The Basic Idea
Before the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, internal messages intercepted from Japan revealed that the Japanese planned to attack the Pacific region. A warning was sent to officers stationed at Pearl Harbor, however, they were not taken seriously. Officers doubted Japan would attack first, and were confident that the US would be able to destroy Japanese fleets if there were an attack. We now know this confidence was mistaken and recognize the Pearl Harbor attack as the catalyst that caused the US to enter World War II.1
What could have been done differently? The Americans thinking they were invulnerable and not questioning the proposed decision are the main reasons attributed to this historical incident.1 Had someone purposefully doubted the opinion of the majority, perhaps history could have taken a different turn. Pearl Harbor needed a devil’s advocate.
Theory, meet practice
TDL is an applied research consultancy. In our work, we leverage the insights of diverse fields—from psychology and economics to machine learning and behavioral data science—to sculpt targeted solutions to nuanced problems.
Devil’s Advocacy: when someone pretends, in a discussion or argument, to be against an idea or plan that has a lot of support in hopes of uncovering flaws or mistakes.2
Groupthink: A phenomenon occurring when a decision-making group prioritizes conforming to the majority over making the most optimal decision and critical thought.3 According to American Psychologist Irving L. Janis, there are three symptoms of groups that suffer from groupthink: overestimating the group, closed-mindedness, and pressure towards uniformity.1
Turns out, the devil’s advocate was an official position in the Catholic Church. In 1587, Pope Sixtus V established the role of Advocatus Diaboli. The Advocatus Diaboli’s job was to question the saintliness of a Canonization candidate (a candidate for sainthood), by presenting counter-evidence and attempting to poke holes in the validity of the miracles attributed to the candidate. This practice lasted until 1983 and served an important role in ensuring the candidate was truly deserving of the saintly title, instead of the decision being biased by the Pope’s opinion.4
Since then, we have seen this role take many different forms, from simple “pros” and “cons” lists to software security companies hiring hackers to break into their security systems before releasing their software to the general public.
In other words, society has acknowledged and adopted the importance of someone taking the alternative point of view and pointing out conflicting evidence to avoid risking opportunities and making fatal mistakes.
Irving L. Janis
An American psychologist, Janis’ most notable work surrounds his widely acclaimed groupthink theory. He was a research psychologist at Yale University as well as a professor at the University of California Berkeley.5 Janis studied decision-making within areas such as dieting, smoking, how people respond to threats, as well as how people respond under conditions in which irrational complacency, apathy, hopelessness, rigidity, and panic occur.
Arguably, the attack on Pearl Harbor can partially be attributed to the lack of a devil’s advocate.
Out of the three telltale signs of groupthink noted by Janis, at least two seemed to be present at Pearl Harbor in 1941: overestimating the group (thinking they could defeat all Japanese fleets) and close-mindedness (not considering Japan would attack first). Janis supported the idea of utilizing devil’s advocacy to alleviate groupthink, which has been proven to work through models published in the Journal of Computational Sciences.3,6 The findings from this research demonstrate that in group decision-making settings, having a group member play the devil’s advocate will benefit the group and lead to successful decisions.
The Harvard Graduate School of Education sheds light on how to play the devil’s advocate effectively while avoiding conflict in group settings. The following is a summary of their findings, which can be applicable and useful in day-to-day interactions:
- Be courageous. Bringing awareness to possible conflicts and presenting one’s concerns, while making sure to generate conversation rather than conflict is a major component in successfully playing the devil’s advocate. Starting sentences with “One thing I find concerning…” or “I don’t know if I completely agree with this because…” are good ways of doing so in a non-controversial way.
- Challenge ideas, not people. It is important to present disagreements without singling out or blaming others. Instead of saying “I don’t like John’s idea,” try something like “Based on the results from last year, I’m not sure if that idea will work.” And offering new ideas is vital to the success of the intervention. Simply undercutting an idea without offering a replacement will lead to frustrating stagnation.
- Keeping to the agenda. Maintaining focus on the issue at hand is important to make sure the conversation does not get out of hand. Deviation from the discussion can lead to unwanted tangents and possible outbursts, inciting conflict.
- Don’t hurt feelings. The goal is not to make other people feel bad, but to point out flaws in arguments so that problems don’t arise later on. If someone feels upset, pause the conversation, apologize for making them feel hurt, and highlight that it was not the intention to make them feel this way. Being upset may cause the person to become defensive and close-minded, defeating the purpose of playing devil’s advocate against their ideas, and may cause strife in the group dynamic.7
Taking note of the suggestions above can be beneficial to making the best and most optimal conclusions in decision-making processes while maintaining a good relationship with group members.
In an interview with the Behavioral Scientist, Charlan J. Nemeth, a Psychology Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, discussed why she thinks playing the devil’s advocate does not work based on findings outlined in her book, In Defense of Troublemakers.8,9 In her book, Nemeth explores her findings from previous research and a number of case studies including the Jonestown massacre, to highlight the dangers surrounding conformity and presents an argument for speaking up against the majority. According to Nemeth, simply playing the devil’s advocate is not enough to create a “stimulating quality” for personal reflection since it’s not possible to actually argue with the person who is pretending. When someone is truly an advocate for the alternative opinion, it holds a power that a devil’s advocate simply cannot replicate. An authentic disagreement generates authentic commitment from the person disagreeing, and as a result, there is a different type of engagement in conversation which tends to be absent in manufactured dissent.
In a study published by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, intragroup conflict at the individual level and cardiovascular effects were examined in conditions in which groups of three participants (one participant and two confederates) where assigned to complete a marketing task while assuming the role of an agent of dissent (devil’s advocate), target of dissent, or inclusion control. Findings show that the agent of dissent exhibited low vascular resistance and rapid sympathetic recovery, while targets displayed avoidance responses, seen in vasoconstriction. Observations further suggest that targets experienced threat to all fundamental psychological needs, while agents experienced threats to “belonging” and “self-esteem” (not “control” or “meaningful existence”) needs.10
This study then expands upon the possible health implications that can arise from being the target of dissent. Being ostracised, rejected, bullied, or having your ideas shot down in contexts involving group performance can have serious negative health effects if the target experiences this repeatedly.11,12,13,14 These findings are important to note as although scientific findings suggest a devil’s advocate is beneficial for decision-making, certain conditions must be met to avoid members of the group feeling attacked and experiencing negative health effects.
Devil’s Advocacy in Managerial Decision-Making
A study published in the Journal of Management Studies found that the use of devil’s advocacy can improve strategic decision-making if certain conditions are met. Such conditions include: avoid becoming an overly negative “carping critic,” meaning delivering deliberately unreasonable criticism, have a deep and sincere commitment to questioning the basic assumptions of the majority and cater the devil’s advocate role to meet the needs of the group, specified in scenarios outlined in the study.15 Not meeting these conditions can be detrimental to the success of the group’s decision-making process.16
Devil’s Advocacy vs. Dialectical Inquiry vs. Consensus
The Academy of Management Journal published a laboratory study in 1986 comparing the effectiveness of devil’s advocacy, dialectical inquiry, and consensus as approaches to strategic group decision making. They found that both dialectical inquiry and devil’s advocacy resulted in higher quality decision-making, recommendations and assumptions compared to consensus. As well, dialectical inquiry was found to be more effective than devil’s advocacy regarding the quality of the assumptions brought about. However, participants in the consensus condition expressed greater satisfaction and desire to continue working in their respective groups, as well as more acceptance of their respective groups’ decisions compared to the other two conditions.17
Related TDL Content
Clearly, both groupthink and playing the devil’s advocate go hand-in-hand when describing either topic. From the Swissair’s corporate world to the War on Terror, this reference guide is both relevant and informative on all things groupthink.
Group Decision Making: How to be Effective and Efficient
Want to hear more about making effective group decisions without conforming to the opinions of others? Learn how to further avoid groupthink with advice from United States Military Academy professor Yasmine Kalkstein, and make sure any future groups are free from compliance to the majority opinion and fear of conflict.
- Mindlab. (n.d.). Groupthink and focus groups ☍ Mindlab. https://themindlab.co.uk/blog/groupthink-and-focus-groups/.
- devil’s advocate. Cambridge Dictionary. (n.d.). https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/devil-s-advocate.
- Sussex Publishers. (n.d.). Groupthink. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/basics/groupthink.
- All That’s Interesting. (2018, January 2). The Origin Of The Term ‘Devil’s Advocate’ Is More Literal Than You Think. All That’s Interesting. https://allthatsinteresting.com/devils-advocate-origin.
- Nemeth, C., & Tetlock, P. (1991). Irving L. Janis, Psychology: Berkeley. University of California: In Memoriam. http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=hb4t1nb2bd&doc.view=frames&chunk.id=div00032&toc.depth=1&toc.id=/
- Akhmad, M., Chang, S., & Deguchi, H. (2020). Closed-mindedness and insulation in groupthink: their effects and the devil’s advocacy as a preventive measure. Journal of Computational Social Science, 1-24.
- Shafer, L. (2018, August 9). How to Be a Wise Meeting Participant. Harvard Graduate School of Education. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/18/08/how-be-wise-meeting-participant.
- Charlan J. Nemeth: UC Psych. Charlan J. Nemeth | UC Psych. (n.d.). https://psychology.berkeley.edu/people/charlan-j-nemeth.
- Schlitz, I. (2018, July 10). Stop Playing Devil’s Advocate, and Other Advice for Better Decision Making. Behavioral Scientist. https://behavioralscientist.org/stop-playing-devils-advocate-and-other-advice-for-better-decision-making/.
- Jamieson, J. P., Valdesolo, P., & Peters, B. J. (2014). Sympathy for the devil? The physiological and psychological effects of being an agent (and target) of dissent during intragroup conflict. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 55, 221-227.
- Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., & Berntson, G. G. (2003). The anatomy of loneliness. Current directions in psychological science, 12(3), 71-74.
- Copeland, W. E., Wolke, D., Angold, A., & Costello, E. J. (2013). Adult psychiatric outcomes of bullying and being bullied by peers in childhood and adolescence. JAMA psychiatry, 70(4), 419-426.
- Stroud, L. R., Tanofsky-Kraff, M., Wilfley, D. E., & Salovey, P. (2000). The Yale Interpersonal Stressor (YIPS): Affective, physiological, and behavioral responses to a novel interpersonal rejection paradigm. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 22(3), 204-213.
- Williams, K. D. (2009). Ostracism: A temporal need‐threat model. Advances in experimental social psychology, 41, 275-314.
- Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Carping. Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/carping.
- Schwenk, C. R. (1984). Devil’s advocacy in managerial decision‐making. Journal of Management Studies, 21(2), 153-168.
- Schweiger, D. M., Sandberg, W. R., & Ragan, J. W. (1986). Group approaches for improving strategic decision making: A comparative analysis of dialectical inquiry, devil’s advocacy, and consensus. Academy of management Journal, 29(1), 51-71.