The devil’s advocate has a long and distinguished history.
In the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church established a new practice for vetting individuals proposed for sainthood. Under this practice, a promoter of the faith would be assigned to vet the candidates and present facts against their canonization. He was opposed by the God’s advocate, and as a result, the promoter of the faith came to be known as the devil’s advocate.
The devil’s advocate eventually migrated outside the church and into our daily lives. Five centuries later, we anoint devil’s advocates in organizations big and small to encourage dissent, foster discussion among alternatives, and prevent groupthink.
This approach sounds great in theory, but there’s a problem with it in practice.
It doesn’t work.
Social science research shows little meaningful difference in generating original thinking between groups with no dissenters and groups with an appointed devil’s advocate. It’s only when the dissent is genuine — when it doesn’t result from a role play — that it boosts the quantity and quality of solutions to a problem.
This result might strike you as surprising. In the relevant research, both the authentic dissenter and the devil’s advocate oppose the majority’s position. Both maintain the same position using the same set of arguments. Yet the distinction between manufactured and authentic dissent is sufficient to make a significant difference in originality.
The reasons for this divergence aren’t clear. Perhaps, people take manufactured dissent less seriously than real dissent. They may question, rightly or wrongly, the devil’s advocate’s commitment to her arguments. As a result, the type of engaging give-and-take that follows an authentic disagreement may be absent in a manufactured one.
Using a devil’s advocate isn’t simply a watered-down way of generating authentic dissent. In fact, a devil’s advocate can generate the very result that it seeks to prevent. Even in studies where the use of a devil’s advocate stimulates more arguments, the new arguments tend to support the group’s initial position. Having heard and rejected alternative views from the devil’s advocate, the group may grow more confident in its initial position and more extreme in its views.
In other words, appointing a devil’s advocate may encourage groupthink.
But there’s one seeming advantage to appointing a devil’s advocate. No one likes to be the skunk at the picnic, the lone holdout pounding her fists at the conference room table, postponing happy hour for everyone involved. Skunks, like messengers, have a habit of getting shot. The cloak of the devil’s advocate provides us cover. We assume we’re less likely to ruffle feathers if we claim to play the devil’s advocate when Aunt Helen goes on one of her political rants.
Here, again, there’s a conflict between what we assume and what science knows. Studies show that feathers are equally ruffled in groups that adopt a devil’s advocate and groups with an authentic dissenter. In both cases, the dissenters received roughly the same likeability rating from the rest of the group.
In short, the devil’s advocate is a misguided tool. It comes with the stink of ruffling the group, but without the benefit of generating original thinking.
The next time you’re tempted to play the devil’s advocate — don’t.
If you’re going to disagree, go ahead and disagree — not under the cloak of a devil’s advocate, but as your authentic self.