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RUBIN-STANKIEWICZ: Playing devil's advocate is not always warranted

Column: Rutgers Realities

We should be ready to critically evaluate why we may be tempted to play devil's advocate during discussions. – Photo by Alex Green / Pexels

We have all been in a situation where we are presenting an argument, a personal story or something we are passionate about, only to have someone start a response with the phrase, "To play devil's advocate here..."

Maybe that has not bothered you — perhaps it has even helped flesh out and develop your argument. But maybe, and more likely, it has been disruptive, especially when you were not prepared to defend your opinions intellectually but instead expected to share them informally with someone.

If you are someone who likes to play devil's advocate, the last thing I want to do is encourage you to overthink your social interactions when they can already be anxiety-inducing and complicated. If nobody has brought up playing devil's advocate as an issue with you, you have absolutely nothing to worry about. 

But I think it is worth examining why the tendency of playing devil's advocate is so tempting and the situations in which it can become harmful.

Playing devil's advocate presents a way to insert criticism without the risk of as many social consequences. If your position is unpopular, you can always fall back on the excuse that you were just playing devil's advocate and that your suggestions do not align with your true beliefs. This can allow people to learn more about an argument they are unfamiliar with without publicly committing to a certain viewpoint or even allow one to challenge arguments made by people who hold more power than them.

But there are also situations in which playing devil's advocate can cause harm. Especially when someone is sharing a personal experience, playing devil's advocate can be invalidating, particularly when it forces people to intellectualize or prove the validity of their own painful, frustrating or traumatic experiences for the sake of an argument. 

It is also important to note that marginalized groups may be more likely to experience someone playing devil's advocate because they may have to rely on personal experiences to uplift a phenomenon when these experiences may be less represented in historical and academic archives and school curriculums. They may also be consistently asked to provide evidence for the presence of structural oppression that others do not experience, which can be exhausting. 

Maya Rupert, a writer and political strategist, wrote an essay about constantly having to deal with people playing devil's advocate in response to her personal experiences of racism, saying that the mechanism of devil's advocate forces her to show "moral respect" and empathy to the person using it, even when it "denies respect or empathy" to her. 

Personally, when others ask to play devil's advocate, I find that they are usually in response to viewpoints of mine that are seen as more controversial, like lowering the voting age. While I am not inherently opposed to someone playing devil's advocate, the counterarguments that are raised are almost always arguments that I have heard and responded to. They also tend to be based on false stereotypes about young people. 

Consider why you are playing devil's advocate. Is it because you just want to argue with someone? Is it because you are genuinely interested in their argument and want to think through all sides of the issue? Or is it because you disagree with them but do not feel safe enough in the social situation to outright say so?

If you are trying to change someone's mind, playing devil's advocate is generally an ineffective way of doing so. Having a devil's advocate present in a conversation results in a person generating more arguments supporting their original position on an issue. 

This fits into the backfire effect, a cognitive bias where a person who encounters evidence that opposes their beliefs will reject the evidence and double down to be more certain of their original stance. 

Playing devil's advocate could even exacerbate the backfire effect because it may feel like telling a person that they have not fully thought through their argument or that it is somehow incomplete or insufficient, leaving people desperate to defend themselves and find counterarguments to prove that their original point was well founded. 

It is not inherently wrong to play devil's advocate. It can be valuable to hear opposing viewpoints to an argument you are making in order to prepare yourself to defend your position.

But sometimes, people want to share their ideas and thoughts with a safe and trusted person without immediately testing them for merit. 

If you want to challenge or complicate someone's argument, it can be more effective to start by validating a portion of what they are arguing and then ask questions about some areas of the argument that you disagree with. 

It can also be helpful, depending on the context, to ask someone if they want someone to just listen to their argument or experience or if they want to hear a critique. People may be more open to listening to a devil's advocate perspective when they have some control over when they actually encounter it and whether it would benefit them in the situation.

But of course, I am only playing devil's advocate here.

Raisa Rubin-Stankiewicz is a junior in the School of Arts and Sciences majoring in political science and minoring in psychology. Her column, "Rutgers Realities," runs on alternate Tuesdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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