The Social Value of Dissent

Charlan Nemeth teaches graduate level psychology at UC Berkeley. She has conducted scholarly research on the psychology and impact of dissent on decision-making in different professional settings (courtroom, laboratory, new business ventures) for decades. In 2018, she published the definitive synthesis of her findings in a popular book, In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business.

In the author’s own words:-

The message of this book is not that we should create dissent, but that we should permit dissent and embrace it when it is present.

Why should we permit and embrace dissent?

In a nutshell, Dr. Nemeth offers two reasons. (1) Consensus is not the absence of dissent. It is a group cognitive state in which participants actively filter out alternative ideas or information that may turn out to be important, possibly life-saving. (2) The presence of a lone dissenter encourages divergent thinking and leads to better decision-making.

Well, that’s just great in an ideal world; but rationality is stacked up against some very powerful psychological disincentives, like ego (who do you think you are, to question me?), inertia (I don’t want to have to think about that-do I have to think about that?), insecurity (I really don’t understand your point but I’m afraid it may be taking me into territory where I’m weak) and fear of losing social standing (look, what you’re saying kinda makes sense, and I know you mean it, but if I’m seen to agree with you, what will they/he think of me?”).

You’ve seen it–I’ve certainly seen it–and so has Dr. Nemeth. She knows she is taking on human nature, popular theories of leadership and powerful moneyed interests with this book. Her full defense takes 272 pages. She draws on situational analysis from a wide variety of sources like the crisis tapes of the UA Flight 173 crash, scenes from Candid Camera, the Snowden leaks, Sidney Lumet’s Twelve Angry Men, and carefully designed experiments that isolate groupthink behaviors, to document the positive impact of dissent, and to coach “troublemakers” who find themselves outside the groupthink comfort zone.

If you’re looking for spoilers or soundbites, here‘s a good review of the book. If you’re interested in the topic because you agree–or better yet, disagree–read the book!

If you want my takeaways, they are: (1) persuasion is not negotiation–want a deal, concede; want to persuade, do not waver; (2) dissenting views can be factually incorrect and still have value; because (3) your courage speaks to the few who will help carry your torch.