The devil’s advocate and the steel man

Two ways to challenge your thinking and grow a bit wiser

Imagine you need to buy a new car. The three previous ones have all been from the same make — perhaps you had been aware of its reputation and status since you were small, and as soon as you could afford one that is what you got. Chances are your next car will be the fourth one in a row. Indeed, what would changing to a different make now signal, to yourself and to your social circle?

It might well look like an admission that you had been making the wrong choice on three occasions. Much better to stick with this brand. But is it not overpriced? No, the quality is superb, and so it really is value for money. Besides, these cars maintain their value (you assert, despite never having verified this). What about reports in a consumer magazine that they have more than average reliability problems with the electrics? Well, that’s just a non-representative sample, and you certainly never had a problem all this time, did you?

The mind, it is sometimes said, is like a lawyer: it is more concerned with winning arguments than with uncovering the truth. Several insights from behavioural science would appear to support this observation. Traits like overconfidence, and cognitive tendencies like confirmation bias (seeking out and interpreting information so that it confirms our beliefs) and motivated reasoning (when the way we reason is influenced by our goals or motives) are certainly more useful if you want to come out ahead, instead of admitting you’re not all that certain.

So while purchasing a new car, you happily make use of these tendencies. Seeing just one shiny 12-year old specimen of a single car of the same make as yours is proof of its durability. And, of course, if there really were quality problems, you wouldn’t have so many of your colleagues driving cars of that same make. We do indeed find support for ‘being right’ in numbers. We conform to social norms — rather spectacularly illustrated in Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments, in which subjects, regardless of the facts, tended to adopt the opinions of the others in the group. We also feel ‘vindicated’ if people copy our choices, whether it is in purchasing a car, picking a holiday destination, or frequenting a restaurant. We just love being right.

At least, when it matters. Even if we think chocolate flavoured ice cream is the best, we have no trouble accepting that other people may prefer strawberry or even vanilla, and we seem to have no desire to claim our preferred variety is better than the others. But beliefs that are more significant, even if they find their origin in facts, easily gain emotional significance. Our position is superior, maybe even the only right one.

If all we care about is being right (even if only in our imagination), then these tendencies are not a huge problem. After all, as long as we are happy with our car, it is not important whether that is because of the badge, or because it truly is better than others according to objective criteria.

But if we care about the truth, if we want our choices to be based on facts and evidence rather than beliefs and emotion, then these self-serving tendencies are not helping. Thankfully, we can do something about that.

The devil’s advocate

One approach gets its name from an actual role in the law of the Catholic Church: the advocatus diaboli. This person’s function was to adduce reasons against the canonization of someone who had been put forward to be granted sainthood (for example, serious character flaws, or misrepresentation of the necessary miracles — fake news, if you wish).

We can take a similar critical position regarding our own arguments and beliefs. If our mind is indeed like a lawyer, then we are well equipped to adopt this contrary role. All we have to do is mentally switch sides.

What possible reasons are there that we could be wrong? Does the evidence we see in favour of our opinion stand up to scrutiny, or are we glossing over the flaws and holes? Does it only support our case, or is it compatible with alternatives? What evidence can we find that contradicts our argument?

Under this kind of cross-examination, our attachment to our pet beliefs, opinions or hypotheses may put up strong resistance, and pull us back to the comfort of the illusory certainty that we are right, though. Then someone else playing the role can help. Trying to pick holes in someone else’s firmly held view can be great fun — even (or especially?) when this someone else is one’s teenage daughter. It may not feel as much fun for her at the time, but if she then later reports that she has adopted the same stance in discussions with her friends, one’s paternal self-image does get a significant boost (*).

The steel man

Less well-known, but no less effective, is the steel man, the opposite number of the more common straw man. It is a debating technique, but it can also be used to critically assess viewpoints. A straw man argument caricatures a counterargument, exaggerating its defects and weaknesses, and ignoring its strengths, so we can easily demolish it. The steel man approach, in contrast, is about making the strongest possible case for the counterargument.

In debates, the first step is often to let go of any assumption of insincerity or incompetence on the part of your opponent. But even if we are just testing our own opinion, we may well be tempted to associate any counterargument with a particular type of person or group — one we dislike, or don’t rate or respect. That opens the door to motivated reasoning (“whoever advocates this case is only after their own gain”, or “anyone making this argument doesn’t understand how complex things really are”). Instead, we can imagine it is our best friend, or the smartest person we know, making the opposing argument, and consider it in that light.

Next, we should scrutinize it, not with the aim to take it down, but to improve it: identify the weaker points and reinforce them; consider the advantages and strong points — and bolster them. We need to detach ourselves from our feelings, and look for motivation in the intellectual challenge of coming up with an even better case than our (virtual) opponent.

And then we can step back into our own shoes, and engage with this new, improved version of the opposite view. If we can counter it, then our own position is pretty solid. If we can’t, then we will have convinced ourselves that there is a better option than the one we were pursuing.

If our companions in life are the devil’s advocate and the steel man, our life may not be the most comfortable. Constantly scrutinizing our choices and looking for the flaws in our arguments, that is bad news for anyone who only wants to feel they are right.

But if that doesn’t bother us, and instead we are pursuing the truth, then we will be in good company with these two dudes. Even if we realize this search will never end, and we must settle for a permanent state of doubt, with both of them at our side we will grow wiser with every step on our journey

(*) This may have happened to your correspondent.

Originally published at on October 11, 2019.

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius