ReThinking with Adam Grant
What animal intelligence reveals about human stupidity with Justin Gregg
March 7, 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 Justin Gregg, an expert on animal cognition and behavior, and a star science writer. He did his doctorate on dolphin social intelligence and asked delightfully big and bold questions about whether we're really smarter than animals. Justin teaches a course on animal minds, voices characters in animated movies, and hosts the Dolphin Pod. I loved his book If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity.
Let me start by asking, how did you get interested in studying animals?
[00:00:50] Justin Gregg:
I was always interested in animals. Uh, my whole life, my mom worked for the Humane Society, as did my grandmother, and so we always had animals in our lives. But when I went to university, I ended up studying linguistics.
I wasn't that good at science. Uh, like I wasn't good at math. I had a hard time in biology, and so I had this career path that went in a completely non-animal direction. Until I had an epiphany at some point in my, my mid-to-late twenties, and I'm like, “No, I want to dedicate my life to animals.” And so I went back to figure out how I could turn a linguistics degree into working with animals every day.
[00:01:25] Adam Grant:
And how did you land at dolphins then?
[00:01:26] Justin Gregg:
I'd always been into marine mammals. Like I loved whales. I went whale watching as a kid. Whales and dolphins were always part of my life. And then when I was trying to turn that linguistics degree into animal research, the obvious avenue is to study how animals communicate, and there had been a lot of work done with dolphins and human language, like learning symbol systems, and so that's where it started. I, it was either dolphins or, you know, one of the great ape species or maybe a, a corvid, but I chose dolphins.
[00:01:54] Adam Grant:
Well, I, I've been envious of dolphins for a long time in two ways. One is, as a former diver, I always wanted to be able to, to do the flips as smoothly and effortlessly as they did. Um, but also I love the fact, and you can correct me if I've misread this, but I, I learned a long time ago that dolphins can actually sleep with one half of their brain and keep the other half awake. Is this true?
[00:02:18] Justin Gregg:
Yeah, that's right. A dolphin needs to be awake to take a breath, uh, because the blowhole is closed and then it, when it's sleeping, it otherwise wouldn't breathe, so it can't be fully asleep or it wouldn't be able to take a breath ‘cause it has to swim up to the surface.
So the solution is to only sleep one half of the brain at a time so that it can always be slowly swimming and always going up for a breath. And so it sort of will shut off some of its brain for a few hours and then the other half for another few hours and it gets, you know, about eight hours of sleep altogether.
[00:02:47] Adam Grant:
How do I get this ability?
[00:02:49] Justin Gregg:
I don't know. I mean, you can try cutting the corpus callosum, see what happens, but I would, I recommend against trying that.
[00:02:57] Adam Grant:
The subtitle of your book, it’s “What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity.” What do we underestimate about animal intelligence?
[00:03:05] Justin Gregg:
I, I think what we assume for humans is we have a level of complexity that animals don't have, which is true. And we also uh, assume that that is good. Uh, good in an evolutionary sense or just good in a value-ridden sense, which would mean that animals aren't as good when it comes to thinking. But if you look at the history of animals and everything that has happened, including our own evolutionary history, intelligence in the way that humans possess it doesn't exist and doesn't matter, and usually isn't particularly successful.
So many animals are successful without thinking the way that we think. So if you really think about the history of animal life, you realize that intelligence hasn’t been rewarded particularly very often, and as I argue in the book, might actually be very bad for us as a species.
[00:03:52] Adam Grant:
When you talk about animals being successful, what do you mean? Are you thinking about evolutionary success? Are you thinking about achieving their goals? Finding contentment?
[00:04:01] Justin Gregg:
I literally struggled with that in the book ‘cause I don't have the answers in that section where I'm talking about my friend Brendan about what is winning in an evolutionary sense. I didn't have a good answer, like I had to figure it out.
So there's a few ways to define it. Like, yo u point out: an animal species that has been around for the longest in its current form, you might say that that's, it's winning. It, ‘cause it didn't have to change, but I don't know. That doesn't seem to really make sense, or just the fact that there's a lot of them. I don't know if that's a good way to do it.
Like there are a lot of bacteria. I don't know if that means that they're winning. So what I came down on, and the only way I can sort of get the philosophical, ethical side with the biological side is, is to talk about pleasure. An animal that goes about its daily life, with the least amount of unhappiness and the most amount of pleasure, I think they would be winning at life.
[00:04:51] Adam Grant:
Well, that's a pretty narrow way to define human success, right? We're much more than pleasure-seeking or misery-avoiding or, or pain-minimizing creatures, right? We also seek meaning; we seek growth. We want to lead rich lives. Do we have any ways of gauging, like, do animals, experience, meaning, and purpose for?
[00:05:10] Justin Gregg:
That's always so hard ‘cause without language it's difficult to know what's going on. When your cat is looking out the window, whether or not they have experienced, you know, an epiphany and think about the eternal soul and beauty, it’s hard to know. We know humans do do it, but that's one of the things I question in the book ‘cause it's a good argument to say that like finding meaning in life is inherently good, but I'm not even so sure that that's necessarily true because, ‘cause the problem with that, as I point out in the book, when you know about your own mortality, it brings with it a lot of misery. And that can lead to things like depression and, and, and anxiety and suicide in some cases.
So it's not always good to think too hard about things. And then of course, what I argue in the book is, like, all those amazing cognitive skills that allow us to find this meaning are also the cognitive skills that are very quickly hurtling us toward extinction, potentially. So they may not be good for us in the long term.
[00:06:04] Adam Grant:
If you take a very long view, you can also argue that without knowledge of mortality, it's hard to find meaning and purpose. And you could make the case too, that there are many forces that could cause our extinction, that require intelligence to prevent or solve our destruction. Right? I, it seems like intelligence from your point of view is a double-edged sword.
[00:06:26] Justin Gregg:
You're right, of course, the argument is our intelligence might have gotten us into this problem, but it also is the solution. Like, we can fix our problems. And so then you sort of have to say, “Well, but are we going to?” Because if there's one thing humans seem to be very poor at, it's uniting in a global way to fix existential threats. I don't think we're good at that. But that just comes down to if I've had a glass of wine, I might feel a little happier about our prospects than if I haven't or what, you know. So there's no answer to that.
[00:06:53] Adam Grant:
After I read your book the first time, I thought if I had to, to summarize your worldview, it would be that for the dinosaurs, ignorance was bliss, but then it also made it impossible to escape a mass extinction.
[00:07:06] Justin Gregg:
Ignorance is bliss, I guess, is sort of the take-home, uh, message of the book. And of course, eventually, the sun will engulf the earth and we’ll all be dead anyway, so it's all just a matter of the scale of the length. Dinosaurs were around for a very long time. Humans, you know, we've only been in our current form for maybe a couple hundred thousand years. For such a dominant species, we are in danger of, like, snuffing out very quickly, which I think is the irony of our intelligence.
[00:07:33] Adam Grant:
Well, I have every intention of us figuring out how to outlast the sun, but that is a conversation for another day, so…
[00:07:40] Justin Gregg:
Yes, there's a lot of people who agree with that.
[00:07:41] Adam Grant:
In the meantime, how do you actually think about what animal intelligence is? When in psychology, when we study human intelligence, we think about it as the capacity to reason and learn. Is it the same in animals or do you have different ways of, of conceptualizing and measuring it?
[00:07:57] Justin Gregg:
There are some things that are sort of the same between different disciplines, whether or not that's AI or, or animal cognition. Usually, the things that, when we're talking about humans that apply to human kinds of intelligence and tests, psychometric tests for human intelligence don't apply to animals ‘cause they literally can't be given as a test ‘cause they're often linguistic-based. So with animals, you'll have similar sort of things. Like are they good at problem-solving, and how are they good at using a paucity of information to create a solution to a problem?
That's usually one of the forms of intelligence, but those are just sort of vague. There's no term that everyone studying animal cognition would use for intelligence, which is why you usually don't hear animal cognition scientists talking about intelligence. They usually talk about cognition, specific ways of thinking that an animal does.
[00:08:46] Adam Grant:
Got it. Okay. So let's dive into animal cognition then. One of the questions you grapple with in the book is consciousness. I've actually started wondering about this a lot in the last couple years. I had never had pets growing up, did not interact with animals much, and now we have two cats. And I'm constantly wondering what's going on in there, and are they self-aware? Uh, so what does the science tell us?
[00:09:08] Justin Gregg:
The science is great ‘cause it's filled with scientists who fundamentally disagree on that question. I think we're moving toward an era where we're accepting that consciousness, if you, if you define it as just having some sort of experience, any sort of experience in your mind at all, pretty universal in that you might have insects like Lars Chittka, he wrote a fantastic book that's just out on, on insects, and he argues that they have consciousness as well.
So consciousness can be something very, very, boringly basic, just an in the experience of the world, whatever that might mean. Qualia, as a philosopher would say. But then you have things like self-awareness, which is different because you can be consciously aware of yourself in different forms, ‘cause you could be consciously aware that you have a body and then that body is separate from the world.
That's a very basic form. But then you have this metacognitive consciousness, which is you're aware of your own thinking, and you're aware of the knowledge that you have and that you don't have, and that's a more complex form. So then the question is, which of these things do animals have and not have? Like what does your cat have?
Do they have metacognition? Do they have body self-awareness, temporal self-awareness about themselves, projecting themselves in the future, episodic foresight? That kind of thing. Those can be empirical questions. You can get some answers on that.
[00:10:23] Adam Grant:
[00:10:24] Justin Gregg:
It all again, depends on the scientist's interpretation. Some people would say yes.
[00:10:28] Adam Grant:
Well, what do you, what do you think though, as, as someone who spends a lot of time synthesizing science?
[00:10:31] Justin Gregg:
I would say that the consciousness itself is pretty universal in the most basic form, just awareness. Things like episodic foresight, theory of mind, I’m actually more conservative in thinking that maybe they are unique to the human species.
Other people would say “No, we definitely know for sure chimpanzees have theory of mind. It's the same as humans.” But in general, compared to your average animal cognition scientist, I'm probably attributing more abilities to animals than less ‘cause if there's one thing we know through the history of animal cognition studies is everything we were sure animals couldn't do, turns out that they can and that just keeps progressing every year.
[00:11:07] Adam Grant:
What are some examples?
[00:11:08] Justin Gregg:
Even more basic things like counting, like the ability to understand concepts of one or two or even zero. Those seem like human-style concepts that are complicated, but, but we know even insects, bees as they're flying over landmarks can count the number of landmarks they've passed to, to judge distance and where they are. So things like that are mind-blowing, I, I guess, in a sense, but actually quite common, but we wouldn't have thought that 40 years ago.
[00:11:35] Adam Grant:
That’s so interesting. Psychologists have been studying number systems across cultures and turns out a lot of languages only go up to four.
[00:11:42] Justin Gregg:
[00:11:43] Adam Grant:
And then five plus is just a lot, right?
[00:11:46] Justin Gregg:
[00:11:46] Adam Grant:
And so by that standard, animals are geniuses, right?
[00:11:49] Justin Gregg:
It's always interesting ‘cause that is how most animals’ numerical systems would be. Like, they're pretty good around 2, 3, 4, 5, and after that, it's just a lot versus not a lot, less or more. Um, so that's weird, but that seems to be, I guess, a universal in brains, you know?
[00:12:06] Adam Grant:
Yeah. That's such an unusual idea. When I think about consciousness—you talk about metacognition and self-awareness—I also think about having goals as a key element of consciousness, right? I have a target for action that I want to achieve, and I can judge success or failure by that. And that's really different from a basic drive that you see in animals, right?
Like, I wouldn't say that an animal going to eat because it's hungry has a goal, right? It just has a drive and it wants to reduce the pain of, you know, of feeling hungry. But I do feel like there's a case to be made that particularly primates have goals. They're excited when they achieve them. They're disappointed when they fall short of them. How, how far does that go across animal species?
[00:12:47] Justin Gregg:
I guess you could ascribe uh, getting food as having a goal in the sense that there's just a, a basic drive to want something. And the question is: to what extent is that goal present in a conscious way? Are they aware of the goal? They're thinking about it and then they're thinking about solutions to it.
That might be less common, but yes. When you're looking at like a, you do an experiment, a problem-solving experiment where, like, one of those displacement ones, like you have a piece of food in a, in a bottle, and the only way to get that food out is to add water to the bottle so the food rises up and you see a crow or a chimpanzee solve that problem.
They must have the goal consciously in their mind of getting the food and then goals about how to use one item to interact with another item so they can use tools. Like, they must be representing these concepts, these goal-based concepts in their minds. There's no other explanation because if you've already ruled out trial and error through the experiment, it has to be goal-directed behavior.
[00:13:44] Adam Grant:
Psychologists have studied pigeons for a long time and I, I can't even fathom what pigeons are able to do. Right? Being able to find directions to a place that is extraordinarily far without a map. I think that's incredible. And then I just read that pigeons can be trained to recognize cancer in X-rays at a, something like 99% accuracy rate, but I don't think of a pigeon as smart. So tell me, like, how do you explain what pigeons can do? Correct me on what pigeons can actually do. And, like, what does that mean about intelligence?
[00:14:18] Justin Gregg:
You can train a pigeon just through learned associations to recognize the difference because they have great visual acuity between cancerous and non-cancerous tissue.
They will be better than a trained radiologist one-on-one, head-to-head, but that has nothing to do with complex cognition one way because of what it shows you is the absolute power and beauty of learned associations, which is how most animals learn things and deal with the world. So the pigeon isn't representing a goal of spotting cancerous tissue in its mind.
Not at all. It's not thinking very hard about what it's doing at all. It's just making very basic learned associations through its sensory system, which is better than humans in this domain, and producing a behavior which is very helpful and functional, but it isn't intelligent in that sense because it's not like we're talking about goal-directed.
So it shows the power of basic learning and learned associations in the animal kingdom, which is why the animal kingdom doesn't need all that extra intelligence because it's so powerful with basic learning.
[00:15:19] Adam Grant:
So in that sense then, a pigeon's learning is actually much less like a human than it is say, computer vision.
[00:15:26] Justin Gregg:
Yeah. I guess that in that sense, yes. The, uh, a pigeon is almost more like an AI system, that you're, they're training than a human.
[00:15:33] Adam Grant:
Yeah. I, I was just thinking, like, when I think about machine learning, right? The machine doesn't know cancer versus non-cancer either, right? It just knows how to spot the visual differences between the two.
[00:15:42] Justin Gregg:
That's a great example, which is why we now use AIs to do so many things that it's better than humans. It's, you know, it's very specific what we're tasking them to do. But machine learning can accomplish things faster and more effectively. Like if you had to design a chess champion, it's gonna be a machine, not a human, because they're, they're better at that than humans.
No human can ever beat a machine in chess. It's over. They have won. Um, which shows you that, that kind of learning, non-human thinking, non-human learning is itself very powerful.
[00:16:11] Adam Grant:
That's why we're very careful then about saying this is a specific form of artificial intelligence. It's not general intelligence.
[00:16:16] Justin Gregg:
Of course, that's the difference, and there's such a great debate as to whether or not general intelligence is even something we could create or design. I'm a little pessimistic, frankly, about that.
[00:16:28] Adam Grant:
I, I am too, although that I think it might be optimistic to be pessimistic about that.
[00:16:32] Justin Gregg:
It's true. I'd rather not invent a, a super-intelligent, uh, singularity-style AI system. I think it would be bad. I'm on board with keeping them in single domain.
[00:16:43] Adam Grant:
I am too. I, I worry a lot about unintended consequences and I don't know that we're smart enough to manage that. And I'm not confident that artificial general intelligence would be either to our liking.
[00:16:53] Justin Gregg:
I mean, I love all the, the science fiction stories, but some of these are legitimate concerns like that. What was the, the paperclip replicator one? Like if you gave even a boring machine, a simple task, it can still destroy the planet to solve it, you know.
[00:17:07] Adam Grant:
Yeah, that would be bad. I wanna get to a lightning round. If you had to say, what is the smartest animal?
[00:17:14] Justin Gregg:
[00:17:15] Adam Grant:
[00:17:18] Justin Gregg:
What? Because they are the one animal we cannot defeat. We, with all of our intelligence, cannot eradicate them. They have very simple behaviors, and yet it's so effective. And when they get in your house, you almost can't get rid of 'em, no matter how smart you are.
[00:17:32] Adam Grant:
Wow. Okay. I have to do a follow-up, which is, if, if we were gonna take the stricter definition of intelligence that, that you offered around problem-solving, what animal species do you think is the, the smartest problem solver?
[00:17:44] Justin Gregg:
Humans followed by, uh, corvids, Maybe crows and ravens.
[00:17:50] Adam Grant:
Moreso than dolphins or chimps?
[00:17:51] Justin Gregg:
Uh, well, chimps are pretty good too, but I think in their everyday life, crows and ravens are just out in the world. You know, they're cosmopolitan species, they're everywhere. They are solving problems every day. The dolphins are good too, but usually, what we see them, their smartest stuff is in a lab. Out in the natural world, they’re doing great work but more examples of smartness come from everyday crows.
[00:18:14] Adam Grant:
What's the animal whose intelligence we underestimate the most? Is there an animal that's stereotyped as dumb that's actually quite smart?
[00:18:20] Justin Gregg:
I'm gonna say raccoons, actually, because there's a scientist I had interviewed for this book, but I didn't include her in there, studying raccoon intelligence.
And that's the number one problem is, like, people don't think about raccoons at all. Like, we know they're kind of smart, but actually, they might be very, very smart ‘cause like ravens and crows, they're out in the world trying to make their way. They're omnivores; they live next to humans. They're probably wicked smart and we don't think of them that way. We don't test them because they're vermin that live next to us.
[00:18:49] Adam Grant:
I see a, a future animated film starring your voice with a raccoon as the central character.
[00:18:53] Justin Gregg:
Please cast me.
[00:18:55] Adam Grant:
You are a voice actor. You've played a lot of characters in animated movies. What have you learned from that?
[00:19:03] Justin Gregg:
Well, what's nice about when you're acting, it's another one of these things where you have to get rid of yourself and inhabit the mind of someone else, and that is another amazing human trait to be able to act and think like another person. When you have to do that as an actor, it also is one of those things that gets rid of your ego because you're not you anymore. And so I think it's helpful. Acting is helpful in that sense.
[00:19:28] Adam Grant:
There’s this, this question that people love to ask around the interface of human and animal cognition, which is, what is it that makes us uniquely human? And I have seen so many hypotheses thrown out and then potentially falsified, you know, from language to anticipating the future, to creativity, to culture, to the ability to tell stories and make up fiction. What is the one attribute that you think makes us most uniquely human?
[00:19:51] Justin Gregg:
Our interest in the thoughts of others. I would say that's it. ‘Cause that leads to all the rest.
[00:19:58] Adam Grant:
[00:19:59] Justin Gregg:
[00:20:00] Adam Grant:
[00:20:01] Justin Gregg:
Yeah, like my cat interacts with me every day, but probably doesn't care what I think or believe. It can get everything it needs just by watching my behavior and predicting what's next. But humans don't do that. We’re “I wanna know what you think. I want to ‘cause that helps me interact with you.” That's where everything else springs from in our culture, in our, in our intelligence.
[00:20:21] Adam Grant:
You’re reminding me of a Judd Apatow standup bit that I saw that cracked me up not long ago. He said… It’s something like, “Can you imagine going to the 1970s and telling people ‘I'm gonna take a bunch of Polaroids of myself and then mail them out to my friends because I wanna gather their opinions on them.’”
[00:20:41] Justin Gregg:
[00:20:42] Adam Grant:
We're the only species that does that.
[00:20:44] Justin Gregg:
[00:20:45] Adam Grant:
[00:20:45] Justin Gregg:
It’s weird, but it is a, it is at the root of our, uh, kind of social cognition, which leads to our social intelligence.
[00:20:52] Adam Grant:
One of the biggest challenges to my thinking in your book, maybe the biggest, was you make the case that asking “why” is overrated. Why? Why do you believe this?
[00:21:03] Justin Gregg:
Well, it is of course the basis of science. Uh, but I was, we were talking about before with pigeons, like learned associations are so powerful and that's the sort of competing way of thinking and “why” is great. Uh, it leads to our technology and our science, but it leads to all the things that are dangerous, like the threat of nuclear war.
That's us solving the, you know, problems in physics and chemistry. It's that double-edged sword thing. Like every time we do something good with a “why” question, we also do something potentially terrible. And, and it's so stupid for me to argue this, but like ‘cause I love science, but I'm like, “Oh, it'd be great if we didn't do it,” which seems absurd obviously, but, but, but it is dangerous.
[00:21:42] Adam Grant:
This speaks to something that's always bothered me that I think sometimes science would be better off if we focused on asking “how” questions than “why” questions. And sometimes humans would be better off too. When I think about the research on the illusion of, of explanatory depth, for example, the idea that people are overconfident in their understanding of things, and one of the ways that you can break through that overconfidence is not to ask them why they believe what they believe, because then they just double down on their convictions. But to ask them, “Well, how do you know?” Or, “How does that work?” And all of a sudden they, they see the gaps in their knowledge in, in some cases. I wonder if “why” questions are, are sometimes counterproductive.
[00:22:19] Justin Gregg:
That's a brilliant juxtaposition. A “how” versus a “why” question is great. So many of the things that we convince ourselves are true, which are dangerously wrong, are because we've asked why, but we don't question how we arrived at the “why” because a lot of engineering or medicine, that's all a “how” question. It's mechanistic almost.
[00:22:39] Adam Grant:
Yes. There are certain kinds of “why”questions that are just unanswerable with science. I remember studying chemistry in high school and asking why is water made of H2O. Well, it just is.
[00:22:50] Justin Gregg:
Why is there water? Why is there anything as opposed to nothing? Why is their life? Why do we have to die? Those sorts of “why” questions are fundamental to the human condition and philosophy.
[00:22:59] Adam Grant:
Yeah. It seems like if you push any way, “why” question far enough they become sort of existential.
[00:23:04] Justin Gregg:
Yes, that's right. And answers to existential questions are rarely comforting.
[00:23:12] Adam Grant:
I'm not sure I want to abandon “why” questions altogether. When Brian Little talks in his research about personal projects, he calls them, you know, both magnificent obsessions and also trivial pursuits. We all have projects that are goals we want to achieve and actions that we want to take. And when I ask “how” questions, it's really easy to help people make plans.
So you move from a goal to an intention to a habit, you know, you can build that into your day, but it's really difficult to find motivation by asking “how” questions. But I think the act of asking the “why” question is useful because it helps you identify how close is my project or my goal to my core values. Okay, now.
[00:23:53] Justin Gregg:
[00:23:54] Adam Grant:
What do you make of that?
[00:23:54] Justin Gregg:
Is it useful to ask “why” questions at all? Or is it better to be like a hermit crab and not ask “why” questions? And that's a fun question, but that's irrelevant because we already ask “why” questions. We are humans. It's inescapable, so it's too late. The ship is sailed. I'm going to have to ask “why” questions and therefore within the context of humanity, “why” questions are all we have.
And they are great questions like you say, because if you're not asking them, you're just existing. We need the “why” questions in order to function because it's who we are as a species.
[00:24:24] Adam Grant:
Wow. Well, you just anticipated my next question. I was gonna ask you if you believe that we have to ask que—“why” questions. Why do you think “why” is so central to humans?
[00:24:33] Justin Gregg:
It's actually, uh, not an easy question because as I point out in the book, like we, we, we lived alongside chimpanzees who don't usually ask many “why” questions for hundreds of thousands of years not really using those “why” questions to change our lifestyle that much from chimpanzees so we don't necessarily need them.
Nonetheless, it's undeniable that they are part and parcel of the human condition. So why do they exist? They do confer an advantage. We do create fire and make clothing and figure out how the world works ‘cause we're curious as to why things happen. So usually, most of the time they help us and that's why natural selection chose it to exist.
Of course, so I, as I talk about like maybe the long-term question consequences are bad, or maybe we will survive the death of the sun and be living in another solar system. Nonetheless, they are helpful.
[00:25:23] Adam Grant:
Alright Justin, I've realized, now that I'm having weekly podcast conversations that the questioning process is very one-sided. Is there a question, do you, that you have for me?
[00:25:30] Justin Gregg:
Do you ever have self-doubt?
[00:25:33] Adam Grant:
Of course, everybody has self-doubt, don't they?
[00:25:35] Justin Gregg:
Well, how, how does it not consume you?
[00:25:39] Adam Grant:
Oh, I love the, the Glennon Doyle observation that an emotion is often a package that was delivered to you, and you can choose whether you want to receive it and accept it and open it or you can return it to sender.
When self-doubts creep up, I’m like, well, like, “No. Reject. I'm gonna send that one back. I don't want it.” Where I feel them most often is when I, I take on a new challenge or I'm in an unfamiliar setting. When I'm getting on a stage and I've got a new audience, I'm like, “I do not know how this talk is gonna come across. I don't know if I'm gonna connect with them. They're probably not gonna laugh at any of my jokes and like, what? What am I doing here?”
I think in those moments, what I find really helpful is, is to ask—actually this is, this is a “why” question—like, “Why did I accept this invitation? Why did I take on this challenge?” And there's usually some goal or value that matters deeply to me.
[00:26:32] Justin Gregg:
That, that's great. That makes sense. So it, it, it doesn't stop you. It's there; you acknowledge it. You move on.
[00:26:40] Adam Grant:
So something else that I associate with intelligence is morality. Maybe this is an axiom, that it's possible to be intelligent and immoral, and also possible to be intelligent and amoral, but it is very difficult to be moral without intelligence.
We need higher-level reasoning capabilities to make ethical decisions. And this is part of the, the psychology of moral development, right? It's really hard for a two-year-old to make moral choices with the same sophistication or the same virtue as an adult could. And so that, that does seem to require intelligence.
And yet you suggest perhaps that sometimes our intelligence gets in the way of our morality and that animals might have the edge here too when it comes to things like honesty or integrity. Talk to me about that a little bit.
[00:27:24] Justin Gregg:
In the book, I say morality is what happens when you take the normative systems, which you find in all animals, and then you codify them, and you can have rational decisions about them.
But those normative systems, ‘cause we always think of animals as not having morality of any kind, and some people would even say that they do have morality, but really what they have is norms, which is if you watch like my chickens for example, they have these rules in place as to which chicken gets to eat first.
Uh, so these are, uh, the hierarchy, and that comes out of a, a normative system. So these emotions that are telling them what is the right thing or the wrong thing to do in that moment, and they're just emotion-driven. That's how their normative systems are created. They're not thinking. There's no, like, chicken hierarchy on the wall of the coop that they're checking off who is number one and who is number five.
But humans do exactly that. We can codify things, we can write them down, we can think about them. We can rationalize ourselves into why this is right and this is wrong, and that is unique to our species, which is neat ‘cause it produces laws and society and religions, which is nice when those things work, but when those things don't work, that's, as I point out in the book, we can rationalize and moralize ourselves into a position to justify things like genocide.
Most of the terrible genocides committed in our past are based on people who thought that they work morally correct or justified in doing what they're doing. And so in that sense, human morality can, can be gross compared to chicken normativity.
[00:28:54] Adam Grant:
There's a fundamental question that, that you got me thinking about, which is there are things we can learn from animals about making morality less difficult.
[00:29:04] Justin Gregg:
You touch on in some of your writing, which is if you are very convinced that you are right and you are steadfast about it and you don't allow your ability to change your mind to think differently about your moral reasoning, then you are probably on a path to potential danger and destruction. And I think that's the problem with morality is we don't allow things and evidence to change our ideas about our own beliefs, and that is usually destructive. But, but I think recognizing that problem would allow us to be less destructive and more like animals whose normative systems are generally not as destructive.
[00:29:42] Adam Grant:
So is, is part of what's going on there then that animals don't have the same level of identity or ego and therefore there's no desire to be right?
[00:29:52] Justin Gregg:
That's an interesting question. Desire to be right? Yes. I would think the desire to be right would require some level of self-awareness about understanding what your beliefs are, comparing them to the beliefs of others, which requires theory of mind, and then deciding yours are superior. Superior. And I don't think that they have. So that's probably benefiting them. And, and also the, because they can't talk about their moral systems and write them down, they don't scale as well. So like, you can't, like, have all the chickens of the world decide on what is right and wrong, and unite the chickens against the turkeys in the battle, you know. So that's helpful. That's good.
[00:30:30] Adam Grant:
If I'm a bonobo, for example, I can't gain status by taking my ideology and showing that it's superior to yours. And that means I'm not gonna be in, invested in an ideology in the first place.
[00:30:41] Justin Gregg:
We can't get into their heads to know for sure. Maybe bonobos are sitting there thinking about their personal ideology and thinking that it's better than their friend Jim over here, but they lack the communicative linguistic skills to explain that, which might again just be a dumb luck benefit of evolution that they don't have that ability.
[00:31:00] Adam Grant:
This is, I think, another challenge for all of us, which is it's really hard to think about thinking without language, right? So you just described language as a communicative skill, but I also think it's really central to the ability to have cognition in the first place. And so I guess I, I'd love to hear you explain what does it mean to think without words?
[00:31:20] Justin Gregg:
I love that question because I don't know where I stand on what thought is. I think it's an amazing area of research, and I, I, I was plummeted into this black hole recently while writing this book when I discovered that I had aphantasia, which is the, in—inability to, to visualize anything in my mind. If I close my eyes, I can't picture anything. I can't hear anything. I'm blank.
And I've always been that way and I didn't realize that other people could do that. ‘Cause like if you say that, “Close your eyes and picture something,” that to me sounds like you're hallucinating. That sounds like a, a, a real bummer for you. And so I can—
[00:31:54] Adam Grant:
Really? Wait a minute. So you right now, right now, you can't close your eyes and picture my face?
[00:31:59] Justin Gregg:
Oh, absolutely not. I can't picture anybody's face. I, I don't know what my wife looks like until I'm looking at her. And so—
[00:32:04] Adam Grant:
[00:32:04] Justin Gregg:
And that's normal for me. Like that's how I grew up. And so what—
[00:32:07] Adam Grant:
And you didn't know that other people could do that?
[00:32:10] Justin Gregg:
[00:32:10] Adam Grant:
[00:32:11] Justin Gregg:
About five years ago.
[00:32:13] Adam Grant:
How did, how did you not know?
[00:32:15] Justin Gregg:
Well, that's what, isn't that interesting? Because what, every time someone said, like, you know, you're in a meditation class, and you, you're like, “Okay, picture yourself on the beach.” I just thought that they meant think about a beach, and to me that comes across as concepts or language.
[00:32:28] Adam Grant:
[00:32:28] Justin Gregg:
I'm like, “Oh, I know a beach has sand. I can just list attributes of a beach.”
But I'm like, I never thought other humans could actually picture it. So everything to me sounded like a cute metaphor as opposed to an, something real and, and it's fascinating that I could live my whole life in a world of visualizers and not realize that. And that got me thinking about, well, one of the things we say for animals is, well, they're visual thinkers.
You know, Temple Grandin has her whole book on animals being visual thinkers. And I'm like, “Yeah, but are they?” Because everyone assumes that visual thinking is normal, but I don't do it and I'm fine. And maybe my cat doesn't think visually. At which point, what is thinking? If they don't have language and they don't have visuals, what are they doing?
I mean, I assume I think a lot in language, but I'm not even sure that the right way to describe what's going through my mind. And then language comes out ‘cause it doesn't come out as visual.
[00:33:19] Adam Grant:
This is, this is so interesting. It relates to something I talked about with Chantel Pratt, the neuroscientist.
[00:33:24] Justin Gregg:
[00:33:24] Adam Grant:
I remember reading her book and, and realizing, “Wow, I am an extremely verbal thinker.” I can visualize, but I rarely do it, and I don't think I need it very much. And you're even further to that extreme than I am because your, your aphasia just eliminates that. But I guess then where does it land you in terms…When animals do their version of more sophisticated cognition, if we think about primates, for example, without language, what do you think they’re doing?
[00:33:50] Justin Gregg:
I have no answer, but I love this question because let's think about that, like, the chimpanzee who's putting water into a tube to get the food out. As a linguistic thinker, we might be able to sit and talk to each other and be like, “Hey, if you add water to the thing, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Or as a visual thinker, you might be able to close your eyes and imagine, uh, an image of the food going up. But if you're not doing either of those, what are you doing?
[00:34:15] Adam Grant:
[00:34:16] Justin Gregg:
I would argue, I don't think chimpanzees are visualizing the solution because I wouldn't do it that way. And I think if you shut off your brain and tried to solve a problem without talking to yourself, ‘cause again, I don't talk in my head in the same way either.
You're doing some other conceptual thing with your brain. Uh, thinking about the future and the repercussions of your actions and potential scenarios without visualizing them or talking about them, what is that? I don't know. Most people studying animals would assume they can visualize it, but what if no animal other than humans can visualize things?
How do you explain their behavior? ‘Cause that is entirely possible. I think the whole world should go back to, like, square one and start over again and think about animal problem-solving without visualization and see what kind of answers we get.
[00:35:09] Adam Grant:
Well, I think this suggests a topic for your next book. The complement to, to this book, I think, is a book about animal emotion because I can imagine that a lot of what seems like goal-directed behavior in animals is driven by different emotional experiences, which are not reducible to physiological drives, but often influenced by physiological drives. I would love to see a fleshed-out Justin Gregg view of the world of animal emotion.
[00:35:32] Justin Gregg:
All these are unanswered and almost unanswerable questions, which are the best kind. I love that feeling of being shown that you are definitely wrong. Like, the thing I thought, well, I was sure about, like there's the evidence just says, no, no, that can't be it. And you have to change your mind. That's like an endorphin rush. So, so that's what's fun with asking questions.
[00:35:53] Adam Grant:
You're living proof then of, of what I tried to, to capture in Think Again, is the joy of being wrong. I've had a lot of people say, “I would love to feel that more often. I don't know how to get to it more often.” Do you have any advice?
[00:36:06] Justin Gregg:
I would say take some improv classes, but I tell people that all the time. When I started doing that, like eight, nine years ago, you put yourself out there and you have to blank your mind and you make a decision and you try something and it's not good and it's not funny, and then you try something else and you just learn all this humility, you, you learn to, to make a fool of yourself and have it be okay to be wrong and have it be okay, and to be fearless.
That's useful in any domain, in science or just in your relationships. Just saying yes, trying something new. Expecting to fail and it's okay to be wrong because you're, you don't have an ego in the picture.
[00:36:43] Adam Grant:
Given all that you've learned about animal intelligence and, and human stupidity, what's the biggest thing that you've rethought?
[00:36:51] Justin Gregg:
I, I think a lot of what I write about is convincing myself to think differently about my relationship to animals. ‘Cause I've always respected them and now what I'm doing is explaining why I'm respecting them and going deeper as to how I should respect them more.
[00:37:08] Adam Grant:
It's easy to empathize with, especially certain species of animals, right? But respecting them is a completely different level of care.
[00:37:14] Justin Gregg:
It's true. And I think probably it comes from the science of an—what is the contents of animal minds in terms of consciousness. Whereas before, I might have dismissed insects as different, different categorically to mammals when it comes to their level of suffering or whatever, and now I don’t. Because the science has shifted that slightly.
[00:37:34] Adam Grant:
I’ve learned a ton from your work, and one of the, the overwhelming feelings I had when I read the book was, this is somebody I would love to have dinner with because he just knows so many interesting things and is gonna shift my perspective on humans and animals and thinking and everything in between. And you have done that.
[00:37:51] Justin Gregg:
Thank you. And thanks for this. This has been fantastic.
[00:37:59] Adam Grant:
I am still puzzling about “why” questions. If the goal is to explain, are we mostly better off asking how? Is asking why actually useful for finding meaning or does it run the risk of sending us into an existential tailspin? I'm reminded of some research by Tasha Eurich who finds that self-awareness comes not from asking why, but asking what. The key question is not why your values matter to you. It's what's important to you. So maybe “why” questions are overrated. I don't know. I reserve the right to rethink that.
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.
Our fact-checker is Paul Durbin. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.
If you could be any animal for a day, what would you pick?
[00:39:04] Justin Gregg:
Albatross. I want something that can fly for a really long time so I could just look down and be in the sky. That would be great.
[00:39:14] Adam Grant:
Hard to argue with that. I think flight feels like that's the thing that animals have on us.
[00:39:19] Justin Gregg:
Yeah, I mean, I mean worms are neat, but I don't, I'm not that interested in soil, but I am very interested in the sky.