Stop Playing Devil’s Advocate, and Other Advice for Better Decision Making

We often use the phrase “don’t drink the Kool-Aid” as a way of pointing out when someone is being drawn into an idea without thinking critically about it. They’ve lost or are about to lose their sense of perspective. Perhaps it’s the latest medical fad or diet, maybe it’s the most recent political spin, or even a new religion. Rarely do we think about the tragic story behind the expression.

In 1978, more than 900 people died after drinking a Kool-Aid–like concoction containing sedatives and cyanide. These people were members of a cult, founded by James Jones, known as the Peoples Temple. For many years the members of the Peoples Temple lived in a small settlement in northern Guyana called Jonestown. By creating this isolated settlement Jones was able to ensure that his beliefs were constantly being reinforced and that any dissenters were punished. Although this arrangement was effective for the most part, Jones knew that it would not last forever.

In November of 1978, United States Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in Jonestown and offered to take anyone who wished to leave back to the U.S. Knowing that “dissent by even just a few members would open the floodgates and break their control,” Jones arranged for the congressman and five of his companions to be shot, and then ordered all of his followers to drink the “Kool-Aid,” which resulted in what is now known as the Jonestown massacre.

Jones knew the power of dissent.

In her book, In Defense of Troublemakers, Charlan Nemeth unravels the science of dissent. She reviews research, along with a number of case studies including the Jonestown massacre, to expose the dangers of conformity, and makes a case for speaking up against the majority.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Nemeth to learn about the meaning of true dissent, why playing devil’s advocate doesn’t work, and how a diversity of demographics doesn’t necessarily equal a diversity of opinions. We also spoke about how to encourage debate both in the workplace and on a personal level.

Ilaria Schlitz: You write, “12 Angry Men without Henry Fonda’s character would have been 11 men who rushed to the judgment that the defendant was guilty.”  What is the difference between a group with a true dissenter and a group where everyone is in agreement?

Charlan Nemeth: You’ve touched on the heart of the book. I think it’s worth remembering that, not just in experimental research but in real life juries, you can predict, almost 90 percent of the time, the final verdict by simply knowing the majority position on the first ballot. This shows the enormous power of the majority. The critical thing is that the majority’s power lies in their unanimity. Even original experimental studies show that if you get one person challenging that majority, even if that person is wrong, a challenge to the majority position actually liberates people.

A challenge to the majority position actually liberates people.

In your book you argue that playing devil’s advocate is nowhere near as effective as having a true dissenter. How can groups make effective decisions when everyone is in agreement?

When someone truly believes something different than you do, it has a stimulating quality for your own thinking. When you’re roleplaying, you can’t argue with the person who’s pretending, if you will. People are under the illusion that since the information is the same, the two conversations should be equivalent. They put a devil’s advocate in because they think you’re going to get somebody who gets you to think about the alternative, and you’re not going to get mad at each other. What they underestimate is that devil’s advocates don’t make you think about the alternative decision. Playing devil’s advocate does not have the stimulating quality [one] hopes for. I don’t think it has to do with the information that devil’s advocates state. I think it has to do with the fact that they believe something very differently than you do, and that challenge is sort of like a smack on the head, if you will, that gets you to start to rethink the issue. And so there’s power in that.

One of the crucial distinctions that you make in your book is the difference between diversity of demographics and the diversity of perspective. Could you unpack the relationship between these two kinds of diversity?

Diversity of demographics can be important for all kinds of reasons. But what helps decision-making is when there is a diversity of perspective. And that may or may not be the same thing as diversity of category, namely of a demographic. The example I use in the book is that if you look at who the cabinet members are of any given president, you’ll find a mix of demographics. You’ll find male and female and you’ll find Caucasian and African-American and Asian American et cetera. Yet, they don’t have a diversity of perspective. They’re not chosen for that. They’re chosen for their ideological similarity and loyalty. The rhetoric is one thing, but what you see is that presidents pick people who are going to be on their team. So they’re actually creating homogeneity of perspective even if they’ve got heterogeneity in the demographic.

Diversity of demographics can be important for all kinds of reasons. But what helps decision-making is when there is a diversity of perspective.

You include a very interesting example from the investment firm Finchwood Capital. Could you describe their decision-making process and how it has influenced the company’s performance?

Basically, what they do is that even after they decide—they’ve done their due diligence and they know what stock they want to buy—they then insist on what they call a contra-met memo. This is not just let’s play devil’s advocate and chat about it for ten minutes. It’s spending several days writing pages from the perspective of why that decision is wrong. You have to be very thoughtful about it and you have to stand up to being questioned about it, so it’s not a light exercise. The idea is that if you seriously think that you’re wrong and go through that whole process, you stimulate your own thinking, in a way that is more divergent. Namely, you start really recognizing the downside as well as the upside. It’s like a clone of authentic dissent. It’s not having an actual dissenter in there, but it’s about as close as you could get if you’re trying to embed these principles into your decision-making.

There has been a great deal of social and political controversy lately. What advice do you have for individuals who may not agree with their friends and family but are still looking to move the conversation forward in a productive manner rather than shutting it down?

There’s a reason why people tell you to avoid discussions about politics and religion, and it’s because it very quickly moves to anger rather than dialogue. I think you have to pick your time and your issues. You can start out by saying, “You know, look, I think we really differ on this issue and we don’t have to talk about it, but I really would like to know how you think about it, and I’d like to share with you my thoughts.” And if they say, “Well, if you’re on the other side, get out my house,” I’d probably get out of the house. I don’t think anybody’s got a magic blueprint for being able to have a civilized discussion with someone who really thoroughly disagrees with you, unless you sense that there is at least some curiosity about what it is you believe.