers required; we are our own followers. We build and worship an idol of our own making or thinking. This is why individuals with completely different values can both claim to be “following Jesus” when neither would agree that the other is doing so. Both believe they are right. Neither is willing to question their assumptions, beliefs or values.
There’s a reason that few attain the thought pattern of Learner. It’s painful to admit, even to ourselves, that we were wrong about something. We want to find a way to justify our wrong beliefs. It feels as though our very survival depends on it. Certainly our confidence and social status do. It’s particularly difficult to let it go if we have bloodied others in defense of our wrong beliefs. If we realize that they didn’t deserve it, maybe we aren’t good people after all.
Do organizations (political groups, churches, schools and companies) even value being a learner, listening to others’ viewpoints, even possibly changing our views? Not much. Even universities are increasingly becoming places where policing others’ words and thoughts are rewarded, either with social approval, or even administrative approval. BYU, for example, rewards students for tattling on those whose ideas challenge church narratives. Tattling on a professor for being too liberal, too feminist, or supporting gay rights, is not only acceptable, but often rewarded by admin.
Conversely, tattling on a professor for saying something that sounds racist or out of touch, even if those comments are deliberately taken out of context, can also reward the person who exposes it. They are hailed as a social hero, and the school may quickly signal their agreement by backing the student and attacking the professor. And this is just one such example. In neither of these polarized examples is anyone doing any re-thinking, listening or empathizing. This is politician mode, not learner mode.
And these examples are easy enough to find in the workplace, one’s neighborhood, Facebook and other social media, families, and so forth. “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name,” two of the three will be policing the others, and the remaining one will be keeping their mouth shut to stay out of trouble.
- Do you see this model at work in your interactions with others online, at work, at Church, or in society at large?
- Have you seen yourself change from one level to another in your thinking? What was the idea you learned to challenge?
- What ideas do you have to take the organization from politician to learner mode? Is it possible, even if leaders were interested?
 Satan 1, me 0.
Not all organizations are the same. It’s true that all organizations try to coordinate the actions and activities of employees/members to accomplish organization goals. But let’s distinguish profit-seeking companies from the wider group of “organizations,” including government and non-profits. Profit-seeking companies have narrower and more well-defined goals. They’re not debating societies. They can’t afford to have departments or divisions where most of the members get together and yak about this or that idea or plan or possibility or proposal. A few people down in R&D or meeting here or there by top managers can do that, but most of the people in the company need to be doing productive work toward defined targets most of the time. If they do, profits are made and the company continues. If they don’t, the company doesn’t last very long.
But I think in non-profits, including churches, including the LDS Church, there’s an argument to be made that more time needs to be spent by leaders and members regularly reconsidering what the organization goals are and how to go about accomplishing them. Questions like “Why do we have this meeting?” and “Does Department X really do anything useful?” and “Why are we spending so much money on this but very little on that?” seem a lot more relevant. Bottom line: The LDS Chuch is managed like a profit-seeking organization (leaders know what they’re doing, we have well-defined goals and targets, the rest of you just shut up and do your job) when in fact it’s a non-profit that needs to think a lot harder about what it is doing most of the time.
For me – the game changer was learning about how information and meaning is packed into nonverbal communication. Scientists think that anywhere between 40% and 95% of “information and meaning” is relayed through non-verbal communication. I know that I have problems with reading nonverbal communication – so that meant that I was likely to missing a substantial chunk of “information” and “meaning” from what was communicated to me (usually in person).
My adaptation was to start with an assumption that I was always missing/usually going to miss “something – some information and/or some meaning”. But, I have learned to write things down, double-check messages and meaning, and find means of making information and meaning “verbal” or “specific”. I have also learned to gently laugh at myself and everyone else – we are all “guilty” of assuming that we know what we want to convey and that we are conveying it properly.
This chain of thinking triggered a faith transition, revised my personal set of values into a much more relativistic stance, did a number of a number of my relationships, and landed me usually in the “Critical Thinking” and “Learner” camps. There is a slightly sarcastic tongue-in-cheek “lucky me” component – but I actually am lucky enough to have figured out that I don’t know as much about anything as I thought I did, and this humility helps me to “check myself” and actually get the memo.
Well said, Dave B!
As I have stated previously, it is very liberating to state confidently “I don’t know”. If you are willing to do so, you open yourself up to new sources of information and hopefully critical thinking. Some of us who were raised knowing everything (“I know the Church is true” and “You can’t trust anything CNN says”) have been humbled by exposure to other perspectives once we were willing to go there. That doesn’t mean we have to buy into every opposite force (i.e., “The Church is evil” and “Fox News is 100% propaganda”). It just means we are willing to consider every possibility.
I was uncomfortable when I began this journey a few years ago because I feared becoming the kind of person I had long criticized; a fence sitter without any core principles. Because let’s face it, there are folks out there who just go along to get along with whomever is controlling the narrative. Political correctness (on both sides) is stifling. But here’s the thing: it’s never too late to try. I did it in my 50s.
This has been extremely useful for me, as I see how I’ve moved up the funnel to ways of thinking about certain things and how I still may have contrarian thinking in others. I need to reevaluate those and do what is necessary to do better. For me it has been a step-by-step process, not a jump from 4 to 1.
The hard part is when there are such incorrect (and I’m being nice here!) comments made on a topic I’m passionate about, on Twitter for example. I should scroll on by but state my opinion in a kind and civil way without name calling or insulting language. Inevitably when the commenter replies with hate language I realize there will be no learning here and stop. They don’t state their opinion or evidence. Just put me down. Let me know how you handle such interactions or if you comment at all to people you disagree with.
Is Grant suggesting that we need more Socratic thinkers… Those willing to be “midwives to ideas.”
I’d be curious to see the Socratic method used in Gospel Doctrine!
Critical Thinking… George E. P. Box said that “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” I use this quote when I teach engineering classes. Someday I may be brave enough to use it in church 🙂
I think Adam Grant is speaking to an academic audience (and in that sense I agree with him) but is missing the point of how lay audiences often think. He’s talking to people who already have a good understanding of the basics (I.e., textbook knowledge) and assuming that the common person has such an understanding. The problem is that lay audiences don’t have a good understanding of textbook knowledge and are easily led astray by bad faith charlatans. Much of our time is spent, unfortunately, grappling with zombie ideas: ideas that were killed long ago but continue to live undead among the unsuspecting.
Our goal should be to get basic points across about a range of topics to the wider public and outwit the conspiracy theorists. The first part is hard enough. But most people aren’t prepared for the second part. Too many academics simply don’t engage laypersons, let alone conspiracy theorists, to know more effective ways of communicating with them. It should be standard practice in academia and professional environments to know how to best engage the conspiracy-minded and to be effective in not just educating them about the ontology of what actually is but the epistemology of how we know.
In the past, the Church used to have a more expansive version of learning. The Relief Society magazine used to excerpt writing from famous literary giants.
In the past, “from the Best Books” meant exactly that. Today it means from the scriptures and GC talks.
In the past, in my Ward in the Midwest, there used to be real discussions. Today, questions have pat answers. And lesson manuals are dumbed down.
Today, critical thinking has been replaced by follow the leader. Elder Holland, a past university president, in a recent talk to BYU staff, showed a surprising lack of understanding about the function of higher ed.
The religion classes at Church universities have a surprising group of untrained and dogmatic instructors. Many classes are either a waste of time or teach questionable doctrine.
Thank you, I find your explanation to be very, very helpful.