The Devil’s Advocate

As a fan (and helpless victim) of psychology, I have become very enamored with the field of Behavioral Economics, which combines the sexiness of economics with the certitude of psychology. I jest, but it is a fascinating field which has helped ease economists out of the rarified world of pure economic models and into the messy reality of human decision making. A variety of peculiar variables turn out to have big impacts on how people make decisions. The numbers we see before deciding to buy something, the decorations and ambiance of a restaurant, the images we see around certain brands — these all can affect whether we make a purchase or how we feel about a product or company. In other words, our decisions are never purely rational. We are beset by intuition which can trick us, biases which can misguide us and a need for meaning in what we do. Those factors can influence our decision making.

There is no perfect secret trick for making the right decision, but I want to talk about some methods we can use to improve our chances at making the most informed decision. But before we get into that, let’s take a little test. This is a logic test. The point of it is simple. Given four cards labeled ‘A,’ ‘D,’ ‘4,’ and ‘7’ which cards should you turn over to verify this rule:

“If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other side.” (source)

Here is the answer and explanation.

When Wason and his colleague Johnson-Laird put this type of question to 128 university students, they found that “A and 4” was the most common response (given by 59 people), and “A” was the next most common (given by 42). In other words, students chose the cards capable of confirming the statement rather than disconfirming it. The tendency to seek out confirming evidence is known as a “confirmation bias.” (source)

This test gives a quick example of confirmation bias, just one of the many invisible forces pulling on us when we make plans and decisions. Trying to engineer around such biases is challenging since we all have them and often can’t see them until they’re pointed out by activities like this, or by thoughtful co-workers and friends.

One method you can try to help identify biases such as this is to assign someone to the role of Devil’s Advocate. Not to be confused with the Al Pacino film of 1998, the title refers to a role that was held in Catholic canonization proceedings. The Promoter of Faith was commonly called the Devil’s Advocate because during the investigation of potential saints, this role was to be skeptical of the presented evidence in order to ascertain whether or not the material presented was genuine. As an idiom, the concept of having an ally assigned to providing cold, hard questioning of a plan has become quite popular. But actually implementing a deliberate role such as this during projects seems to be unusual and is typically an ad hoc process.

It is likely that nobody on your team would want, nor could be consistently qualified, to always play the Devil’s Advocate role. If you want to implement such an approach it could be a special additional role on your team design. The job is difficult, and potentially can cause friction in meetings, but the goal is to have your Devil’s Advocate help your team avoid failure by making sure that all of your assumptions are correct and to help you find places where you’ve missed factors.

Here’s some examples of how this role can potentially help your projects:

Team: We want to implement our new ride-sharing software immediately.Devil’s Advocate: Are there any regulatory limits in the target market that would prohibit legally rolling out our software? Does this app work on iPhone and Android? Have you been accepted into the app stores? Has anyone done the reporting on market saturation of competitors?

Team: We have our newest product — a peanut-based toothpaste!
Devil’s Advocate: I’m allergic to peanuts.

Team: We have a plan that will lower our operating costs and improve morale. It involves firing the Devil’s Advocate.
Devil’s Advocate: Hang on… Dang it. You got me.

In all seriousness, tacking on this adversarial position on purpose can be a really good way to get through the kind of “acceptance” steamrolling that sometimes is based on genuine support, and sometimes based more on a desire to be told what to do than a genuine embracing of the plan. This may not be the most fun role within a team, but properly handled, you can help spot pitfalls that are often missed in the enthusiasm of the moment. We’ll talk more about this kind of hazard aversion in our post about pre-mortems analysis.

Blake Smith

Blake Smith