‘The Science of Reasoning with Unreasonable People’

The following is verbatim op-ed written by Adam Grant and published at the New York Times on January 31, 2021.

Below, Mr. Moberly has respectfully re-structured Professor Grant’s op-ed with absolutely no change to any word. The perspectives described by and which underlie Professor Grants op-ed, also, I believe, are relevant to each blog post authored by – published @ Mr. Moberly’s ‘Business Intangible Asset Blog’.

Similarly, Mr. Moberly believes it is important to understand…

  1. how (when, where, what, which, and why) particular circumstances, ala aspirations, projections, and/or risks, etc., influence business leaders, entrepreneurs, management teams, and investors (alike) to initially and repeatedly

2. recognize, as (fiduciary) obligations to, differentiate, safeguard, and competitively – lucratively (ethically) exploit their business’s intangible assets.

This is what readers of this blog are routinely + variously encouraged and asked (persuaded) to do.

In this context, Mr. Moberly trusts the way he presents Professor Grants op-ed here, serves to, among other things,

  • bring attention to underlying perspectives embedded in Professor Grants op-ed, which conventional writing – publishing structures and limitations, i.e., spacing, etc., may not otherwise permit.   


Professor Grants’ Op-Ed…

Do not try to change someone else’s mind. Instead, help them find their own motivation to change.

A few years ago, I (Professor Adam Grant) made the mistake of having an argument with R, the most stubborn person I know. (I am using the initial R to protect his privacy.)

  • R is a longtime friend, and
  • when his family came to visit,
  • he mentioned that his children had never been vaccinated and never would be.

I am no proponent of blindly giving every vaccination to every newborn, but

  • I was concerned for his children’s safety,
  • so, I started debunking some common vaccine myths.
  • After days of debate, I was exhausted and exasperated.
  • Determined to preserve our friendship, I vowed never to talk with him about vaccines again.

Then came 2020…

  • Fear of the vaccine may be the greatest barrier to stopping Covid-19.
  • It stretches far beyond the so-called anti-vaxxer community,
    • About half of Americans harbor questions about the safety of the Covid-19 vaccines, and
    • 39 percent say they definitely or probably won’t get one.

I decided to see if I could open R’s mindto the possibility,

  • what I did not realize was, that
  • my mind would be opened as well.

As an organizational psychologist, I have spent the past few years studying how to motivate people to think again.

  • I have run experiments that led proponents of gun rights and gun safety to abandon some of their mutual animosity, and
  • I even got Yankees fans to let go of their grudges against Red Sox supporters.
    • But I do not always practice what I teach.

When someone seems closed-minded,

  • my instinct is to argue, the
  • (polar) opposite of their position.

But, when I go on the attack, my opponents either

  • shut down or fight back harder.
  • On more than one occasion, I have been called a “logic bully.”

When we try to change a person’s mind,

  • our first impulse is to preach about why we are right, and
  • prosecute them for being wrong.

Yet experiments show that preaching and prosecuting typically backfire, and

  • what does not sway people,
  • may strengthen their beliefs, e.g., much as a vaccine
    • inoculates the physical immune system against a virus,
    • the act of resistance
    • fortifies the psychological immune system.

Refuting a point of view produces antibodies against

  • future attempts at influence,
  • making people
    • more certain of their own opinions, and
    • more ready to rebut alternatives.

That is what happened with my friend.

  • If I wanted him to rethink his blanket resistance to vaccines,
  • I had to rethink my approach.

Several decades ago, when treating substance abuse problems, psychologists

  • developed a technique called motivational interviewing.

The central premise is…instead of

  • trying to force other people to change,
  • you are better off helping them
    • find their own intrinsic motivation to change.

You do that by interviewing them,

  • asking open-ended questions
  • listening carefully, and
  • holding up a mirror so they see
    • their own thoughts more clearly.

If they express a desire to change,

  • you guide them toward a plan.

Supporting Research…

In controlled trials, motivational interviewing has helped people, to

  • stop smoking abusing drugs and alcohol, and gambling
  • improve their diets and exercise
  • overcome eating disorders and lose weight.

The (motivational interviewing) approach has also motivated 

  • students to get a good night’s sleep,
  • voters to reconsider their prejudices, and 
  • divorcing parents to reach settlements.

Recently, thanks to a vaccine whisperer, it (motivational interviewing) has been applied to immunization.

  • Arnaud Gagneur is a pediatrician in Quebec
  • who encourages reluctant parents to immunize (their) children

In his (Dr. Gagneur’s) experiments, a motivational interview in a maternity ward after birth,

  • increased the number of mothers willing to vaccinate their children from 72 to 87 percent,
    • the number of children who were fully vaccinated two years later rose by 9 percent
    • a single conversation was enough to change behavior over the next 24 months.

I set up a conversation between (Dr. Gagneur) and my friend R,

  • after 90 minutes, it was clear to me that
  • R’s vaccination stance had not changed.
    • “I have tried to apply all the principles of motivational interviewing, but I have had the unpleasant feeling of not doing so well,” (Dr. Gagneur wrote to me in email).
    • “R is very knowledgeable and always ends up finding arguments that support his decision.”

Strangely, I did not feel defeated or irritated,

  • I wanted to learn how my friend’s views could evolve.

The pioneers of motivational interviewing, William Miller, and Stephen Rollnick,

  • have long warned against using the technique to manipulate people.
  • It (motivational interviewing) requires a genuine desire to understand people’s motivations and help them reach their goals.
    • Although R and I both want to keep his children healthy,
    • I realized I had never tried to understand his perspective on vaccines before.
    • So, the next morning, I called him.

In our past debates, R had focused only on the potential downsides of vaccinations,

  • with Dr. Gagneur, though,
  • he (R) acknowledged that vaccines could be good for some, but not necessarily for others.
  • if he lived in a country experiencing an outbreak of, say, malaria, would he consider immunization?
    • he said “you weigh the pros and cons”

Psychologists find that when we

  • listen carefully, and
  • call attention to the nuances in people’s own thinking,, they become
  • less extreme and more open in their views.
    • I wondered how my friend’s ambivalence applied to Covid, (so now)
  • I knew that, the kinds of questions I asked, would matter.

Social scientists have found that 

  • asking people how their preferred political policies might work in practice,
  • rather than asking why they favor those approaches, was
    • more effective in opening their minds, as
  • people struggled to explain their ideal tax legislation or health care plan,
    • they grasped the complexity of the problem and recognized gaps in their knowledge.

So, for my second attempt, instead of asking R why he was opposed to Covid vaccines,

  • I asked him how he would stop the pandemic.
  • He said, ‘we could not put all our eggs in one basket’,
    • we needed a stronger focus on prevention and treatment’.
  • When I asked whether vaccines would be part of his strategy,
    • he said ‘yes — for some people’.

I was eager to learn what might lead R to decide that he is one of those people.

In motivational interviewing, there is a

  • distinction between sustain talk and change talk.
    • sustain talk is commentary about maintaining the status quo.
    • change talk is referencing a desire, ability, or commitment to making a shift.

A skilled motivational interviewer listens for change talk and asks people to elaborate on it.

This was my third step, I asked R

  • what the odds were that he would get a Covid vaccine.
  • He said, ‘they were “pretty low for many different reasons’.
  • I told him it was fascinating to me that he did not say zero.

“This is not a black-and-white issue,” R said. “I don’t know, because my views change.”

  • I laughed, “This is a milestone — the most stubborn person I know admits that he’s willing to change his mind?”
  • He laughed too, “No, I’m still the most stubborn person you know!

But, at different stages of our lives, we have different things that are important to us, right?”

I do not expect R or his children,

  • to be vaccinated any time soon, but
  • it felt like progress,
    • that he agreed to keep an open mind.
  • the real breakthrough, though, was mine.
    • I became open to a new mode of conversation, with
    • no points to score and no debate to win.
  • the only victory, I declared, was
    • against my own prosecutor tendencies.
    • I had prevailed over my inner ‘logic bully’.

Many people believe that to stop a deadly pandemic, the

  • end justifies, whatever
  • means are necessary.

It is worth remembering that the means are a measure of our character.

  • If we succeed in opening minds, the question is not only whether
    • we are proud of what we have achieved.
  • we should also ask whether
    • we are proud of how we have achieved it.

I no longer believe it is my place to change anyone’s mind.

  • All I can do is try to understand their thinking, and
  • ask if they are open to some rethinking.

The rest is up to them.

Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School and the author of “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know,” from which parts of this article are adapted. His research focuses on motivation, generosity, and creativity.


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