Rethinking your beliefs with Tara Westover
April 18, 2023
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking. My guest today is author and historian, Tara Westover.
Many writers dream of making the New York Times bestseller list for one week. Tara's memoir, Educated, has been a mainstay at the top of the list for multiple years. It's a gripping book about her upbringing in Idaho with a father who is against public education. Starting as a teenager, Tara rethought her entire life, her education, her career, her relationships with her family, and her core beliefs.
I met Tara a few years ago and every time I interact with her, she challenges me to rethink something—from how to fix schools to how to fight polarization. So, I figured it was high time to invite her to this show.
If we have any listeners who have been living under a rock and don't know your story, can you give me kind of the high-level summary of what your upbringing was like?
[00:01:12] Tara Westover:
Took me a while to, you know, a few, some great number of pages to explain it the first time. But I was, I was born the youngest of seven children in rural Idaho, and my dad was, let's just say he wasn't typical. So, he had a lot of ideas about the world. He didn't want us to go to school ‘cause he thought the schools were run by the Illuminati. He didn't want us to go to the doctor or the hospital. No vaccines. I didn't have a birth certificate ‘til I was nine. So I was raised in a, in a kind of, we could just say unorthodox way, and then I left home when I was 17 and got really obsessed with education, hence the title of the book.
And the book I wrote is, it's really about a lot of difficult decisions that had to be made about kind of trying to move into the mainstream world while staying a part of my family and all the ways that that was difficult.
[00:02:03] Adam Grant:
One thing I've always been fascinated by, ever since I read your story and then met you was at what point did you start to want an education?
[00:02:12] Tara Westover:
I mean, I was pretty obsessed with music when I was younger. I really loved to sing. I was able to do some plays at the local theater, which was kind of my first time around people who weren't my family. I asked an older brother of mine, you know, “I, I wanna study music. Where do I go to study music?”
And he, he had, was kind of a genius, you know. He had been kept outta school also, but he was older than I was, and he was allowed to go to a few years of school and then he had taught himself everything else he needed to know. And you know, freakishly taught himself calculus, the whole thing. And then went off to college.
And so he sort of had been trying to convince me to go to college, but I wasn't very interested in it. I didn't even know what it was. I'd never been in a classroom, so I had no idea about it. And then when I got really obsessed with music, and said, “Where do I, where do I go to study? You know, I wanna learn opera, I wanna learn choir, I wanna, I wanna be a music teacher.”
He said, “Well, you have to go to college, obviously.” So I started this process of trying to do what he did. You know, I started waking up early in the morning trying to teach myself trigonometry, which is pretty painful actually. And it was purely ‘cause I love to sing. I really taught myself math because I like to sing. I said, “Okay, fine. I'll sit here and try to figure out sine, cosine, and tangent if it means that one day I can be a church choir director.” Then once I got to the university, I discovered all kinds of things, you know, history and philosophy and books of all different kinds. And then I wrote a book, and now I'm talking to you. And so the path, well it took me a lot of different places, but the origin of it was, was just music.
[00:03:47] Adam Grant:
I think there are a lot of people who dream of being autodidacts, and I think we live in a world where it's easier than it ever was at any point in human history to teach yourself something, right?
Thanks to books and the internet and all the tools we have available to us, but I don't feel like everyone is equally good at taking advantage of those tools, right? Some people are, are extremely skilled at teaching themselves. Other people struggle and flounder, and you were remarkably good at it. So what did you learn about educating yourself that the rest of us ought to know?
[00:04:19] Tara Westover:
I mean, I don’t know as though it's the best time ever. In some ways, it is because you have access to all these things, and in some ways, I feel like it's the worst time ever because I just don't remember life being this distracting. Everything about life is designed to be distracting, and everyone is trying to pull you in a million different directions, and every time you open your phone just to verify an address, there's 20 things that are all yelling at you that you have to do.
That's not a good environment, actually, for learning, which I think requires a lot of focus. I heard this, this poet that I, I'm a fan of, David Whyte. He was telling a story once about when he was younger and he was working for a nonprofit and he was just terribly exhausted and he asked his friend what he should do.
He said maybe he was gonna have to quit ‘cause he was just, he was just exhausted and needed rest. And his friend said, “You know, the opposite of exhaustion isn't necessarily rest, it's wholeheartedness.” What he said was, “You’re doing too many things that are secondary to you and not enough things that are primary to you.”
And I think the world right now is very much designed to make us do a lot of things that are secondary or tertiary or even further down the line. Everything is trying to just divide you into more and more pieces, and that is exhausting. What people need is time, space, and to know what's important and to actually be able to focus on those things that are important. So in some ways, it is the best time to learn. So much available, and in a lot of ways it's the worst time.
[00:05:47] Adam Grant:
It reminds me of, of this great insight from my favorite psychologist, Brian Little, who found that well-being is dependent on what he calls “the sustainable pursuit of core projects”, the passionate commitments that align with our values and make us feel alive. And I think what you're bringing to the table is a lot of us are distracted by peripheral projects.
[00:06:07] Tara Westover:
Yeah, I think that's true. That's one of the challenges I think of our media environment, of the social media environment, is I think so many things in our lives are not actually there to help us in the ways that we want.
They're more there to, um, you know, recruit us for the things they want us to be doing. And that is a very challenging environment just to be in emotionally, educationally, and professionally in every way, so.
[00:06:34] Adam Grant:
So, Tara, one of the things that, that I would love to hear your take on a little bit is this show is about rethinking things, and you've basically rethought your entire life.
You threw deep-seated beliefs out the window. You reimagined your relationship with your family; you transformed your identity. You went from having never sat in a classroom to getting a Ph.D. in history. And the, the opening of your mind through that process, to me, is a remarkable thing. And so I'd love to, to learn from you about what was it that, that opened that door, and how did you go about rethinking all these things?
Did you enjoy it? Was it painful? How can we all bring more of that into our lives? As you can see, I have a lot of questions, but let me start with, from all the things you've rethought, what have you learned about rethinking?
[00:07:20] Tara Westover:
Woof. Yeah. How do you even begin that? You've outlined it already. There's different types of change and different ways that you can change. I think the decision for me to leave rural Idaho, fairly isolated upbringing, leave a farm, my dad's scrapyard and become a student, and then ultimately even go so far as, as to pursue a Ph.D. I think for me it was, I think just a process of learning how to pay attention to how I felt when I was doing something.
And I didn't hate working in my dad's scrapyard other than it was, like, pretty dangerous ‘cause he wasn't super into safety. But it wasn't, I didn't wake up to do that. That wasn't joyful for me. Music was joyful for me, and I think following that led me to go to Brigham Young University, which was very hard cause I'd never been to school before.
I took biology and it was very interesting, and I took geology and it was very interesting. And then I took philosophy and it was very interesting. I was like, “I really like this.” You know, I started reading literature. I really like this. You know, just that basic skill of paying attention to what feels good to you, I think led to a lot of transformation for me.
Just that really simple thing of what actually makes you wanna get up in the morning and, and do it. And I think that took me pretty far from where I thought, you know, I'm not an opera singer, I don't teach choir. I thought I would be teaching voice lessons. That was my big dream when I was 14, 15, but just continuing to follow that branched off in all these unexpected ways.
Then there's the other topic you mentioned, which is opening your mind, allowing your mind to change about big, ethical, and political questions. I know I changed my mind about a lot of things. I had a lot of crazy ideas. I grew up in a place… My dad had some pretty extreme ideas about women, pretty extreme ideas about race, pretty extreme ideas, pretty homophobic ideas, and I [insert] all of those ideas, more or less when I left home. That was a painful process. It was very difficult for me to separate out what I had been told from what I wanted to actually carry forward in my life and to separate out the voices in my head that were my father's voice, but they really sounded like my voice for a long time.
And I think one of the things that helped me a lot is I met a lot of mature people. I met people who knew what they believed, and they knew how they thought the world should be, but they didn't just treat me like a disappointment because I was a little bit lost or imperfect, or maybe even just wrong and hurtful about things.
I got to Cambridge University in 2008, which is when California first had Proposition 8 on the ballot, if you remember that, and the Mormon church gave a lot of money to essentially prop up this very homophobic piece of legislation. And I went off to Cambridge with a pretty offensive set of beliefs about people who were gay.
And I arrived in Cambridge and started spouting them off, and I encountered, I remember my first night there, I hadn't said anything, all I said was that I was Mormon, and the woman next to me just turned right away from me in this bar in Cambridge and just said loudly to the whole table, “I don't wanna talk to anybody that's homophobic” and just wouldn't speak to me the rest of the night.
And that wasn't so helpful for changing my mind, actually. But then the next night, I went to a dinner and I sat next to this guy and I started saying all these things, and he just kept drilling down, asking me more and more questions, and I said things, I can't even say them here. They're so offensive. I'm just, they upset me even to think about them, but I was saying these things and he had the most incredible response.
He essentially separated me out from the ideas, and he was saying things to me that were, they were sort of like, “You seem like a nice person. Help me understand how these ideas fit into your life.” And it was an amazing way of dealing with me because he didn't put me on the defensive, he wasn't attacking me.
And I'm sure you know this better than anyone. When we're under attack, we really can't take in new information, or a lot of our cognitive capacity just goes completely offline, and you're never gonna convince anybody of anything when you make them feel attacked. And so he had this incredible way of reassuring me like, “I’m not attacking you, I just wanna understand.”
We argued ’til three or four o'clock in the morning and, and then the next morning, I woke up at seven or eight and I sent the weirdest email I've maybe ever sent in my life, and I just wrote him and I said, “Hey Andrew, it was lovely to meet you yesterday. Just want you to know I've been thinking about what we talked about. And you’re right and I'm wrong. And I hope to see you later.”
You know, and it was, it was the beginning. It was the beginning of a big change for me, um, realizing my identity didn't have to be completely fixed on all of these ideas that I had and that I could change, and that there was room for that. I think a part of it was me, and I think a big part of it was some of the people I encountered who had conviction. You know, they were never gonna agree with me and my offensive ideas, but they, they also had some compassion and curiosity to give me space to change.
[00:12:26] Adam Grant:
It’s an incredible story. It, it sounds like Andrew was a master of what the psychologist Bill Miller and Steve Rollnick have called motivational interviewing, where instead of trying to shove a bunch of beliefs down your throat, he approached you with curiosity, trying to understand where you're coming from, and helped you see the complexity of your own beliefs, or in this case, the inconsistency and cognitive dissonance between your values on the one hand and some of the beliefs you espoused on the other, and then led you to find your own reasons to change.
[00:12:55] Tara Westover:
Well, I think it was because he wasn't attacking me. He wasn't saying “You are the worst person in the world. I can't believe you believe these horrible things. Do you have any idea how horrible it is what you're saying?” He had this incredible way of making me feel like I was good, like, “You’re a good person. I really don't understand how you can believe these things, but you seem great. So help me. Help me understand it.”
And I think what that does is that I could hear myself talk. I felt calm enough that I could hear my own self speaking and what I felt in those moments was “I never wanna say this again. I actually don't like saying this. This doesn't feel good.”
And I think it was probably that more than anything he said, I don't remember anything he said. Not a single thing. What I remember is the way I felt when I was speaking and I remember saying things, studies, studies I had read, horrible things that were not true, but I just like, I don't even like saying this. I never wanna say this again. He allowed me to feel calm enough that I could hear myself talk.
[00:13:53] Adam Grant:
That's such a powerful thing to do, and it's frankly something I've struggled to do frequently.
[00:13:58] Tara Westover:
Oh, I struggle with it hugely.
[00:14:00] Adam Grant:
I’m glad I'm not alone. I think, though, that the moments where I've remembered to do it or found the wherewithal to do it, I've always come away feeling like instead of bullying or prosecuting the other person, we actually had a thoughtful dialogue.
[00:14:14] Tara Westover:
I think what I’ve come to believe is key about that dynamic is that you don't go into the conversation needing it to be the case that the next day the person come to you and say, “Oh, you've opened my eyes and I've changed.” You know, sometimes it happens, it happened that way for me that one time. But I think the, the reason that you, that it works actually is that you're, your the interest in the person has to be fundamentally different than just changing them.
And that is a really difficult emotional space to occupy, especially with issues that you feel strongly about, that you believe are important, that you know are gonna hurt people. I think it takes a lot of maturity to be able to meet the world where it is and to accept the way the world's made, and at the same time be committed to the things that you believe and that are important to you.
But I do think that anybody whose mind has ever been changed, it's almost always because the people who are having these conversations with them have a greater interest in them than just “I need you to not be homophobic. I need you to not be sexist. I need you to be what I need you to be,” or “I need you to meet some ideal of the way I know the world should be.” I think those conversations almost never work in the long or the short term. And it's frustrating ‘cause it would be really great if they did.
[00:15:36] Adam Grant:
Yeah, I'd like the overnight version, please. You touched on something profound, which is I need to care more about learning than I do about changing you. That's hard.
[00:15:46] Tara Westover:
Yeah. I think especially when it comes to politics, people were so shocked, you know, the 2016 election and Trump won, and I think there was suddenly this huge interest in people that there hadn't really been before.
A lot of people, I think, especially on the left, were looking at people on the right and they were suddenly very interested in them, you know? But what they were really interested in was “Why did you vote for this person?” And I always thought, like, that distortion by itself means you're never gonna understand it.
I'm from Idaho and I'm friends with a lot of people from there. The shape of their lives, from their own perspective, like, that vote is not the apex of their life. That's not the terminal moment everything is building to. It’s one thing that happened and it's not even the most important thing. So you get all these, like, very strange interviews and stories that are kind of interested in people's life situation, but really they're just trying to get an answer to that one question.
Why do you believe the things you believe? Why do you vote the way you vote? And I think as long as that's your only interest, you will never understand that. You can't understand that because that's not the shape of people's lives from their own perspective. I think that there's very little good that happens, actually, from the kinds of conversations that just take place to try to change someone's mind, as admirable as that is, because these are important questions. But I think that more substantive change does come from being able to hold a space for “It's all right that the world is imperfect, but we do wanna make it better.”
[00:17:16] Adam Grant:
One of the things our team was really struck by in, you know, in going over your background and your expertise and insights is this, this point about how it would be really easy to mischaracterize your life to date as having lived the American dream and how you don't want your story to be seen as one of just individual grit and resilience, but to highlight where institutions have failed. And so I wondered if you wanted to talk a little bit about that.
[00:17:43] Tara Westover:
Stories like mine and memoirs that are written that are maybe similar to mine. They do tend to get, sometimes get deployed as evidence that everything is sort of fine and that if someone like me who never went to school was able to make it to Cambridge and Harvard, then clearly we live in a meritocracy and, and it's fine. And I mean, you're a social scientist, so you know if you take the outliers, it doesn't necessarily give you a representative idea of what's going on.
So I would say there's that argument to it, which is just that I don't think it matters so much what happened to me as does what happens to most people. And if you look at those numbers, we don't particularly live in meritocracy, and the US has a lot less social mobility than it used to have. It has a lot less than a lot of other countries, in fact.
And I think we wanna pay attention to that. We wanna pay attention to the fact that it used to be the case that people who were born into the bottom income quartile could move a little bit easier than they do now. That's something you just wanna know about your country in your system and, and pay attention to it.
And so I think using the outliers, not a good case for that. But then I thought even if you are gonna look at, at someone like me, you really wanna look. And I had a whole bunch of things in place that helped me. You know, I went to a Mormon university as heavily subsidized by the Mormon church. Heavily. Heavily.
And it's a good school. And tuition was $1,600 a semester and my rent was $190 a month. And I was an early morning janitor. I made $7 an hour cleaning toilets at four in the morning, and I worked the summers either for my dad or at a grocery store, and I got a Pell Grant, and I had no debt be—and I could do it, and debt would've been really terrifying and kind of unthinkable for me, let alone, you know, the $40,000 of debt that it would take now/
There were institutions in place when I went through there. It was hard. It was really miserable, but it wasn't impossible. I think it can be a lot to ask individuals to be resilient all the time. I'm not sure that individuals can always be resilient, but I do think communities can be, and I do think countries can be, that there can be an environment that we create where if people work hard, they can do well. And I'm not arguing it should be totally easy, but I, I do think it should be a little easier than it is right now.
[00:20:07] Adam Grant:
It's worth noting that if our institutions were working, your story wouldn't be remarkable. Right? It would be ordinary.
[00:20:14] Tara Westover:
A lot of people do fall into this once they've made it through to look back and say, “Well, it was all my own doing and I'm great and I worked really hard and if I could do it…” It’s very tempting. That narrative is, is extremely appealing. But if I'm honest with myself, I got a lot of help and individual help and I, I, and I look back at that ladder and some of the rungs have fallen out since I climbed up it.
[00:20:41] Adam Grant:
You ready for a lightning round? What’s a book we should all read to educate ourselves that you didn't write?
[00:20:47] Tara Westover:
The Power of Influence.
[00:20:48] Adam Grant:
Is there a piece of common advice that you think is bad?
[00:20:53] Tara Westover:
Yeah, I mean, this is a kind of deeper topic we haven't really touched yet, but I ended up becoming estranged from my family when I was in my twenties for what I think we'e really good, well-thought-out, carefully considered reasons, and I, I found a lot of people when you finally come to the conclusion that a relationship in your life is hurtful or toxic or whatever, a lot of really well-meaning lovely people will try to change your mind about that and will try to say, “Oh, family's most important thing and they really do love you.”
And that, that, that was hard. I, I think it was well-meaning, but I think it's hard for people to understand when you really do need to make a difficult decision like that. Just for your own sanity, maybe even for your own life. A lot of people having not lived that life will, will have a lot of kind of platitude, aphoristic advice. That was hard for me ‘cause I believed all those things and I was already very hard for me to, to make the boundary that I was trying to make.
[00:21:49] Adam Grant:
Is there something you've rethought recently?
[00:21:53] Tara Westover:
I'm trying to get up earlier, but I'm not rethinking that. I'm more recommitting myself.
[00:21:58] Adam Grant:
[00:22:00] Tara Westover:
I’m not good at the lightning round. I think we've established I'm not good at the lightning round.
[00:22:03] Adam Grant:
It's okay. I only have two more. What's a belief that you didn't rethink from your upbringing?
[00:22:08] Tara Westover:
My parents, they have a really good work ethic and I think they gave us all a pretty good work ethic. We were taught to work; we were taught to like working. I don't think I've rethought that. I have rethought it probably a little bit. I don't work the way that I used to. But yeah, I think that was something from my childhood I do value.
[00:22:26] Adam Grant:
And then finally, I've, I've started to notice that these podcast conversations can be very one-sided where I get to ask all the questions, which is a great way for me to maintain control of the conversation. And I'm trying to give some of that up. Is there a question that you wanna pose to your friendly neighborhood organizational psychologist?
[00:22:44] Tara Westover:
Well, I like your “what have you rethought recently”, so what have you rethought recently?
[00:22:49] Adam Grant:
I got a really funny email the other day from someone who's a coach who said, “I heard you talk recently on a podcast about how you have really struggled with being late.”
[00:23:00] Tara Westover:
You were late for this session.
[00:23:02] Adam Grant:
I was late for this session. I apologize for that. The coach emailed me and said, you know, “Normally I ask for a client's permission before giving a, a suggestion, but you're not my client. So, have you ever considered, given that one of your values is helping others, like, what, what impact it would have on others if you showed up on time?” And I was like, “Oh, this is delightful.” And I thought about it.
[00:23:24] Tara Westover:
[00:23:24] Adam Grant:
And I've been saying for years that one of my vices is being late. And what I've rethought in light of that email is I don't actually consider it a vice. Other people do. And if I thought there was something genuinely wrong with being late, I wouldn't be late.
[00:23:43] Tara Westover:
How do you feel when other people are late?
[00:23:44] Adam Grant:
Most of the time, if somebody else is late, I'm like, “Yes, I'll squeeze a little bit of reading in or I'll answer an email.”
[00:23:49] Tara Westover:
So your lightning response, once we've edited this all out and made it totally perfect, is you've rethought whether being late is a vice.
[00:23:57] Adam Grant:
Yes, exactly. I don't think it's a vice. It’s a priority to, to me, to be on time if, if something important is dependent on me. I’m not late to class; I’m not late on stage, right?
But if there's flexibility on when the thing can begin, I will be seizing that flexibility. And often it's because, yeah, I'm trying to do too many things, or I'm trying to be available to too many people, but I really don't think it's a vice.
[00:24:22] Tara Westover:
I just imagine some people are really gonna feel it, you know. If somebody’s, like, a little bit self-important, and I know they're gonna be sitting there tapping their fingernails. I don't mind that situation as much, but it's like people that I think are gonna read into it or feel like I don't care about the meeting, then I hate being late.
Yeah. I hate it. I worry, I guess, they’re gonna think, I think I’m, you know, that their time isn't important or something. And so I'll be that person on the train texting 20 times about how apologetic I am that I'm five minutes late and, and they're probably thinking, “You should talk to your therapist about this. This is not a big deal, but you seem upset about it.”
[00:24:55] Adam Grant:
I would never want anyone to think that I don't care about them or that their time isn't important to me. I think where I struggle on this is you can't waste my time because there's always something else I could be doing. Right? Like even just having time to think. Like, I love to think. I think for a living. I picked it as my career.
While we're on the subject of opening people's minds, can we talk for a second about conspiracy theories? You used to subscribe to a lot of them. You still have relationships with people who believe in many of them.
[00:25:24] Tara Westover:
It wasn't even that I subscribed to them. It was like they were the only things I'd ever heard. They were the mainstream for me, but that's another issue.
[00:25:31] Adam Grant:
A month or two ago, I walked into a hornet's nest without meaning to. I’d been reading all this research—
[00:25:37] Tara Westover:
A literal hornet’s nest?
[00:25:38] Adam Grant:
It was a metaphorical hornet's nest, and the hornets were humans who did not like the evidence I was sharing. I've been reading for a number of years research on why people believe in conspiracy theories, and I'm not talking about just one theory, right? But why do many people cling to many conspiracy theories? One of the key findings that I, I thought was worth sharing is that oftentimes it stems from narcissism.
Um, and that different flavors of narcissism predispose people toward liking conspiracy theories for different reasons. If you're a grandiose narcissist, you really want to feel special and say, “Well, I know something you don’t." If you're more of a vulnerable narcissist, you're paranoid and yourparanoia is self-centered. “Okay? Yes, of course there are powerful groups out there, right? And they are trying to orchestrate the world to their benefit, but of all the people they could take advantage of, they're out to get me. Me, they want to manipulate me because I'm that important. Right?” So I shared this evidence a little bit tongue in cheek, and a lot of people freaked out and said, “But I'm not a narcissist.”
I'm like, “Um, this is not about you. I think you missed the point of the research I'm sharing.” I realized at that point that I was sort of being misperceived as trying to rile people up or, or get attention. Is there a way to share this kind of evidence without, with-without offending people? Is there a better way into the conversation about conspiracy theories altogether that doesn't rely on evidence?
Do I have to give up my identity as a social scientist if I want to talk about what I know about these things? Help me think about how to engage this conversation better in the future.
[00:27:17] Tara Westover:
I remember when I first had to start doing events, I'd never done any public speaking. I'd never done any media and I had to learn a lot real fast when my book came out, and I watched some video somewhere where somebody was talking about when you're giving a talk, what you really wanna do is you wanna build a fence around your idea.
And so you have your idea but in order to make sure people don't misunderstand you, you build a fence and say all the things it isn't. And I think that can be very reassuring for people so they don't feel attacked. And you know, when you were talking, I was thinking if narcissism is the reason that these conspiracy theories take hold or is a contributing factor or a big contributing factor, then I have some questions.
Do we have more narcissists now than we used to? I think it can be helpful to acknowledge all those things that we don't know right up front as a way of saying, “I actually don't have the perfect explanation for this because here are the questions that come off this that I can't answer,” or “Here are possible answers.”
But I think that can help people feel more like they're part of the exploration, not that they're being told, “Oh, I found the answer. Let me give you the answer.” Rather to say, “Here's the thing I've noticed, but it doesn't explain this and it doesn't explain this, and I have a huge question about why this, and why don't we think through it?” I, sometimes conviction just is met with an equal degree of resistance. You know?
[00:28:34] Adam Grant:
Yes. You're, you're spot on.
[00:28:35] Tara Westover:
And so I think you never wanna present information in a way that triggers people's resistance, because that is not a rational or a cognitive process, and you can't penetrate it with, with reason, I think.
[00:28:50] Adam Grant:
This is, this is a lesson I need to relearn over—
[00:28:53] Tara Westover:
Mine can't be penetrated with reason either.
[00:28:55] Adam Grant:
I think this is exactly what I needed to hear, which is I could have presented the same information, but as a little bit of a puzzle or a mystery. There's, there's a lot of evidence that shows that if you take a bunch of people from the population and you expose them to a bunch of conspiracy theories, narcissists are more likely to be drawn to them than the rest of us. What's going on there and how does that fit into the explosion of conspiracy theories we're seeing right now? That is a much more interesting conversation that people can contribute to as opposed to feeling judged by.
[00:29:27] Tara Westover:
Yeah, I think puzzle is anything that feels collaborative. It's that disarming quality where you don’t, you don't trigger someone's defenses and then they're just, they're there with you. You know? It's attunement. As long as you stay attuned with people, there's trust, and as soon as you start getting heavy-handed or trying to lead people by the hand too much, they know. I don't know how they know, but they know and they just resist.
Even if they agree with you. Especially when I was younger, I got a lot of arguments with people about things I fundamentally agreed with just because I did not like being pushed. I think as I've gotten older I do a little bit less of that, but I'm no better than anybody else if I feel talked down to, and certain parts of the population, I think parts of the population that are used to being excluded from the conversations, hard to find a more sensitive group of people to being talked down to than people who've been left out of the culture for 30, 40, 50, 100 years and their resistance gets triggered pretty easily, but I'm, I'm from there, so mine does too.
[00:30:27] Adam Grant:
I think we're all human. Mine does as well in these situations. It really bothers me when people believe things that, uh, I think strong evidence falsifies. It’s part of my mission as a social scientist, right, to replace false beliefs with better ones. And so there's the button that gets pushed when I come across people believing things that I think are highly unlikely to be true.
And what I'm trying to do when I engage in those situations is to basically say, “I know you're smarter than this, and let me share with you information that is locked up behind a bunch of walls or paywalls.”
[00:31:00] Tara Westover:
Does that work? Do you find this effective?
[00:31:01] Adam Grant:
No. No, no, no, no. But this, this is what's going on in my head. Right? Like, in a way, Tara, it's a little bit like what, what you had happen at Cambridge, which is I know you're an intelligent person. Um, you don't have access to this evidence. Let me share it. Right? But what people are hearing is not—
[00:31:16] Tara Westover:
Yeah, that’s not gonna work.
[00:31:17] Adam Grant:
It's not. But, and people are hearing even a worse version of that, which is “I think you're stupid.” Which is not at all what I wanna convey.
[00:31:23] Tara Westover:
[00:31:24] Adam Grant:
So how would you approach that differently?
[00:31:26] Tara Westover:
Yeah. I do think one of the amazing things about his name was Andrew at Cambridge, is he wasn't even saying “I know the answer and you don’t. Explain to me why you haven't connected this yet.” He had a great sensitivity for the fact that we're all equally lost, and so he would sort of say things to me like, “To me, these views are upsetting, but you seem nice, so I need you to help me.”
It's that kind of talking down thing that becomes difficult where I just, I've been wrong about so many things in my life that even when there are things that I think, “Oh, I've really thought this through and I've really read the books about this,” and I think even when I'm fairly certain, I do really try to keep hold of the idea that I might still be wrong, or this person might know things that I really don't know, might be wise in ways that I'm not wise.
And yeah, I, so I don't think that Andrew was just saying, “Well, I know the answer and you seem smart. How come you haven't arrived at my answer yet?” That would've made me resistant, I think, really quickly. It was more relative than that. “You know, to me, this is how these ideas seem, but you don't seem that way. So help me get there.” And, and then we would basically end up talking about whether, whether the idea, you know, we really could talk about the ideas and whether they were good ideas or bad ideas.
But I do think it's that kind of general respect for where everybody is in their process and giving people as much space and dignity as you can. I've developed what I hope is a kind of healthy skepticism of anything that claims to have the answer because it's never really that simple.
[00:33:03] Adam Grant:
You're also reminding us of the importance of intellectual humility, and I think where a lot of us struggle on that is when you know, when we're trying to convey our expertise to someone who's less knowledgeable. As a personal example of this, the reason that I'm communicating these ideas is because I've spent a huge chunk of my life trying to accumulate this knowledge and building a skill to synthesize it and share it with people, and to then be told I don't value that because I have my opinion when I'm trying to bring together the best possible evidence and summarize it in a way that's useful, that doesn't resonate with me either.
[00:33:40] Tara Westover:
You’re gonna fail occasionally because that's the nature of life, but you're clearly succeeding on a huge level with all the things that you're doing. So I would say don't be disheartened, but it's an interesting conversation that we could have about the sources of authority.
The thing is that the world has become so complicated. No one has the time to read all of these studies, absolutely nobody, and look at the methodology and see how they're working. Even in their own field, a lot of people don’t really have the ability to truly keep up with everything that's happening and verify that a study wasn't conducted in some horrible way.
The sources of authority that people go to in their lives, it becomes really important. The concern that I have is it increasingly we don't know who it is. When I left the Mormon church, when I was at Cambridge, I went through this period where I felt like everything about Mormonism was really backward, and if we could just get rid of the Mormon leadership, then feminism would be doing better. Sexism wouldn't be a problem. And homophobia, if we just got rid of these old men telling everyone these horrible things then everything would be better. And it was sort of interesting ‘cause there's a way where that actually has happened with the internet.
A lot of rural Mormons who used to really would just listen to what everything the church leadership said are now much more invested in these kind of online identities. And we had an interesting test of that with COVID actually, where the Mormon Church leadership all came out and said, because a lot of people in Utah and Idaho were not getting vaccinated, and the Mormon Church came out and said, “Please get vaccinated. This is insane. Just go get your COVID vaccine.”
And the rate of Mormons who got vaccinated changed not at all. What has happened over the last 10 or 20 years is that source of authority has not been completely replaced, but it's been significantly weakened as people have found other identities that are more meaningful. That was really interesting to me to actually live in a world or see, see a world where those local sources were eroded, and it was not the utopia that I thought it would be.
[00:35:39] Adam Grant:
Well, that is I think, a poignant place to land. Thank you, Tara.
[00:35:44] Tara Westover:
Thank you very much.
[00:35:47] Adam Grant:
This discussion has me thinking hard about the goals of conversation. I've been saying for years that good communicators try to look smart, but great communicators try to make their audiences feel smart. And I've been failing at that in too much of my communication. I've been so focused on the information that I want to share that I'm not thinking enough about what the audience has to bring to the table.
And I think that's something we should all take to heart, right? The question is not just what am I offering, but also what does the other person have to share and how can we talk in a way that makes all of us smarter?
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.
I guess I've been rethinking the, I'm trying, I don't even know how to articulate this. Hold on a second. You know what, these lightning rounds are crap. Who does this to someone else?
[00:37:02] Tara Westover:
[00:37:02] Adam Grant:
They’re really hard. No, I think—
[00:37:02] Tara Westover:
I’m telling you, they’re, well, some people probably love them.
[00:37:04] Adam Grant:
I think I just, I break the format of them. They're supposed to be like, “What's your favorite ice cream? And tell me about a movie you loved recently.” And I'm like, “No. Gimme a lightning answer to the meaning of life.
[00:37:14] Tara Westover:
It's my next question.
[00:37:16] Adam Grant:
Yeah, exactly. I do not have one.