We defend our dissertations. We defend our arguments in a courtroom. And we defend our beliefs – unless they challenge the status quo. More often than not, we trade conviction for agreement, and the result, while it may avoid confrontation, doesn’t avoid consequences. Moreover, it doesn’t improve the collective decisions we make.
In her new book, In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business, social psychologist Charlan Nemeth makes a very compelling case that dissent is a necessary ingredient to our creativity, the accuracy of our decisions, and the quality of our thoughts.
“A consensus position can sway our judgments even when it is in error, and even when the facts are in front of our face,” write Nemeth.
Nemeth cites the example of United Airlines Flight 173 where, after hearing a loud thump when trying to lower the landing gear, the crew became so focused on solving the problem of the landing gear that while delaying their scheduled landing, they ran out of fuel.
“When everyone is focused on one thing, they all lose sight of relevant information and options,” writes Nemeth.
We also give more attention to information that confirms our own beliefs, while often discounting information that discredits them. Moreover, we often don’t even consider alternative explanations, perspectives, or ways of interpreting situations.
“Consensus narrows, while dissent opens the mind,” writes Nemeth.
People often follow the majority simply because it is the majority, without considering its value.
“The power and pull of the majority is all around, even if we don’t notice it, and even if we are unaware of its potential influence over us,” writes Nemeth.
We follow the majority, Nemeth tells us, for two main reasons: the assumption that truth lies in the numbers, and the desire to belong.
Nemeth cites the work of Robert Cialdini, who placed signs in Arizona’s Petrified Wood Forest National park that were either descriptive, indicating that many past visitors had removed petrified wood from the park changing its natural state, or prescriptive, asking people not to remove the wood:
“Over the five weeks of the study, the petrified wood placed close to signs with the descriptive message was five times more likely to be stolen than wood placed close to a sign with the prescriptive message.”
Relying on consensus is a fundamental problem of the majority, and one that doesn’t offer room for independent, expansive thinking.
One way to break the pattern of groupthink, Nemeth contends, is through anonymity. The result is that we must commit to what we believe before we know the opinions of others.
“Think of a group vote in which the first three people vote the same way. This almost ensures that other hands will go up in agreement. Suppose, however, that each person writes down his vote before seeing or hearing how others are voting. In that case, each member of the group will be less likely to follow the majority. When we have already committed to what we believe, we at least have to confront why we are changing our minds if we are inclined to do so. We have to stop and pause,” writes Nemeth.
Similarly, people are much more likely to listen to dissenters if asked privately. One important factor, however, is that dissenters must be consistent.
“The research suggests that consistency is more effective than compromise in changing minds,” writes Nemeth.
The influence of dissenters is also not fully recognized. In jury deliberations a dissenter who fails to compromise can prevent an agreement, and can change attitudes.
“We may persuade even if there is no public acknowledgement of it,” writes Nemeth.
Beyond persuasive ability, however, dissent improves the quality of our thinking and our decisions.
“In the presence of dissent, we don’t narrow our search to any one position, whether our own, or that of the dissenter. Instead, we expand and widen our search,” writes Nemeth.
The divergent thinking that emerges from dissent forms the basis of creativity, creative solutions and greater flexibility of thought.
“This appears to be another benefit of dissent: it enables us not only to see different paths but to shift from one path to another as needed,” writes Nemeth.
Challenging the desire to be favorably viewed or give priority to the beliefs already held by the group, dissent helps correct for what Nemeth says is a highly replicable phenomenon: that discussion among like-minded people leads to more extreme views.
Dissent doesn’t only balance otherwise radical beliefs, it improves the quality of belief itself. When a dissenter speaks up he empowers those around him to also challenge their thinking and beliefs, unlock the stronghold of the majority, and think with a mind that is open, and willing to explore opposing – and perhaps more accurate – views.
In Defense of Troublemakers doesn’t only lay out the science behind divergent thinking, it is a powerful treatise on why we need dissenting opinions to solve problems from the most complex real world kind to those that they we may not even realize are interfering with our thinking and decisions.
In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business
Hardcover, 214 Pages