The Intellectual Immune System

The Intellectual Immune System

The Intellectual Immune System is a term created by Mitch Matthews to describe how we react to ideas that aren’t our own. I ran across his TEDx talk a few months back, and can’t stop thinking about it. It is both brilliant and obvious, and it is something we should keep in mind at all times.

Our body’s immune system exists to keep us safe from foreign threats. Sickness, germs, splinters, and anything that shouldn’t be inside our bodies is not only blocked by our immune system, but aggressively attacked by it.

Mitch tells the story of a friend who needed a kidney transplant. After some searching, he discovered that his mom was an absolute perfect match. So they went on to find an amazing surgeon and performed the transplant. Everything went perfectly, except his body still rejected this perfect replacement kidney, because it knew it wasn’t his. He knew he needed it, his body knew his old one was dying and that the new one was a perfect match, yet it still viciously attacked the new kidney.

Mitch explains that we have an Intellectual Immune System that is eerily similar to our body’s immune system. When we hear a new idea, our intellect’s natural response is to initially reject that idea. Sometimes additional proof or evidence convinces us that an idea is possibly ok to try, but even the most trusting person doesn’t take everything at face-value.

Trust and respect for another person can go a long way toward lessening the impact of our intellectual immune system, but for new ideas to really stick, they still need to become part of our own intellect.

How This Affects Your Team

When you propose a new idea to your team, this same process occurs on an individual and group level. Every change in process, or architecture suggestion, or product decision of any kind triggers the intellectual immune system. That is why it is absolutely critical that you get actual buy-in from every single team member.

It sounds ridiculous at times, because sometimes things just need to change. You may not have time to get explicit buy-in from every single person. There may be times when you simply need to make a judgment call and deal with the consequences of a lack of buy-in later, but in general you need to keep the concept of the Intellectual Immune System in mind.

Go into every meeting knowing that your idea will initially be rejected. You will need to take some time to provide a solid explanation or evidence as to why a change is necessary. The amount of evidence or convincing you need to do varies depending on the severity of the change, but you should avoid a “because I said so” as much as possible. Having a “because I said so” attitude automatically triggers an even stronger Intellectual Immune System response.

How Do We Overcome It?


As Mitch explains, in order for your Intellectual Immune System to accept an idea is to make it your own. This often means never taking things at face value, and instead thinking about how an idea could be adapted to benefit you in your specific situation. The same concept applies to teams. Your original idea may not be what your team ultimately accepts, and that’s ok. Give them a chance to chime in and shape it to their specific situation. When an idea is adapted to fit your specific life situation or reality, then it becomes part of you, and your Intellectual Immune System no longer fights it.

When it comes to making an idea your own, give yourself (and your team) permission to experiment with a new idea. You don’t have to immediately and fully accept every new idea that your intellect is instinctively wanting to reject. Experiment, adjust, and try different angles to make it your own. If your gut tells you that something is a good idea, but your intellect is fighting it, it could simply be that you need to experiment and tweak the idea to make it feel more comfortable with your situation. The same goes for your team.

Of course, this all requires that we recognize the instinctive nature of The Intellectual Immune System to begin with. Its been there all along, but we often don’t recognize it. If we keep it in mind and notice it in ourself, we’ll be able to recognize it in others as well (and prepare for it).

Watch the Video

All of these ideas come from Mitch Matthew’s excellent TEDx talk. Its only 12 minutes long (though you really only need the first 10). I would highly recommend watching it right now. Despite the minor audio snafus, Mitch is a fantastic and energetic speaker. I’d like to know whether this concept has as much of an impact on you as it did with me.

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