Magazine article Government Finance Review

Reasonable People May Disagree, but They Also Change the World

Magazine article Government Finance Review

Reasonable People May Disagree, but They Also Change the World

Article excerpt

Persuadable: How Great Leaders Change Their Minds to Change the World

Al Pittampalli

HarperCollins Publishers

2016, 261 pages, $29,99

The pages of history are replete with stories of the unwavering leader. In Persuadable, author Al Pittampalli argues that this is a flawed reading of history. In actuality, the best leaders--and highly effective people in all walks of life--are not just open to changing their mind, but actively seek out information that disconfirms their existing views of world. Few issues in life are truly black and white, and a black and white worldview impedes understanding and decision making. A more nuanced view allows people to make a more complete assessment of their options and more realistically assess the assumptions underlying their thinking.

Pittampalli believes that persuadability is more than just a lesson of history. It is now an imperative, given the rapid change and unpredictability of the modern era.


A major benefit of persuadability is improved accuracy. For example, a 15-year landmark study asked 284 experts to assign probabilities to one of three possible future scenarios for various forecast questions germane to their fields (e.g., economics, domestic politics, or international relations).' The choices for each scenario covered persistence of the status quo, a change in one direction (e.g., more economic growth in a given country), or a change in the opposite direction (e.g., less economic growth in a given country). A New Yorker review of the study put it memorably: "The experts performed worse than they would have if they had simply assigned an equal probability to all three outcomes--if they had given each possible future a 33-percent chance of occurring. Human beings who spend their lives studying the state of the world, in other words, are poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys, who would have distributed their picks evenly over the three choices." (2) These disappointing results were consistent regardless of area of expertise, experience, or degree of specialization. However, one variable did make a difference. The study categorized the forecasters into one of two cognitive styles: "hedgehogs" and "foxes." In short, "hedgehogs" subscribe to one or more clear, overriding ideas or approaches to a question. "Foxes" take a more multidisciplinary approach, using many ideas and changing approaches as circumstances suggest--in other words, they are persuadable. Foxes outperformed hedgehogs on forecasting by a significant margin. In fact, hedgehogs performed worse than random guessing. The best foxes approached the accuracy of some quantitative extrapolation models.

The second benefit of persuadability is agility. People are afflicted by a psychological phenomenon known as the "status quo bias," which means that people generally prefer the familiar over the unfamiliar. One of root causes of the status quo bias is confirmation bias, which is a psychological tendency to only pay attention to information that confirms our existing views of the world and disregard disconfirming information. For example, Pittampalli cites a famous Wharton study that showed that business executives who invested a great deal of money in data mining technologies usually used the data to justify the decision they already wanted to make. It only got worse as more data were collected because it became easier to cherry pick supporting data. Conversely, the persuadable person not only pays attention to disconfirming information, but seeks it out so they'll be able to change course before the ship runs aground.

The final benefit of persuadability is growth. A psychological phenomenon known as "overconfidence bias" leads us to overestimate our own effectiveness. For example, 70 percent of people rate themselves as above average in leadership ability, and only 2 percent rate themselves below average. The persuadable person doesn't put blind faith into his or her own efficacy. …

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