When a devil’s advocate throws in his wig

Sometimes you need to choose between the quest for wisdom and maintaining sanity

David Sipress is a celebrated cartoonist whose work regularly features in the New Yorker. One of his drawings, so old the author cannot even remember where it was first published, had gone viral, and in a heartfelt article in the same magazine last weekend, Sipress reflected on the reasons why.

The title of the article (How to stay sane as a cartoonist in Trumpland) and the caption underneath the cartoon got me thinking too. Following news bulletins, newspapers and social media can indeed do more than just provide you with information. A new Government measure can, depending on our political leanings, provoke anger or pleasure, and a report on crime figures can make us frightened. Even the stock market movements can affect our mood and our behaviour — Richard Thaler’s famous advice to investors (in Misbehaving) is to buy a diversified portfolio, and then “scrupulously avoid reading anything in the paper aside from the sports section”.

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Stuck in a filter bubble

And if we want to keep well-informed, it is very likely we will be regularly confronted with views that are violating our beliefs and values, and that can feel distinctly uncomfortable — never more than in recent months. There is a trade-off to be made between knowing what’s going on, and keeping mental stress at bay. At some point we may have to start cutting down on the news for our own sake.

But perhaps it is actually a good thing for our mental health to expose ourselves to viewpoints that are conflicting with our own. In 2011 Eli Pariser coined the term filter bubble, referring to the tailored internet newsfeeds that serve to reinforce what we think, and to shield us from information that would broaden or challenge our world view. Now, a google search for the same term yields nearly 20 million hits, suggesting it is a topic that draws attention.

You’d be wrong to blame your filter bubble only on Facebook, Yahoo News, or the Huffington post, though. As Pariser writes (in a post about a Facebook study on the exposure to ideological diverse news and opinion), who our friends are, and who we choose to follow are at least as important as the filter algorithms.

So if we want to pop that bubble, we need to be deliberate in seeking out contrary views. You could, for example, do what Gillian Tett suggests we do with our Twitter timeline: “replace half of those you follow with others who espouse a radically different view”). But is simply knowing that there are views that differ from ours enough — or should we go further and try to understand the people holding these views?

Siding with the devil

This is where devil’s advocacy comes in. Acknowledging contrary views may hamper the formation of a bubble, but the easiest way to respond is to cling even more strongly to your own position and dismiss the alternatives outright: they are wrong and misinformed, and you are right. What if, instead, you tried to actually argue in favour of the opposite side? You would force yourself to override your own preconceptions and move — even if only temporarily — closer to that opposite viewpoint. Most importantly, you would develop a logically plausible case for something you disagree with.

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For many years, I have been driving my children up the wall by taking the opposite viewpoint to theirs. When they argued in favour of the legalization of soft drugs, I made the case against; when they hailed the smoking ban in pubs, I (a non-smoker of over 20 years) took pro-smoking side and so on. And then, one day, one of them came home saying they played devil’s advocate in a discussion on student loans. That was one of my proudest moments as a father…

Playing devil’s advocate is not just an instrument for annoying your offspring, though. It is also a rather potent way to combat an array of cognitive biases (including old favourites the availability heuristic and the confirmation bias), and to become more comfortable with cognitive dissonance — something president Truman’s two-handed economists would have been proud of.

Is there is risk that your defences might crumble and that you might actually change your mind? Sure –in fact that is the purpose of playing devil’s advocate. Scrutinizing both your own and the opposing viewpoint allows you to adopt the one that is the most plausible. Arguably playing devil’s advocate protects you from a barrage of discordant views with the power of logic and reason. It might even help my good friend Oliver Payne, who recently tweeted

The boundary of advocacy

What you do as a devil’s advocate is very much what defence lawyers do. If their client is innocent, they look for the evidence and build a persuasive defence case on the basis of it. If their client is guilty, but there are mitigating circumstances, their goal is to convince the court (or the jury) to see the situation from their client’s side and take into account these extenuating circumstances.

But what if their client is obviously and undeniably guilty as sin, and where there are no such moderating conditions, no matter how hard you look for them? There is not really much to do for an advocate in such situation.

And it is the same for a devil’s advocate. When, for example, a president invokes alternative facts to his heart’s content, and acts blatantly in his own self-interest rather than in the interest of the nation, then devil’s advocacy has reached its boundary.

When someone’s behaviour is indefensible, persisting would not lead to wisdom, but to insanity. That is when a devil’s advocate has no choice but to throw in his wig.

Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on February 10, 2017.

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

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