INTERVIEW: The Art of Insubordination (with Todd Kashdan)
Issue 46: Tips on how to dissent and defy effectively
This week, we are excited to feature an interview with Professor Todd Kashdan. Todd is an expert on psychological well-being and mental agility, having published more than 200 journal articles and five books on these topics. He’s also known in our own academic circles for expressing his dissent with ideas and papers he doesn’t agree with. He knows what it means to be a devil’s advocate and wade into difficult topics.
We have been looking forward, therefore, to his new book about constructive disagreement, called ‘The Art of Insubordination: How to dissent and defy effectively’. His book is a “practical and research-based toolbox for anyone who wants to create a world with more justice, creativity, and courage”.
We feature a chapter on dissent in our book, arguing that far from being an act of the disengaged and the disloyal, dissent is often motivated by deep concern for the groups and societies in which we live. Todd’s book is an impressive compliment to our work, addressing many aspects of defiance we hadn’t even thought about. One of our favorite chapters addresses how to raise rebelliously principled children — including tools for equipping them with the critical thinking skills needed to evaluate the merits of all the information with which they are bombarded in today’s world.
What does your book teach us about group dynamics?
This is a book about how to close the gap between the present world and utopian ideals. The conduit for reaching utopian ideals are individuals who see what is possible and are willing to express these ideas outwardly. Societal evolution depends on individuals who are courageous enough to defy dysfunctional, even dangerous, social norms.
I want readers to understand the untapped value of people who criticize popular sentiments and offer ideas that lie outside the mainstream. We all want to be liked, preferring praise over contempt. For the groups we care most about to remain vital partly depends on members abiding by established norms. Members who fail to stay between the lines of socially acceptable conduct are judged harshly, if not outright rejected. Traditionally, a dark picture exists of dissenters. However, if we care about innovation, and the health and longevity of society, we must permit and embrace people who are brave enough to question conformity mistakes. And there is never a shortage of conformity mistakes.
A good team player disagrees openly. We only unlock the benefits of cognitive and demographic diversity if people speak their mind. Acquiring diversity is only the first step. To gain the benefits, we must create opportunities for diverse individuals to share their unique knowledge. To be a receptive audience for this unique information, we must leverage the psychological strengths of curiosity, intellectual humility, and perspective getting/taking. Diverse individuals working together, who disagree in constructive ways, promote sharper logic, better decision-making, and higher levels of creativity.
Principled acts of dissent offer a release valve for self-censoring adults too afraid to speak up or take a stand. Social change is possible because of questions to widely accepted practices. This book offers the tools, tactics, and strategies for minority voices to be influential. By minority, I mean people who lack power and status, people who lack large coalitions, or traditionally marginalized individuals. There are take-aways for those of us in the audience, who can learn to be better champions of people offering a better way than the status quo —regardless of whether they are from the minority or majority.
What was the most surprising thing you learned as you wrote this book?
There is a large body of science on how minorities who end up in the majority act in hypocritical ways. For instance, upon gaining access to power and status, the minorities who asked for open-mindedness and an appreciation of diversity often end up becoming close-minded and biased toward those who think differently. Knowing this research, readers can gain greater self-awareness, gain clarity in their objectives, and better plan for leadership succession. Lessons that are of great value to the social activists of today and tomorrow.
What is the biggest unanswered question in this area going forward?
Much of what we know about minority influence fails to consider the amount of social and technological changes in the modern world. Social media. The rapid decline in people who identify as religious. The splitting of new sources such that people with different political ideologies receive unique updates about what is happening in the world. The rise in residential mobility such that people no longer live near family and older friends. The lack of long-term relationships between companies and employees. Understanding minority influence will require recognition that someone can be a minority in one domain or part of their identity and a majority in another.
To understand influence, we must acknowledge that it is difficult to designate someone as part of the majority or minority as long as people’s outward behavior misrepresents their inner preferences. Capturing the complexity of individuals and the various social environments in which they inhabit will help us tailor trainings in courage and receptiveness to new ideas.
Do you have any practical advice for people who want to apply these ideas?
Since the entire book is filled with practical advice, let me just offer a teaser. Our most recent research has focused on how to increase curiosity during conflict. Two norms that contribute to a lack of curiosity in other people’s political beliefs are: 1) the perception that political groups are homogeneous in their views and 2) the perception that most people are closed-minded about politics.
By increasing the belief that a sizable number of people disagree with their political party, and by emphasizing that people are more open-minded to hearing new ideas that assumed, people increase their desire to learn something new from people who are unlike them. A better understanding of the large variety of acceptable social behaviors frees people to be more exploratory and courageous.
We can make great headway in increasing open-mindedness to diverse people with diverse ideas by establishing better group social norms. It is important to encourage autonomy, critical thinking, and accuracy and lower the pressure to be positive, harmonious, and conformist. In the hopes of planting and germinating creative ideas, the soil must be well cultivated. A careful clarification of norms helps. Offer rewards for how well the group makes decisions and performs as opposed to just incentivizing individual achievement. By doing so, we increase the likelihood that messages with the greatest creative potential will be considered (irrespective of who is the messenger).
You can learn more about his book, research, and teaching at his website.
News and updates
Dominic did an interview with The Behavioral Grooves Podcast on the power of belonging. As he explains in the podcast, “Our social identities end up shaping a lot of how we navigate the world, a lot of our feelings about the world and how we relate to each other.”
The most gratifying part of writing our book is when we hear from people who have read and are inspired by it. Josh Fryday shared his insights on social media this week and we want to invite others to let us know if they have similar experiences, insights, or revelations. Please feel free tag us on social media so we can see (and amplify) your thoughts.
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