By: Tonya Mead, PhD, MBA, M.Ed, School-based Psychologist
Dave Chappelle and Kyrie Irving are two influencers in the news today. Forget about whether you are for or against their opinions and options they have chosen for their lives. When they take a personal stand against the status quo, are they inadvertently teaching your child devil’s advocacy skills? Have they served as examples to give parents the resolve needed to either stand for or against something for which they strongly believe?
The Societal Benefits of Devil’s Advocates
Playing the devil’s advocate and serving as the salt of the earth can have some benefits. Parents, we have had many role models. All one needs to do is read the bible for comfort, watch 80s superhero tv programs, movies, flicks; or go back further to admire the rebels of the 60s like James Dean and Steve McQueen. Even the characters Clint Eastwood portrayed in the 70s come to mind.
But if we look at the landscape of the current age with a critical eye, its not difficult to notice that too much conflict, often driven and guided by the rebellious can hurt efforts to unify and calm a tormented society. The summer 2019 riots, social justice protests, unaddressed election integrity scuffles, and vaccine mandates brought about and acerbated by Covid-19 Coronavirus closures as evidence.
Devil’s Advocacy Players Improve Performance
But getting back to the advantages of devil’s advocacy and those who play the role. According to Nithya Kasi’s study appearing in the Journal of Applied Psychology, presenting opposing views in a socially acceptable manner does have its benefits. In the field of business where the maximization of profits rule, market share is king, and leaders with sharp elbows are anointed based upon their ability to ‘get things done.’ All in the midst of chaos, conflict and confusion.
When the dust settles and historians chronicle our current events as times past, it will be said that the survival of civilization was due to those who dared to act against prevailing conventional wisdom of the times. In a cut throat environment of business and politics, where the fragility of the human condition isn’t highly regarded, Kasi’s study found that teams with at least one member who subtly presents an opposing view achieves better performance than teams consisting of members where there is no dissention. So much then, for the benefits of harmony and consensus building. I guess the research proves a softie like me wrong.
Problems with Playing Devil’s Advocate
One problem though about playing the devil’s advocate and encouraging your child to speak up and out against others, is just that. The word ‘playing’ or assuming a role that is not one’s own for the purpose of pretending in an argument or discussion to be against an idea or plan that everyone else supports. I know that was a mouthful. But taking on a role for the benefit of others: society, the company, and the ego of parents, or other family members does not serve the individual child or young adult well, from a humanistic psychology perspective.
As a background, humanistic psychology is often referred to as the ‘third force’ in psychology to counter Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic and B.F. Skinner’s behavioral theories. Humanistic theorists support the notion that individuals should be recognized and treated as unique and ‘one of a kind.’ Britannica puts it this way, ”The humanist is concerned with the fullest growth of the individual in the areas of love, fulfillment, self-worth, and autonomy.”
But you Haven’t yet explained the Human Costs Associated with Playing Devil’s Advocate
Thanks for the reminder. Let’s get back to Nithya Kasi’s study that was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. Another important aspect of her study was the finding that “more than half of the time, when workers had someone disagree with them on a task, they were more likely to take it personally and become emotional.” Although one becomes influential by playing the role of the devil’s advocate, what a way to lose past and current friends, not make new friends, and instead collect enemies!! Nasi adds, “once conflicts become personal and emotional, people become irrational, are distracted and can’t process information fully.”
Should you teach your child to play the Devil’s Advocate?
From a school-based psychologist and behavioral scientist perspective, yes and no. Yes, your children should be taught to be courageous and stand their ground for their individual beliefs and opinions. No, however, if they are not quite emotionally mature enough to withstand the pressure of being bullied, ostracized, or socially outcast. No, also if they are not yet versed and well-trained in communication and conflict management.
It doesn’t seem as though Dave Chappelle or Kyrie Irving will give in to societal pressures. In fact, their actions may fuel others to take a stand for their beliefs and encourage parents to chart their own course as they parent their children. If your child is determined to voice his/her opinion that is counter to the opinions, beliefs and attitudes of their peers, please ensure that they hold the necessary social, communication and resiliency skills to withstand peer pressure and bullying. A few recommendations follow.
Recommended for Children in Need of Social Skills Training
Victims of bullying in many studies have been found to have poor social skills (British Journal of Educational Psychology, 2005).
Victims of bullying tend to: (a) display a behavioral vulnerability (e.g. looking scared), (b) be non-assertive (e.g. ‘give in to the bully too easily’), (c) reward and thus reinforce the bully’s behavior (e.g. ‘cries when picked on’), (d) be withdrawn and solitary in their behavior (e.g. ‘talks very quietly’), and (e) be quite ‘provocative’ (e.g. ‘annoys other kids’) (Perry et al,1990).
- Consider Social Skills Training whereby the student is taught assertiveness skills, coping, resiliency, self-care, self-acceptance and self-advocacy skills.
- Participate in workshops to constructively communicate with others (and/or bullies) or find alternative behaviors to replace the negative defense mechanisms like hyper-activity, anxiety, withdrawal, or depression with more constructive ones.
Kasi, N., “The Implications of an Assigned Devil’s Advocate Role in Negotiations,” Journal of Applied Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Wharton Scholars, 2018.
Dr. Mead, PhD, MBA, MA http://www.ishareknowledge.com is a consultant specializing in human behavior, school and social psychology. She can be contacted at: tonya at ishareknowledge dot com