How Do You Make People Think?

[Every Tuesday I take the top voted question from readers and answer it.  With 65 votes, this week’s winner was from Zsolt Fabok]

“Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.” ― Bertrand Russell

The worst, and most common, way to try to make people think is to use force. When people ask the question “How can I make people think?” they usually mean “How can I get other people to think the way I do?” They don’t precisely want more people to think well, since free thinking is unpredictable. Instead they really want submission, and the way you get submission is by force. Many organizations, leaders and even parents use force, which includes intimidation, manipulation and coercion. Would you want anyone to use these approaches on you? I doubt it. Which leads to the first lesson about making people think: use the golden rule (or the platinum rule).

How would you want to be treated if someone else wanted to make you think? You’d first want to be treated with respect. Second you’d want to be offered new information or a new story about how to look at a situation. And third you’d want the opportunity to have a civil conversation, where you were encouraged to ask questions, explore multiple points of view and could safely explore a range of answers. Providing all three of these takes time. A real debate with multiple points of view are explored fairly takes far more effort than flinging platitudes and self-serving statistics (that are likely tainted by, or easily perceived by others to be an effect of, confirmation bias).

This means patience and commitment is the only way to encourage people to think and think well. Thinking is a choice. The other person has to find a genuine interest in the question being asked to choose to think. If you manipulate them into thinking something, they’ll be just as easily manipulated out of it. Thinking is a social process: we are better at thinking the more time we spend with other people who think well. If you want to help someone think, you have to offer a better community for safely asking questions and searching for answers than the one they have.

You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself. -Galileo

In the end you can’t make anyone think anymore than you can make someone happy. Philosophers, artists and leaders have been trying to encourage our species to be better at thinking for centuries with debatable results. You can make pitches, you can provide opportunities, and you can give of yourself, but in the end it’s up to the other person to choose to be open to change.


[photo credit]

22 Responses to “How Do You Make People Think?”

  1. Sean Crawford

    For many adults, not-thinking is a lifestyle choice. I guess you’ve noticed how in the big box bookstore the fantasy section far outweighs the science fiction section—I can remember when sf books slightly outnumbered fantasy.

    Two summers ago a library was selling off books cheap and I heard two women in their twenties. As one reached for a fantasy her friend asked, “Are you going to buy any science fiction?”
    “No, I don’t want to think.”

    True story.

    1. Scott Berkun

      There’s something to be said for escaping – I have plenty of waking hours where I want to be distracted and to get away from thinking to much. In the story I don’t see a problem with it unless “I don’t want to think” is always the answer.

      But actually even then, if someone never wanted to think, there are worse things. You can live a quiet life where you never bother anyone or hurt anything without much thought. George Carlin had a joke about how it’s all the people who are high achievers and try to think too much that cause all the problems.

      I’m open to the idea that there are more important things than thinking. Empathy might be a bigger problem for us than anything else.

  2. Greg Githens

    If you titled your post, “How to Get People to Think,” would you have written different advice?
    The word “Make” as in your title does line up with the following point about expecting submission. Your commonsense advice to treat people with respect and offer value is also good.
    At least in my experience, the bigger challenge is encouraging the large number of people to leave behind their comfort zone and intuition. While everyone has prejudices and blind spots, many people find it to uncomfortable to think about.

    1. Scott Berkun

      That’s a good question – I don’t know. The post is out of the bag.

      I wrote this because it’s a common refrain I hear: “Why don’t people think?” and “How Do We Make Them Think?” but as you point out modifying the question just a touch makes a huge difference in the way you think about the problem.

  3. Scott Berkun

    I had a longer version of this post that explored how the hard part is always getting people’s attention. You can influence them in any way until you get their attention first and this is why shock and intimidation are so often used: they’re ways to stun people into paying attention.

    But if you buy my premise that thinking is assisted through trusted conversations, you end up with a list of ways to get people’s attention without resorting to negative approaches:

    – Get people to laugh
    – Ask a question about something they care about
    – Engage their curiosity
    – Tell a story that resonates with them

    These are all positive ways to make an offer to someone – and invite their natural interest to participate in thinking with you.

    1. Michael Porter

      I was in a course once where played a bunch of games. The games were relly about rules and why we break them. What unlocked my thinking were questions like “if you knew the rule and you broke it, why did you think it was OK?” Since our actions were fresh, we could think about reality. Maybe we would think better if we could think about “real” things instead of hypotheticals like “I rarely break rules”. Confronted with the contradiction, there was something to talk about. The leaders of these games created a safe place to think about this and talk about our thoughts. That is one reason that getting away from people helps; it can be safe to think alone.

      1. Scott Berkun

        But I wonder: since everyone knew it was a game were they behaving the same way they’d behave if it wasn’t a game?

        1. Michael Porter

          That is what it interesting. We thought the object of the game was one thing, but it was pretext for the real exercise. I was always surprised to learn the nature of the real exercise. Part of what was smart is that the organizers expected us to try to “game” the game, but we couldn’t see the real exercise through the game.

  4. Sean Crawford

    As for “empathy” in your comment, that could be a post some day, because yes it’s “an important problem.” Philip K. Dick thought so.

    I dimly recall an article in a Hollywood trade magazine, back in the 1980’s, where Dick (who would have been poor back then) turned down a big sum package deal, in order to take a much lesser sum, for his movie rights to produce Blade Runner. The package had included suppressing his book and putting out a movie novelization by a published mid-list author.

    Dick wanted his book to stay in print because he was worried we were losing our empathy.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I hope you won’t think less of me for admitting I’ve never read any of PKDs work. I’ve certainly seen some of the movies but I know that’s never the same thing.

      Do you have a book or story of his you’d recommend to me, given this context?

  5. Sean Crawford

    Hi Scott,
    In this context? I don’t quite know.
    I would say don’t read “Bladerunner” aka Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep as your first Dick book, because it can be unnerving how it is artsy rather than genre, meaning no strong jawed hero and ray gun fights.

    Dr. Bloodmoney is a page turner with ordinary people you can be empathetic towards, and Time Out Joint is a nice straightforward read, and there’s a bonus: When you finish you will know what unattributed to Dick movie it inspired.

    Dick, who (in the 1950’s!) had the first ever black spaceship captain (mostly offstage) showed his empathy through little guys who don’t change the world, but their lives count. He once told writers that only Kurt V. had realistic marriages in his sf, and I’m sure Dick accepted ordinary folks as being ordinary.

    Remember how Harrison Ford’s character (not a hard boiled detective) was so scared every time he faced an android? Dick’s characters would be scared too, but they would avoid such a lifestyle in the first place, being not city mice but country mice.

  6. David

    It is scary but I would say people don’t want to think. They enjoy blindly going through the day. Unfortunately this is not living. The best way to get people to do anything is through the use of leading questions. Leading questions do not always work however.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I totally agree with you David, about half the time :) The Russell quote that opens the post is in this way of thinking. We’re stubborn as a species and thinking is hard work, so it rarely happens. And that’s a major reason why repeat the same mistakes of pointless wars and foolish strife.

      But then again, I look at the birds and the dogs and I wonder if higher level thinking is really all that valuable. it might just create more problems than it solves. The oldest species on the planet, the insects, have lived for millions of years longer than we have and there might be a good reason for that. There’s only so much intelligence that’s good for living things to have for their own good.

      I shift between these two polar opposites all the time. Maybe more thinking is better vs. maybe less thinking is better. I do really root for the former, but I’m not convinced yet that the later isn’t the best way to go.

      1. caroline roy

        That is an interesting point and brings up a question for you, Scott:
        When can you tell that a thought process is successful? Is there a criterion for a successful thought process? Can we measure it? Or is it just the process that counts?

        1. Scott Berkun

          Good question. I don’t have an answer offhand, but I’m certain plenty of philosophers have offered their own. I’ll see what i can find.

  7. Sean Crawford

    Yes, history repeats.
    I repeated something with my sister that Simone de Bouvir experienced with her boyfriend Jean Paul Sarte. I forget who my sister asked about, “I wonder what they’re thinking?”

    Simone had asked after looking out her window early one morning at men with carts for food and goods who had no customers yet, as it was still too early. Sarte surprised her by answering they weren’t thinking at all. My sister was surprised too. Today we would say they were “vegging out” or as I would put it, “Their CPU is powered down to standby mode.”

  8. Georgi

    Nice conversation-starter :)

    While I agree with your position and observations, I have very practical problem — every day on the job and in private life I have to interact with people that have major blind spots in certain areas (different for each person). What should I do when I have to collaborate (in order to achieve results), but the person is seriously “behind” (it’s always relative) me and for number of objective reasons we are not going to have rapid improvement that would eliminate the bottleneck? I have grown to strongly dislike (for practical and other reasons) any sort of methods that aim for submission and while this is excellent long-term relationship building approach, it makes me extremely inefficient as manager where the short-term achievements are given bigger weight. Speed of personal evolution even for the best people I know feels snail slow when put in the perspective of the daily work or the quarterly plan.

    What’s your advice for being short-term effective while refraining from “opinion violence”? Especially when witnessing people important to you struggling over and over again with a lesson you have passed already and know the solution.

    1. Scott Berkun

      The best answer I can think of is teaching. Teaching is hard. It forces you to patiently work to understand how someone else thinks, and then, in language they can understand, positively encourage them to see the problem in a new way.

      Part of teaching well is earning trust, finding creative ways to express ideas that are new to the “student”, and making it a positive experience for them that they want to repeat.

      Writing well is in many ways a kind of teaching, it’s just done without direct interaction with the other person. Even creating checklists for coworkers that compress expertise down in a series of simple decisions is a kind of teaching, and a way to help other people to think more clearly about what they’re doing.

  9. Jordan

    Interesting post! And I would definitely agree that you can’t “make” people think. So I guess the best one can do is just encourage people to want to in the first place.

  10. caroline roy

    Great subject. I have two comments:
    One is: thinking can be approached as a skill – we need to be willing to master it. It requires tools and skills like everything else, and great awareness.
    The other is: Rilke said it perfectly: live the questions, not the answers. This frames a great initiation for thought.
    I always enjoy your posts, Scott, because your thought process is transparent and inspiring.

  11. Misty

    This didn’t really help me out. I do know people who want me to think like them and they are selfish. But I look around and I’m like if half of ya’ll just thought about stuff life would be so much better. Think about how your actions affect others. Think about why things happen. Think about why we aren’t as advanced as we should be. Think about how things can be better. Think about better ways to do things. Think about how to make yourself better. Think about yourself! JUST THINK. Educate yourself. People aren’t doing that and I don’t know why.



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