Ep 142: Good Troublemakers

Episode Summary

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!

Show NotesParenting ScriptsInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

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!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1. Remind your teen they need to have tact when dissenting:

“Having some independence of thought doesn’t mean you’re going to be a dissenter day-in and day-out, or you’re going to be a pain in the butt whenever you can, or you’re going to be constantly challenging. You have to be judicious if you want to have influence.”

Charlan Nemeth

2. Instill the value of openness:

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3. Instill the value of life-long learning:

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4. Go beyond “because I said so”:

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5. Warn your teen that, as rewarding as it is being different, it’s not always easy:

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6. Encourage dissent for the strength it instills:

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7. Going along with the crowd doesn’t always lead to happiness:

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8. Encourage understanding and empathy in your teen:

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: You research troublemakers and dissenters, and you’ve been doing this for quite some time now. What got you into this field of study?

Charlan: I’ll try to make it succinct, if I can, it was a bit of a journey, in all honesty. But I think, interestingly enough, it does play back a little bit to what we were talking in the prelude to this conversation, in the sense that I think there are certain values that you have that you grow up with. They actually come back to guide a lot of decisions in life. But I think what happened is that it was literally, I remember this, a single lecture in a social psychology course, and it was on brainwashing. They had interviews with men who were returning from the Korean War, and there had been some very astute, cruel, but astute mechanisms for essentially isolating the men from one another. Because, basically, if you break trust and you’re isolated, then there were guys who would just literally crawl up and die in their beds.

Andy: Wow.

Charlan: I mean, it became clear the power that people had over one another, and the influence we have on one another, rather than being more independent, isolated, self-contained people, and that lecture stuck with me. My professor put an arrangement together where I was in Oxford for a year doing research with a man who had a lot of impact. He was an Eastern-European Jew, who figures heavily in the mentors that I’ve had. He spent five years in a prisoner-of-war camp, not a concentration camp, luckily. He lost his whole family in the Warsaw Uprising, dah, dah, da. He really had a sense of major issues in the world in which social psychology could speak to them, if we were just smart enough about how to do it.

Charlan: That year changed everything. Through him, I met another, turns out, Romanian, but who became extremely famous in Paris and throughout the world. The two of them were the founders of the European Association. So, I mean, I really lucked into the connection with the Europeans, but these were Renaissance men. They worked in their little niches. So, basically, at the end of that, I decided to then finish my PhD, I did it at Cornell. Then what do you do when you have a PhD? You start teaching. So, then I taught at University of Chicago and the University of Virginia. I think throughout all this, what I’m really getting at, it’s kind of a long way around it. But I think throughout all of that, I was searching for something that gave me that passion I felt in that first lecture when I was an undergraduate. It really had to do with this power of influence of people over one another. These were two individuals who kind of understood influence and they understood power, but they also had deeply seated values that really cared about the underdog.

Charlan: It was not in vogue in my field, because influence was acquainted with persuasion. So, I always had an interest in law, but I was always interested not in winning so much, but in making sure that the group made the best decision. So, if I was working, and I did some consulting for about 10 years, and I’d help them win the case, if I took it on. But where my heart really was, was that I really cared whether or not the jury made the right decision. That is a much more subtle and complicated thing to think about. But it permeated my work, because while I was studying a lot of influence, and most of that was about conformity. So, what you began to realize is the power of numbers, so hundreds of studies, and it is a major, major phenomenon that lasts. That’s why it’s a business model for a million different companies, is that it’s really based on the fact that when you have people, even very few in agreement, is that they can tell you a blue’s green, and you think it’s green.

Charlan: You will literally make judgments that belie not only facts, but what your on senses tell you, and which if you were in a control group, you’d make no mistakes about it all. In that kind of a context, everything was seen as the best you could do is be independent, namely to hold back on the conformity that could take you to error. I think what I learned through those two men, in many ways, was a mindset that basically said, “You don’t have to invest, suffer the slings and arrows and hope you don’t get swallowed up in error, but that you can actually have an authentic differing view in which you present it, and which you can have impact.” But I think where the important aspect was is that in the beginning I spent a lot of years studying how minority views could prevail, namely, how they could persuade. It’s a very different form, if you start out in the minority, the way you persuade and the way you need to persuade is very different than if you’re in the majority.

Charlan: It’s much harder, takes longer, and you have to really have a very good persuasive style. However, what you find is that many times your impact is not public or immediate, it’s latent. It’s more like you’ve had impact, but nobody’s going to admit to it. In the meantime, you’re going to be smacked around. I’m here to tell you that I can’t give you the good news that everybody’s going to think you’re courageous and embrace you, they’re not. Because people don’t like it when you challenge their views, basically. So, I mean, that’s kind of a cautionary tale in what to expect. But I think where the work took a turn for me that became important in the context of my even personal history is that recognizing the latent influence of minority viewpoints of descent, really, are bucking that majority.

Charlan: Opened up the possibility that you had impact on their thinking in a way that would not be obvious, and would not even be triggered by their actual change of attitude. What we find is that what dissent does–even when it’s wrong, that’s the beauty of it, is that even whether it’s right, or even when it’s wrong, it stimulates thinking that if you could train somebody is what you’d train them to do to make good decisions. They actually search for more information on more sides of the issue, they consider the cons as well as the pros, they consider alternatives, they evidence more creativity and problem solving, and they actually make better decisions.

Andy: Our listeners are parents of teenagers, and a lot of times they feel like they have a lot of dissent happening in their household, and arguments, and criticisms, and a couple of troublemakers as well. So, I wonder in this book, you kind of make it seem like maybe the parent’s role as being the voice of dissent, and that having actually some dissent and arguments in your household might be a good thing. Get your teenagers thinking more deeply about their decisions, and all of that kind of thing. So, how to parents make sense of this? What do we do about all this fighting, and how should we be thinking about it?

Charlan: Wow, you ask the simple questions. I mean, it’s an interesting take that you have on how parents would take those messages and essentially, in their own behavior, use it to stimulate their children. Essentially, an aspect I hadn’t considered, but it’s an interesting one.

Andy: Okay, well, because the peer group in my estimation is really kind of what you write about as being kind of unanimous. The peer group of the teenager has really similar views, a lot of times, and behaviors, and habits, and ways of thinking. So, it does strike me that a lot of times you, as the parent, are that voice of dissent.

Charlan: That’s right. Parents might need to be a counter to the kind of conformity that their children are getting from the outside. I will just make one aside is that I recently gave my six and a half year old granddaughter a book about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which we read together, who was a classic minority. I mean, she was left-handed at a time when you were forced it to be right-handed, she was Jewish, and was female, she was a ton of stuff, and she was also a Supreme Court mega person. Anyway, when I gave it to her, I kept thinking, “What have I done?” Because she really took to the book, she remembered every aspect. I could tell that she embraced the fact that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was different. That it’s not that she became problematic or argumentative, but that she became known for being an authentic voice, and she’d wear her collar when she planned to disagree.

Charlan: So, when my granddaughter liked it so much, I then bought her one of the little collars you can get for like 10 bucks, and it has a gavel with it. As soon as she got it, she put the collar on, she’s walking around, “I disagree, I disagree.” And I thought, “Her parents are going to kill me.” Yet, it didn’t take on that form, but I think what the message did come through is that all of us feel we’re different in some way. That may seem like irony, you think like, “How can we all feel different?” Most people feel troubled by that, which is why a lot of people rushed to fit in at all costs, sometimes at great costs. I think learning that having a differing viewpoint, and that’s okay, and it’s even good and has value, is something that you want young people to learn very early. Now, you have to also make a distinction between having an authentic view and voicing it.

Charlan: You don’t have to say everything that you think, but it’s important that you don’t get mixed up in your own mind that it’s something more than a judgment call, that there’s something necessarily wrong with you because you hold a different viewpoint. The other thing, again, back to your point or your question, really, is that I think it’s an interesting notion, which I hadn’t thought of, really, is that if parents showed dissent, it could actually get the children to at least complicate their thinking about this. Because what the research is really showing is that what the dissent does, it opens up your mind to options. It doesn’t give you the answer, what it does is that it frees and stimulates the mind. Which means that you break from the confines of the majority, because the majority… But all our research. I mean, I talk about the positive aspects of descent, there’s negative part to the conformity. When you’re around people that who’re all in agreement, your mind actually closes.

Charlan: You actually search for information that corroborates what they believe so that you can join, you start looking at only the pros of that position, not the cons. All the reverse of what you said earlier in terms of what the research shows. So, there’s a lot of reasons for the dissent, in part, because it liberates you. I hadn’t thought about it in the context of parent child, but I think that’s an interesting idea. But underscoring it, which I think personally is important, I think if a parent were just to be a real pain in the butt, and just like, “I disagree with this, and here’s how it is,” that won’t work. That’s not going to stimulate thinking, because that’s a usage of power, which will actually shut the child down, which has… “I’m right and here’s how you ought to do it.” Because even as a parent, we lecture too much, I still do it.

Charlan: I think the better way to do it… It’s hard for parents, because we take care of them from the time when they can’t feed themselves. But it’s hard sometimes to realize a child is growing up, and has adult thoughts, and you need to treat them at some level as adults. That doesn’t mean you let them do whatever they want, but I think you talk to them differently when you respect their thinking. So, when you’re disagreeing, remember you’re also giving them something to model. What I suspect is that what you want them to model is that you can respectfully disagree. All of the research I told you about… Again, I won’t go through all the nuances about it. But it comes down to that it only really works when that view is authentic, when the dissent is something you really believe, even if you’re wrong. But if you really believe it, that has enormous stimulating power.

Charlan: I mean, who’s going to ignore a martyr, even if you think he’s crazy? The fact he put his life down, the fact he’s putting himself out there is a powerful statement of courage, and people, they may not like you, but they think you’re courageous. So, there’s a lot of aspects to this, but I would suspect in the context of parent child, is that for you to say, “Look, I don’t agree with your friends, and let me tell you why…” Don’t talk from authority, but more like, “I want you to understand this, that there’s this aspect or what,” or get them that book in which you let them kind of read on their own. Maybe you read with them, maybe you become a vehicle for discussion. That’s easier said than done, because we’re all tired, and we all sometimes just say, “Look, just do what I tell you to do, and keep quiet.”

Charlan: None of these things are easy, but I think that’s a very interesting possibility. Actually, it might really create bonds, which by the way, I find easier as a grandparent than I certainly did as a parent. I mean, I’m still inclined a little bit with my own children, who are 38 and 40, to think I can protect them and they don’t want that. So, I mean, we have a lot to learn as parents to kind of open up, which is separate from what I thought you were going to ask. That’s that they’re dissenting in and out of season, and they’re just becoming a pain and disrespectful. They think they have to say no to everything you say, or they have to challenge you at every turn.

Andy: A chronic dissenter?

Charlan: Yeah, well, that’s a separate issue, and that’s not authentic dissent, that’s a reaction against control. I mean, I think that’s a separate discussion. I wouldn’t get that mixed into the notion of the importance of having a differing viewpoint, or the importance of having a minority of viewpoint, or in many ways that notion of being different, which comes together with having a minority viewpoint. Because not only do you worry that you’re not right, you worry that you don’t belong, and you worry that you’re going to be rejected. Even, I can give you a hundred studies telling all that, but that bottom line is, is that that’s what makes you conform, that’s what keeps you confined. I think when people begin to realize that they can be accepted, that they can have differing views, which by the way, you also need to teach your child, they don’t need to express every view that they have that’s different. I have to learn that sometimes, because you still sometimes go in like a bull in a china shop, and that doesn’t really work. So, it’s not like this is without an art to it.

Charlan: But I think it’s important that the person themselves have a sense that they know what they know. Because all that research, I looked at the positive of that the dissent is liberating. It makes you free to know what you know, it doesn’t tell you what to do, it makes you free to really explore and to not be in the confines of the majority viewpoint. It also stimulates thinking that the bottom line of all the research is that it actually stimulates you, even when it’s wrong, by the way, dissent. Is that you search more widely, you think of more options, you show more creativity, you make better decisions. In many ways, the mind widens, and searches in what I call divergent thinking, that’s a powerful, powerful benefit you give them. The admonition is you may not be patted on head for it, but you will in fact provide an enormous service.

Andy: Dissenting is good for your teen in the long run, but also, we don’t like the dissenters. You cite a lot of research in here showing that we punish dissenters, and try to exclude them from our group, and rate them as low, bad, not like… So, does that mean as a parent, yes, good idea, you should dissent with your child, but sucks for you, your kid’s going to hate you for it, or how do those two things play out?

Charlan: I think that there has to be an artful middle ground that a parent can find. You want your child, I think, to be able to think independently, that’s number one. I think to do that, they need to be aware of the kind of pressures that they have that sometimes sends you to error. So, I think there’s message there to beware of when everybody’s in agreement, and to realize is that you don’t… Also, the other message, this is a practical one, you don’t have to say everything that you think. That’s a lesson that I sometimes still have trouble following. But it does mean, what you want your child to have is to know their own minds. What happens, you see, most of the time is that they don’t. When everyone around you believes something, even if it’s not true, or thinks something is appropriate, people aren’t capable really very much of independent thought. That conformity to error is powerful, and there are thousands of studies on this, and they go over decades and decades.

Charlan: I mean, this is not a trivial phenomenon. People don’t even know what they know after a while, and people are raised in particular bubbles. I mean, a lot of times in the book even, I talk about the bubbles that we’re raised in. When you never have dissent in there, you stay very sure of yourself, and often very wrong, and kind of myopic in terms of the way you view the world, which is not something anybody wants. So, to have that kind of independent of thought, where you take truth where it exists, where you’re able to examine it kind of intellectually for yourself in a way, means you have to be to some extent liberated from what are going to be the incredible confines of thinking that come from your peer groups in particular, and I think is particularly painful during adolescence.

Charlan: Because you want to belong, and we all want to belong, so sometimes we say things we don’t believe. Sometimes we think we should speak up, sometimes we walk around in fear, sometimes we don’t want to admit to fear and we become part of the crowd that dampens everybody else’s freedom of thought, or makes premature judgments. I mean, we can go on and on about the pros and cons of this, but I think it really becomes important to have some independence of thought. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to be a dissenter day in and day out, or you’re going to be a pain in the butt whenever you can, or you’re going to be constantly challenging.

Charlan: You have to be judicious if you want to have influence, but at the same time, you don’t want to lose your own way. So, there’s a time to speak up and there might be a time to be silent, and your strategies are very personal, but I think you don’t want to lose sight of your own ability to be able to think in what I call divergent ways. To see multiple possibilities, the ups, as well as the downs. Because this stuff, when it goes unchallenged, can be very painful and have terrible repercussions. Maybe it’s sort of particularly acute during adolescence, but it’s there throughout life.

About Dr. Charlan Nemeth

Charlan Jeanne Nemeth, Phd, is the author of In Defense of Troublemakers pulls together decades of research on two themes: the perils of consensus and the value of dissent for the quality of decision making and the creativity of solutions. She is a Professor in the Department of Psychology, University of California, Berkeley. She has given keynote addresses to the Oregon Bar Assn, to the American Bar Executives and to the American Assn of State Colleges and Universities. Her work has been featured in Wired, Ode, The New Yorker, and various media outlets.

Professor Nemeth has taught executive education in the areas of persuasion, team decision making, scientific creativity, corporate cultures and innovation and given invited addresses or workshops at major companies. She served as Chair of the Board of Advisors for the Institute of Management, Innovation and Organization at the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley.

Dr. Nemeth lives with her husband in the Bay Area of California and is a proud grandmother.

Want More Troublemakers?

Find Charlan on her website, Facebook, and LinkedIn.