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Think Again

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas Barth
October 10, 2022

As public administrators navigate the polarized waters in our communities (whether they be national, state or local), a book worth reading is Think Again by Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist who has many useful insights about how people think about the world based on assumptions, instincts and habits. He states, “As we think and talk, we often slip into the mindsets of three distinct professions: preachers, prosecutors and politicians. In each of these modes, we take on a particular identity and use a distinct set of tools. We go into preacher mode when our sacred beliefs are in jeopardy: we deliver sermons to protect and promote an ideal. We enter prosecutor mode when we recognize flaws in other people’s reasoning: we marshal arguments to prove them wrong and win a case. We shift into politician mode when we’re seeking to win over an audience: we campaign and lobby for the approval of our constituents. The risk is that we become so wrapped up in preaching that we’re right, prosecuting others who are wrong and politicking for support that we don’t bother to rethink our own views.”

Grant argues that instead of preaching, prosecuting and politicking we need to start thinking more like scientists to address our challenges. Scientists need to be constantly aware of the limits of their understanding, doubt what they know, be curious, update their views based on new data, generate hypotheses and test them in a quest for the truth.

I believe a useful illustration of what Grant refers to as these “goggles” is a recent response I received from my Congressman, David Rouzer, who I asked to respond to the mass shootings in our country. These statements came from his office:

“We know this was a troubled 18-year-old filled with evil [referring to the Uvalde shooting. As I have said many times before, our nation faces a crisis of the heart and mind among some of our youth in this country stemming from what I believe to be a moral and spiritual crisis that must be addressed by society as a whole. Troubled individuals aren’t born with a heart filled with hate and evil. It’s acquired over time based on what they absorb reading, watching and experiencing.  

Unfortunately, this has all been in the making for decades. Political correctness is one source of the problem. There used to be a time when society as a whole would stand up and say “no” to anything that was amiss, such as the use of foul language in public, disrespect of elders, erratic behavior, etc. No longer is that the case. At the same time, the secularist movement in the country has been, and continues to be, determined to drive God from everyday life. Where there is no acknowledgement of a higher power, there are no rules. As a result, each is his own god and anything goes—essentially lowering the societal standards necessary for a civilized society.

Horrific, bloody and violent videos and games are consumed by many of our youth daily, and in some cases, making one so desensitized they become capable of murder. A general lack of attentiveness to the needs of those with troubled hearts and minds is also part of the source of the problem. Many more resources and focus needs to be on mental health.” 

His letter goes on to say that he has supported legislation to make schools safer (and I assume funding for more mental health services), but that he does not support gun control legislation, which “violates the constitutional rights of law abiding citizens to defend themselves from enemies both domestic and foreign” and concludes with “I will always fight to protect our 2nd Amendment rights.”  

It strikes me that regardless of your views on gun control, the response from my Congressman reflects the essence of Grant’s concepts of preaching, prosecuting and politicking. He is preaching about sacred beliefs he believes are in jeopardy such as secularism; he is prosecuting the case that violent videos and games are desensitizing our youth to violence; and he is politicking about political correctness and the intent of the 2nd Amendment to play to his constituents. 

However, he is not thinking at all like a scientist. He appears to be basing his positions on beliefs that personally feel right to him (e.g., godlessness) or with no clear basis in evidence (e.g., violent video games cause mass shootings). He also chooses to ignore evidence from other countries with much stricter gun control laws (I noted to him that I had just returned from Europe where my colleagues from England and Portugal explained to me how guns are not nearly as accessible to the general public). It is clear his mind is closed to any legislation involving gun control (e.g., he voted against the recent modest legislation signed into law).  The 2nd amendment is what Grant would refer to as his “sacred cow.”

I have asked my Congressman for evidence supporting his positions; no response so far but we shall see. But I would suggest his letter illustrates how our society might be well served to take Grant’s advice and “think again” when we make judgements and decisions about the challenges we face. Public administrators in particular have the responsibility to take on the mode of a scientist and challenge their political superiors (whether liberal or conservative) who may fall into the trap of merely preaching, prosecuting and politicking.

Author: Tom Barth is a Professor of Public Administration and Director of the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program at UNC Charlotte. He teaches, conducts research, and consults in the areas of human resource management, strategic planning, leadership and ethics. [email protected]

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One Response to Think Again

  1. James Thurmond Reply

    October 20, 2022 at 5:25 pm

    Good summation of Grant’s book. His comments about today’s practice of thinking makes sense especially when it seems that political rationality trumps (no pun intended) administrative or technical rationality in the public arena.
    Not only is democratic theory under attack in this county but also the scientific method.
    Public administrators are hired for their expertise, and they should not hesitate to use their expertise to offer advice, recommendations, suggestions, etc. to their elected bosses.

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