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.