Stupid or Evil?

Story, explains Annette Simons, is like a computer program that you load into someone’s mind so they can play it using their own input. The best stories play over and over and create the outcomes that fit your goals and ensure that the person you influence (in absentia) is happy with their new choices. That sounds great if you’re a leader who wants your team to be able to work independently while remaining aligned with your organization’s purpose. Or maybe you’re a parent and want to ensure that your kids don’t play with fire. However, there is a bug in this story feature. Once we believe a story it’s tough to move away from it. Stories don’t have to be objectively true for us to believe them. And facts alone won’t change our beliefs. We can see this bug most clearly when we encounter someone else who believes in a story that counters our own.

When we interact with someone who has a point of view that is in opposition to our own, we may respond first by attempting to explain how our view is “correct.” If, after what feels like a reasonable effort, we fail to convert others to share our beliefs we may fall into the trap of thinking them to be either stupid or evil. Roger Martin, former Professor Emeritus and Dean at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto describes this situation, “when faced with someone who holds a different model of the world, we tend to default, at least implicitly, to one of two possible explanations. One, We may assume that he isn’t as smart as we are. Crudely put, we think of him as stupid. Or we may assume that the person isn’t stupid at all. He understands the right answer perfectly well, and yet he is arguing for the wrong answer because of a personal hidden agenda. So explanation number two is that he’s evil.”

Let’s look at two recent examples of how this plays out on the world stage and why it’s such an important dynamic to consider.

The first example is an exchange between Republican Senator Josh Hawley and congressional witness Khiara M. Bridges, a law professor from the University of California at Berkeley.

Bridges and Hawley clash over their beliefs about who can be pregnant during a Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on the legal impact of the end of Roe v. Wade.

Bridges’ beliefs incorporate the existence and experience of transgender and non-binary people. As Bridges explains, “[m]any cis women have the capacity for pregnancy. Many cis women do not have the capacity for pregnancy. There are also trans men who are capable of pregnancy as well as nonbinary people who are capable of pregnancy.” Bridges’ statement is correct, transgender men are capable of pregnancy. Hawley wrongly believes that only women can become pregnant. His story of the gender categories of women and men does not include transgender and non-binary people. When confronted with facts, Hawley is unwilling to evolve his story to include the existence of transgender people and the violence they face because of transphobic views like his own.

Interestingly, both sides of these opposing views shared clips of the exchange claiming victory over the other.

For our second example, we point to Ezra Klien’s discussion with Timothy Snyder in the podcast, The Ezra Klien Show

Klien describes this episode as a lesson on how stories we barely think about, or don’t know we know, drive our actions and assumptions.

Snyder and Klien examine together the opposing ideologies of Russia and the United States and unpack Snyder’s proposition, that the West has been operating under a mythological understanding of time so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche that it masquerades as common sense and that this mythic story is at the root of the West’s misreading of Putin’s motivations, the internal fracturing of the European Union, and to the decline of liberal democracy across the globe. The scope of this compelling discussion is beyond our purposes. What is relevant to this post is the fact that the influence of the stories we believe is not limited to individuals interacting with one another. The influence of our mindsets and frames occurs also at a cultural level. Our understanding of ourselves and our world consists of stories within stories.

Notes for Designers:

As Roger Martin councils, listening only to those who agree with us reinforces our existing views, blinds us to the flaws in our reasoning, and limits the creativity of our thinking. The above examples are both pulled from current events that shape our world today. The power of the stories we believe combined with a failure of empathy, curiosity and understanding has real and perilous consequences. This is not to say that we must embrace the beliefs of those who are factually wrong. However, engaging in an effort to rethink our own stance will help to find new understanding and pathways.

In his book, Think Again, Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, advocates for cultivating a willingness to change your mind – or think again – as both a skill and a mindset. Changing your mind, says Grant, doesn’t mean you’ve abandoned your principles. It may mean you’ve learned something. It’s better to contradict yourself and be accused of hypocrisy than to stick to your guns and sacrifice your integrity.

What can we do to avoid the pitfalls of dismissing others’ stories and reinforcing our existing stories?

Check out Martin and Riel’s process of Integrated Thinking

Explore and experiment with Kees Dorst’s Frame Creation Process

Identify your own stories and beliefs by working through Annette Simmons’ workbook Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins

Alfaro, M. (2022, July 12). Sen. Hawley Accused of Transphobic Questioning at Abortion Hearing. Washington Post.

Grant, A. (2021). Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. Penguin Publishing Group.

Kolbert, E. (2017, February 19). Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds. The New Yorker.

Riel, J., & Martin, R. L. (2017). Creating Great Choices, A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking. Harvard Business Review Press.

Simmons, A. (2006). The Story Factor Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion through the Art of Storytelling.

‎The Ezra Klein Show: Timothy Snyder on the Myths That Blinded the West to Putin’s Plans on Apple Podcasts. (March 2021). Apple Podcasts.,

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