Ep 142: Good Troublemakers

Dr. Charlan Nemeth, author of In Defense of Troublemakers, shares her decades of research on underdogs and dissenters with Andy. Turns out troublemakers have hidden superpowers that can make them top-notch critical thinkers and persuaders!

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Full show notes

With so much fake news flying around on social media and the internet becoming more and more politically polarizing each day, it’s easy to be worried about whether or not our teens can think for themselves. On top of online influences, teens are also susceptible to pressure from their peers in real life, who threaten to paint them as outcasts if they hold a minority opinion. With all these forces against us, raising independent thinkers with their own opinions, values, and moral codes is not easy.

To make matters even more challenging, psychological studies inform us that humans are fundamentally wired to abandon our own thoughts and observations to conform to majority opinion. Not only that, but we tend to only associate with those who agree with us–keeping us from questioning our assumptions and challenging our own perspectives. If we want to raise teens with strong critical thinking skills, it might be time to teach them the value of disagreeing with others.

That’s why we’re sitting down With Charlan Nemeth this week. Charlan is the author of In Defense of Troublemakers: the Power of Dissent in Life and Business, as well as a professor of psychology at the University of California Berkeley. After working as researcher and consultant specializing in influence and decision making, Charlan has become an expert on the ways dissent can be a powerful force in changing the world.

In our interview, Charlan and I discuss how even one dissenter can deeply influence the way a group of people approaches an issue. We also talk about why it can be so hard for teens to present dissenting opinions to their peers, and what parents can do to raise kids who are unafraid to disagree with the majority.

Why Dissent is So Valuable

When we think of a “dissenting opinion”, we may think of someone boldly defying all odds to speak their truth, instantly changing the minds of all who hear! But as Charlan explains in the episode, the effects of dissent can be much more subtle. A dissenter isn’t necessarily going to sway everyone’s opinion...and maybe they shouldn’t. But what dissenters can do, says Charlan, is force us to think outside of the box.

When someone is bold enough to defy the opinion of the surrounding herd, they push those around them to question their own reality. They aren’t going to gain everyone’s support right away, and might even find themselves an outcast. But, undeniably, they’ll have an effect on the group, says Charlan. It might not be public, or immediate, but it will rear its head sooner or later. Those who conform to the majority are likely to find themselves questioning their perspective down the line, as a result of even just one dissenting opinion!

Too often kids are raised in “bubbles”, and aren’t exposed to any people with opinions that go against their own, says Charlan. Because of this, their minds narrow to only take in evidence that correlates to what they already believe. When faced with divergent opinions, they might be resistant, but will eventually find themselves liberated by the freedom to expand their own consciousness, Charlan explains. And if they open up their minds to the dissenting viewpoints of others, they’ll be open to presenting disagreeable opinions of their own later on.

But for teens, exploring ideas that don’t conform to the majority is pretty hard! The social world of teenagerhood places a lot of pressure on teens to not only look, dress, and speak like everyone else–but think like them as well.

Why Teens Struggle To Swim Against the Current

Holding a minority viewpoint is hard for a lot of reasons. The first obstacle to believing something outside the majority is questioning yourself. As Charlan and I discuss in the episode, humans are undeniably inclined to trust the majority view over our own, even denying our own senses! When a group of individuals were told that their entire peer group saw a blue object as green, they chose to categorize it as green, even though objective evidence suggested otherwise.

For teens, dissenting is made even more difficult by social pressures, Charlan explains. All humans fear rejection, but no one cowers from it more than the modern teen. Fighting for their place in the brutal social hierarchy of high school, teenagers are remarkably likely to side with the majority, to avoid becoming outcasts. Not only that, but teens tend to group with those who agree with them, only reinforcing the viewpoints they already hold.

In the episode, Charlan and I talk about how becoming a dissenter can give kids a strong sense of independence. When they learn to challenge common perspectives, they start to understand that those who live a life of conformity often find themselves unhappy. When they find the courage to define their own beliefs, they can discover that they are capable of influencing others. They might even learn that it’s ok to be different!

Raising teens who can think critically is clearly important...so how can parents help teens see the value of dissenting even when it’s difficult?

Empowering Teens to Think For Themselves

When it comes to teaching kids to be open minded, Charlan emphasizes the importance of coming from a place of understanding, not authority. She believes that modelling, instead of preaching, is the key to helping kids shed their fear of voicing minority views. Telling kids to think critically is not going to get you anywhere. Instead, Charlan encourages you to show your kid, through action, how valuable it is to challenge majority opinions.

Interestingly, she suggests notifying kids when you find yourself at odds with the perspective their friends’ keep. Peer groups tend to keep kids rooted in one mindset, so parents can play an essential role in pushing kids to think differently, says Charlan. She stresses the importance of understanding that your kid will likely not agree with you. They are their own individuals, with unique experiences and values that may not align with yours. Instead of being heavy-handed, Charlan advises encouraging them to come to their own judgements. This models open-minded behavior!

In the end, Charlan believes what really matters is empowering kids to be their authentic selves. While dissent can be provocative, it rarely causes any ripples if those dissenting aren’t coming from a place of honesty. Beyond just rocking the boat, teaching kids to speak their truth is what will help them to really change the world. As a parent, being unafraid to express your honest opinions with your child will not only help them question their own perspective , but shows them that they don’t have to be afraid to see things differently.

In the Episode…

Charlan and I discuss a broad range of interesting research in this week’s episode! In addition to the topics above, we also cover:
  • How consistency makes us more persuasive
  • What Ruth Bader Ginsburg can teach us about authenticity
  • How you can apply the concept of “late compromise” in an argument
  • Why you should share stories from your own adolescence with your kids
Although it’s hard to raise teens who think critically, Charlan’s advice can show us where to start! I had a blast interviewing Charlan and I hope you enjoy the talk as much as I did. Don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week!

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Ep 142: Good Troublemakers
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