Gerald Zaltman

Gerald Zaltman is the Joseph C. Wilson Professor of Business Administration Emeritus at the Harvard Business. He was Co-Director of The Mind of the Market Laboratory at HBS.


Daring To Understand and Change Thinking






Understanding how we think is essential to everyday life. How we think determines not only what we think, but also what we feel and ultimately what we do. Myriad factors are involved: the impact of culture, the immediate social context in which thinking occurs, the brain’s structure, and more. We’re not powerless in this scenario: we can inspect and improve how we think. We can do this through special excursions into such topics as how attention is budgeted, the impact of words, and the inventive nature of memory, among many others. Exploring these topics is fun as well as instructive and actionable—though it can also be challenging.


Never has making excursions into how we think been more important than it is today. Changes in information technology are having a dramatic impact on our consumption of information. We see this in the political arena, especially in discussions about “fake news”—information that is deliberately false, willfully incomplete, or presented knowingly in highly biased ways. But bad information is an issue in all spheres of life, not just politics, and its prevalence threatens our institutions and society. People on all sides of most issues seem to agree on this point. Responding to these concerns involves challenging how we think. This requires audacity, or courage, as I discuss below. It requires being open to understanding how we acquire and process information, a willingness to question our ways of thinking, and the capacity to change them. These are three tall orders.


In a new book, Unlocked: Keys to Improve your Thinking, I present a number of Think Keys—exercises that introduce or in some cases refamiliarize readers with selected thinking processes, especially those occurring below awareness. The book invites communications from readers, and responses have been gratifying. Two particular responses prompt this essay. They raise related issues and are  relevant to The Sarasota Institute’s (TSI) goals of knowledge generation and sharing.


One reader was uncertain about passing the book along to her two high school teenagers, who are enrolled in advanced-placement studies. In her words, “They are already heavily burdened with absorbing tons of facts and competing for grades.” Quite true. Whether heading to college or not, today’s teenagers encounter competing demands for their time and attention. What priority, then, should be assigned to encouraging young students to reflect on how they think? Should they just focus on absorbing codified knowledge found in their textbooks?


The second person wrote, “You should caution readers: grappling with how they think takes courage.” Again, quite true. Unlocking a thought process creates uncertainty. Uncertainty fosters caution and too much caution thwarts progress. We might discover something unexpected that we are unprepared to accept and may dislike. The suspicion of this can lead to what I call “knowledge disavowal.” This is a state in which we know enough to know that we don’t want to know more. The possibility of knowing more might lead to unpleasant choices. Wittingly or not we act in accordance with such folk sayings as “Let sleeping dogs lie.” We let “What you don’t know won’t hurt you” govern our actions. Recall the fable of Pandora’s Box? Pandora came upon a key allowing her to open a forbidden box. Her curiosity led to the unleashing of evils upon the world, while hope was left behind. When people engage in knowledge disavowal, it’s as if they have taken the Pandora story too deeply to heart—they won’t unlock any knowledge “boxes” for fear of the consequences. But curiosity requires courage in the face of uncertainty. We may learn ominous things, but the marvels of modern science attest to the wonders we can also learn.


Exploring how we thinks requires exercising imagination without knowing where that will bring us. Being imaginative involves going beyond existing, codified knowledge and picturing what is missing. It involves filling in blank spaces in knowledge. I believe what distinguishes the truly high-achieving person from one who is simply very good at what they do is the magnitude and quality of their imagination, not how much codified knowledge they have or how exceptional their intelligence level may be. Being imaginative requires practice, and lots of it. Practice is needed because there is no one path or formula or set of directions to follow. (That would not be very imaginative.) As I noted in replying to the reader with the teens taking advanced-placement classes, imagination is especially important in the present era.[1] Unfortunately, it tends to be discouraged as youngsters grow up. The fact that we relegate imagination to early childhood is one reason being imaginative later in life requires the daring or courage the other reader noted. Being imaginative involves swimming against the strong current of conformity generated by peers, parents, teachers, employers, colleagues, and even one’s own judgments.



Being Daring



This essay dares readers to undertake three bold actions:


  1. Dare to understand how you think.
  2. Dare to question how you think.
  3. Dare to change how you think.


Together, these dares form the three legs of the stool upon which personal and collective progress rest. And everyone, regardless of background, has the capacity to respond to them.



Challenge No. 1: Dare to Understand How You Think



Immanuel Kant famously said, “Dare to understand.” This message is as relevant today as it was in his time. After all, we are how we think. What could be more personal or more important? And let’s face it, while reflecting on who we are may be enjoyable, we generally don’t stop long enough to examine how we got there. We’d rather explain and justify what we think and who we believe we are rather than contemplate how we arrived there. It is a lot easier than scrutinizing what are often unconscious or difficult-to-access processes. Understanding how we think is hard work. And, like Pandora, we don’t know what we’ll find once a key becomes available. 


Speaking of keys, do you recall the story in which a drunk is on hands and knees under a street lamp, searching for his missing car keys late at night? A passerby asks if that is the spot where they were dropped. The drunk replies, “No, but the light is much better here.”


That story prompts a few questions. When did you last question the adequacy of your information search and processing behavior when making a decision? Was it an equal-opportunity process in which evidence supporting very different decisions received equal attention? How actively did you seek and examine information that contradicted your ultimate conclusion or position? Ample evidence suggests that people tend to avoid information that contradicts a preferred position and/or expected answers or results. Moreover, these tendencies are often operating out of conscious sight. We don’t stop to ask if the thinking we use is more convenient than it is helpful in shedding light on a decision. 


The convenient-light syndrome also describes our tendency to examine issues only under the light cast by a single discipline. This is tempting for many reasons. One is that most fields of inquiry and practice today are witnessing an unprecedented knowledge explosion, a kind of Big Bang of Insight. It is challenging just to keep abreast of developments in our main discipline, let alone others. Nowhere is this Big Bang of Insight more interesting and consequential than when it occurs at the boundaries between disciplines and between specialties within disciplines. Many of these hard-to-access boundary-spanning advances relate to thinking. A successful example of how productive it can be to dare to understand what is going on in other fields is Michael Gazzaniga’s merging of relational biology, quantum physics, cognitive neuroscience, and philosophy to better understand the origins of consciousness. This is central to understanding how we think. It is challenging, however, since different knowledge communities develop uninviting cultures characterized by in-group vocabularies, methodologies, and communication mores. This discourages outsiders from entering their worlds and accessing their knowledge. Overcoming those barriers requires daring and a willingness to take risks. Hopefully, TSI can help facilitate these cross-border activities.



Challenge No. 2: Dare to Question How You Think



How often do you wonder, Why didn’t I think of that?! How did I ever come to that conclusion? Why didn’t I see it coming? How could I be so wrong? How did that occur to me? And how often have you felt, I wasn’t thinking straight! If only I could have a do-over. Those questions, exclamations, and statements express reservations about how we think. They acknowledge the likelihood of a flaw somewhere in our mind’s operations that isn’t understood. But just how often do we thoroughly address that possibility? 


Questioning our thinking can be intimidating. Who likes to admit they are wrong or don’t know something? Admitting we are wrong acknowledges a vulnerable, inferior position. Challenging how we think can also be difficult. Asking the right question as opposed to a merely convenient question is hard work. It requires accessing unconscious thoughts and mind operations. The strategies for doing that are largely unfamiliar and unlike those used to skim surface-level thinking. Sometimes it requires interacting with others who think quite differently but have a shared interest in surfacing hidden assumptions, beliefs, and biases. Just how often does that happen?


Questioning how we think involves being daring in other ways. For example, a challenge to one’s own thinking may, wittingly or not, also challenge other people’s core beliefs and behavior. This can prompt strong pushback, especially when the challenge also threatens conventional wisdom. Importantly, too, we are at risk of having a cherished assumption or belief found wanting after having our question answered. I believe this is one reason why most market research involves confirming existing ideas rather seeking new ideas.



Challenge No. 3: Dare to Change How You Think



Now for the final dare: think differently. This does not mean adopting a “Yeah, but …” or a naysayer’s or a devil’s advocate’s role simply for the sake of it. Those are roles we usually adopt when arguing with others about how they think and when showing off our own thinking.


Daring to think differently involves taking the first two dares and then experimenting with alternative viewpoints and information acquisition and processing strategies. And we must go into the process knowing that if we’re going to tinker with how we think, we need to be ready to perform occasional serious surgery. We’ll need the cool passion of a tightrope walker, what I’ve also called “di-stance,” being apart from our thinking enough to monitor it while remaining deeply engaged in it.


Put differently, the passion found in the up-close embrace of an idea needs to be balanced by the capacity to step back and view the idea through a skeptic’s cool lens. We should not rely on others to do this for us. Helpful questions to audit our inclination to think differently include:


  • Am I making myself out-of-date as quickly as possible by learning the newest relevant facts?
  • Am I searching for relevant information in contexts new to me?
  • Have I asked myself how I would explain if an idea or action of mine turns out to be wrong?
  • What available information am I overlooking? Or underestimating? Or undervaluing? Or misinterpreting?






I like to ask thoughtful academics and executives which of the following statements best describes them:


A: I love being right

B: I hate being wrong


They are required to choose just one statement even if both apply. Statement B is usually selected. The penalties for being wrong too often outweigh the benefits of being right. Changing our mind can be difficult if only because it requires acknowledging being wrong. It is especially difficult to acknowledge being wrong in how we think. As I’ve argued above, how we think is intimately tied to our sense of self, to who we feel we are. It is as if we intuit or sense we will experience identity confusion if we discover significant flaws in how we think. After all, our habits of mind are very personal. Fear of that confusion leads us to avoid risking such a discovery. But why bother to understand and then question how we think if we’re going to shrink from changing it? We must be brave. Failure of courage in the face of this third dare creates fertile ground for fake news and all the societal ills surrounding it.


The Sarasota Institute is committed to asking and trying to answer fundamental questions about the major issues facing humanity. This can’t be done without all involved daring to understand how they have thought in the past and how to think differently now. As my colleague David Houle reminds us, the past is fast receding; so should the thinking that created it.



A version of this essay appears in “Handbook of Advances in Marketing in an Era of Disruptions: Essays in Honor of Jagdish Sheth,” Atul Parvatiyar and Raj Sisodia (Eds.), )Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 2018).


[1] James R. Flynn, Are We Getting Smarter? Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012). See especially chapter 2 and discussions of cognitive complexity in the modern world.