Appointing a devil’s advocate was a practice originated by the Catholic Church over 500 years ago. When the church was deciding to canonize a priest, they would have another person critically examine their life, miracles and spiritual commitment. It was a real job up until 1983 when the Pope decided to do away with it. Nowadays playing the devil’s advocate has evolved into a technique to increase the diversity of views and stimulate brainstorming sessions…But it may no be as effective as we’ve been led to believe.
This study found that groups who entered a debate where one person took the role of devil’s advocate, arguing an opposing viewpoint that they didn’t believe, created a larger number of ideas in support of the original position! However, groups who entered a debate with a person who was an authentic dissenter — that is, that person truly believed in what they were saying — created more original ideas on both sides of the debate. In other words, having a voice that genuinely disagrees with the group can stimulate a wider range of viewpoints and legitimately challenge the group, for the better.
But why? Well, role play techniques may appear like an authentic “debate,” but it’s possible that something is lost in this process. Namely, if the person knows you’re playing devil’s advocate and that you don’t really believe what you’re arguing, everyone kind of takes on a “role.” One side may start counting points (give and take) and become less engaged in the conversation. From the receiver’s perspective, you can’t change the other person’s mind since they’re taking on a role. In the end, these un-authentic roles might do less to stimulate divergent thinking.
It’s easy to think that being an authentic dissenter will cause you reputational harm, or in the case of groups, lower the morale of the team. While there is certainly truth to this, it’s not as bad as it seems. It takes courage to really stand up for what you believe in, and people respect and admire that. Think about famous dissenters throughout history — Ghandi, MLK, Mandela, Elizabeth Stanton, Richard Dawkins, Edward Snowden — and while they were controversial in many ways during their time, most of us would use words like “brave” and “forward thinkers” to describe them.
Of course, there’s still a lot of value in being a devil’s advocate. At work, there are times when a small group will pretty much all agree with each other. In that case somebody should play devil’s advocate. For a big decision, though, it could make sense to bring in an external voice from a different department or even outside of the company.
The greater point is that coming up with new ideas, whether that’s for a personal project or a group discussion at work, may require more than role-plays and artificial debates. Instead, perhaps we need to welcome the voices of those who authentically disagree with us, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.