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.