Learning to unlearn

Learning to unlearn

Representative image. iStock

We seldom hear people in positions of power or authority declare that they are unsure or doubtful when asked a question in their area of expertise. In fact, if an expert confesses to not knowing, we often assume that they lack sufficient knowledge. Additionally, we also pay less heed to people who change their minds on an issue, believing them to be fickle and uncertain. Confidence, certainty and consistency are esteemed so greatly that we are willing to forgo the truth.

In his latest book, Think Again, psychologist Adam Grant argues that both experts and amateurs have to cultivate a confident humility wherein we are willing to unlearn and rethink even our most cherished beliefs and ideas in the pursuit of truth.

While intelligence is typically associated with a person’s “ability to learn and think,” Grant argues that our capacity to “rethink and unlearn” may be as essential, if not more, in our hyperdynamic world where knowledge is continually evolving and new skillsets are required. However, people tend to resist revising deeply entrenched thoughts because they feel it jeopardises their identities. As Grant eloquently phrases, “We favour the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt.” Further, when we are under duress, we become more dogged in our views, even in the face of disconfirming evidence.

Mental flexibility

Grant urges us to cultivate “mental flexibility” wherein we are willing to change our opinions and beliefs when confronted with counterevidence. Instead of tying your identity to a fixed set of views, try to root your sense of self in being flexible and updating your opinions based on current knowledge, knowing that this will be an ongoing process in our turbocharged world.

When it comes to medical diagnoses of ourselves or a loved one, we often seek a second opinion. But we don’t transfer this healthy scepticism when it comes to our opinions and beliefs. We are loath to second guess our own assumptions and conclusions.

Just as scientists are trained to update and revise their knowledge based on new evidence, Grant avers that we can all apply “scientific thinking” in our work and lives.

This entails coming up with a hypothesis, testing it by experimenting, analysing the results and revising the original hypothesis accordingly, if need be.

In a study by Arnaldo Camuffo, this type of scientific thinking was imparted to a subset of entrepreneurs who were divided into two groups. The first group was encouraged to view their start-ups using a scientific lens. Apart from that, both the experimental and control groups received identical training in entrepreneurship. Over the next year, the startups in the control group made around $300 in revenue whereas the scientific group grossed around $12,000.

Grant demonstrates that you don’t necessarily have to be a scientist to deploy scientific reasoning. Ironically, even scientists sometimes fail to think scientifically, especially when they become too wedded to their theories. Being intelligent doesn’t mean that a person also exhibits mental agility. Grant exhorts us to be “actively open-minded” so that our beliefs don’t fossilise into dogmas. When we are willing to question our own assumptions and poke holes in our own arguments, we show signs of cognitive flexibility and intellectual humility.

Confident humility

He clears a common misperception regarding humility which is often wrongly equated with low self-confidence. What we need to nurture in ourselves and others is confident humility. Knowing that we are capable of learning and revising our theories doesn’t imply that we are always right. When we are challenged by contrarian facts, we are open to modifying even our favourite theories.

Encouragingly, confident humility can be imparted. In one study, students read a short piece on the advantages of acknowledging gaps in their knowledge instead of projecting a false bravado of certainty. These students were subsequently more likely to seek help to remedy a weakness. Grant posits that students who are amenable to changing their views get higher grades than their more obstinate classmates.

When Grant met Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman at a conference, Grant was particularly impressed by Kahneman’s lack of defensiveness and humility. Surprised at one of the findings that Grant presented, Kahneman readily admitted that he had been wrong. When Grant later asked Kahneman how he maintains such an open mind, Kahneman confessed that he tries to detach his opinions from his identity.

“My attachment to my ideas is provisional,” says Kahneman matter-of-factly. If an intellectual luminary like Kahneman can distance himself from his theories, we too needn’t be yoked to our beliefs.

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