Give and Take by Adam Grant

The publisher sent me a copy of Give and Take by Adam Grant after I sent several emails asking for a review copy. I expected it to be the best book about psychology in many years and it is.

The book’s main theme is the non-obvious advantages of being a “giver” (someone who helps others without concern about payback). Grant teaches at Wharton, whose students apparently enter Wharton believing (or are taught there?) that this is a poor strategy. With dozens of studies and stories, Grant argues that the truth is more complicated — that a giver, properly focussed, does better than others. Whether this reflects cause and effect (Grant seems to say it does) I have no idea. Perhaps “givers” are psychologically unusually sophisticated in many ways, not just a relaxed attitude toward payback, and that is why some of them do very well.

I was more impressed with two other things where cause and effect is clearer. One is a story about communication style. It is the best story in a book full of good stories. About ten years ago, Grant was asked to teach senior military officers how to motivate their troops. His first class was a four-hour lecture to Air Force colonels in their forties and fifties. Grant was 24.  The feedback forms, filled out by the students after the class, reflected the age — and presumably wisdom — discrepancy. One comment was: “More quality information in audience than on podium.”

Grant taught the class again, to another group of Air Force colonels. Instead of talking about his credentials at the start of the class, he began like this:

I know what some of you are thinking right now: What can I possibly learn from a professor who’s twelve years old?

Everyone laughed. Grant does not say what he said next — how he answered the question. He went on to give the same lecture he had given before. The difference in feedback was “night and day”. Here is one of the comments: “Spoke with personal experience. He was the right age! High energy; clearly successful already.”

This is great. A non-obvious, seemingly small change produces a huge outcome difference. Grant clearly understands something enormously important about communication that isn’t not found in other psychology books, such as introductory textbooks. It isn’t easy to interpret (why exactly did Grant’s new opening have its effect?) nor study experimentally — but that’s fine. In Give and Take, Grant follows this story with research about what is called “the pratfall effect”: Under some circumstances making a blunder (such as spilling a cup of coffee) makes a speaker more likeable. But Grant’s opening (“what can I learn…”) isn’t a blunder. Grant calls it an “expression of vulnerability”, a category broad enough to include pratfalls — fair enough.

What can we learn from Grant’s story? Above all, that something mysterious and powerful happens or might happen at the beginning of a talk and that ordinary feedback forms are sensitive enough to detect it. What Grant did was highly specific to the situation (young speaker, older military officers) so you can’t copy it. To use it you really have to grasp the general rule. Which remains to be determined.

Tomorrow I will blog about another impressive part of the book.

10 Responses to “Give and Take by Adam Grant”

  1. Tim Beneke Says:

    Perhaps with the generals he established his insight immediately by getting inside what many were already thinking — with humor (emotion). They were then attached to perceiving him as “insightful” and framed his observations that way, had a positive cognitive bias that led to confirmation bias as they heard him talk. In working with other people for the first time, I always try hard to impress them initially….

    It’s a fascinating story…

    Seth: I agree, a plausible interpretation and quite different than what Grant says.

  2. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    A couple of months ago, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story about Grant and his research:

  3. George Says:

    Wait a minute, what Grant did was extremely obvious and easily replicated in many situations – he was sensitive to the ego of his audience. He understood that old people resent being taught wisdom by young people – a fairly obvious observation that any of us might make – and acknowledged that he was in fact, inferior to his audience in wisdom but had a special message to relate, thus pleasing their ego and allowing them then listen to his message. It is quite common for people to let their ego and sense of self-importance make them close-minded – if you can disarm their ego defenses, they listen to you more.

    This is basic stuff – in ANY situation being sensitive to the ego of your audience will disarm potential mind-closing resentment and increase receptivity to the message.

    Seth: You might be right. But it’s far from “extremely obvious”. Grant explains it quite differently.

  4. vic Says:

    He penetrated his audience’s defenses with a disarming joke – hardly rocket science. I hope there is more to the book than this…

    Seth: Was his audience “defensive” as you say? Not clear from Grant’s description. As for the “disarming” joke, the question is why was it disarming? Lots of jokes at the start of talks have roughly zero effect, as far as I can tell.

  5. Tom Says:

    The book is awesome.

    Really looking forward to hearing more of your insights on it, Seth.

  6. George Says:

    Well, Grant showed humility – how this can be seen as anything other than a concession to your audience’s sense of self-importance I do not know. I guess I’ll have to read the book to find out, but I hope it isn’t just another attempt to explain something fairly simple through over-complicated theories in an attempt to be original. In any event, showing humility is always a disarming strategy and can reduce ill-will, resentment, jealousy, and thus reduce attempts to “take you down”.

    Seth: Is it humble to state the obvious, in this case your age? Humility is usually about more subtle characteristics, such as wisdom. Maybe Grant was humble in what he said next (which he doesn’t tell us), after the joke about being 12 years old.

  7. ken Says:

    There is a great book about improv acting called Impro by Keith Johnstone. A reliable way to get a laugh as an improv actor is to change the social status you are playing on stage. If I recall the book correctly, it postulated that students respect/fear the teacher who plays high-status; they can appreciate the teaching who always plays low status; but they love the teacher who vacillates back and forth between the two extremes.

  8. asdf Says:

    I feel like shaking my head at some of these butthurt commenters. Go be killjoys somewhere else.

  9. jason Says:

    the general rule is to figure out what the other person is thinking and feeling and refer to it in a way that doesnt express judgment. clever salesmen do this all the time and it’s a standard tactic in the pick-up artist’s repertoire. heck, grant uses the same move in his interview on the newyorker site to make the interviewer more comfortable: “you’ve probably encountered many takers”. it’s rapport building 101.

    when it’s described as a ‘tactic’ it sounds cheap and exploitative but you can’t know what the other person is thinking or feeling if you don’t empathize with them. “i know what you’re thinking..” is often a reliable signal of genuine sympathy and interest.

  10. Li Says:

    Seth: Why did you expect the book to be the best one about psychology in many years?

    Seth: Because I’d heard about his work about improving call-center performance at the University of Michigan: He figured out how to make the callers think their jobs are helping people and this made the callers perform much better. An extremely impressive result. (I blogged about it in the next post.)