You wouldn’t use a hammer to try to cut down a tree, and try to use an axe to drive nails and you’re likely to lose a finger. Different physical jobs call for different tools. So too do different mental jobs.
Optimism and big-picture thinking will help you sell your business idea. Keeping your books in order requires a more detail oriented approach. Motivating employees requires more empathy than analytical thinking.
Different modes of thinking are best suited for different situations, and according to a new interview with star Wharton professor and best-selling author Adam Grant most of us don’t utilize one particularly powerful mindset nearly enough.
The 4 thinking modes
Grant has been doing the rounds to promote his latest book, Think Again. He spoke to Inc.com’s Lindsay Blakely about its lessons for business owners and his media tour also found himself recently speaking with the Greater Good Science Center’s Jill Suttie. Both interviews are well worth a read for Grant fans, but one particular point from Suttie’s sticks out as useful for those interested in quick, actionable tips to boost their effectiveness.
In the course of the interview, Grant outlines four distinct thinking styles we use to approach problems (the first three of which were outlined by Grant’s Wharton colleague Philip Tetlock):
Preacher: “When we’re in preacher mode, we’re convinced we’re right,” explains Grant. From the salesman to the clergyman, this is the style you use when you’re trying to persuade others to your way of thinking.
Prosecutor: “When we’re in prosecutor mode, we’re trying to prove someone else wrong,” he continues.
Politician: It’s no shock that “when we’re in politician mode, we’re trying to win the approval of our audience.”
Scientist: When you think like a scientist “you favor humility over pride and curiosity over conviction,” Grant explains. “You look for reasons why you might be wrong, not just reasons why you must be right.”
“I think too many of us spend too much time thinking like preachers, prosecutors, and politicians,” Grant insists.
Obviously the other modes of thinking can be useful — if you’re in a pulpit, preach away — but Grant argues, these mindsets predispose us against changing our minds, even in the face of compelling new evidence.
“In preacher and prosecutor mode, I’m right and you’re wrong, and I don’t need to change my mind. In politician mode, I might tell you what you want to hear, but I’m probably not changing what I really think; I’m posturing as opposed to rethinking,” he explains.
Think like a scientist, on the other hand, and you view your opinions more as hypotheses in need of confirmation or rebuttal. With that mindset, changing your mind not only isn’t weak or embarrassing, it’s a sign you’re progressing. Ideally, that makes you not only willing to hear new points of view, but eager to seek out evidence that contradicts your opinions.
It’s a mindset that can be particularly valuable for entrepreneurs. One Italian study Grant mentions taught budding business owners to view their plans as hypotheses for testing. Compared to a control group “those entrepreneurs that we taught to think like scientists brought in more than 40 times the revenue of the control group,” he reports (40 times!).
Tips to think more like a scientist
Some of the world’s most successful leaders already understand the impressive benefits of this mode of thinking. Jeff Bezos, for instance, looks to hire those who change their minds often as this is a sign of just this sort of intellectually humble, scientist-style thinking. Two hundred years ago Ben Franklin confessed his own prosecutorial tendencies in his autobiography and advised both himself and others to spend less time arguing and more searching out smart new ways of looking at the world.
That, of course, comes easier to some of us than others. If changing your mind doesn’t come naturally to you there are steps you can take to nudge yourself into scientist mode more often. Grant outlines several in both the Greater Good interview and his conversation with Blakely, including thinking through what new information would change your mind about a topic and surrounding yourself with people willing to challenge your thinking.
Other experts have also offered tips on cultivating intellectual humility too. One clever idea is to remind yourself in the morning to figure out something you’re wrong about each day. Another, popular with VCs and Silicon Valley insiders, is to repeat the mantra “strong opinions, weakly held” to nudge yourself to take definite stands but be unafraid of modifying your beliefs when new information comes to light.
Some of these ideas may work better for you than others, but one thing is true for nearly all of us — putting pride aside to think like scientist is difficult. It’s also extremely valuable.