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Devil's Advocate

Andrew Badham 2018-04-17 13:55:09

There’s a game I like to play with my classes. It’s based on the concept of playing Devil’s Advocate. Simply put, it’s all about taking the opposing view of an argument even if you don’t really agree with it.

First off, we try to find a couple of controversial topics, ones that really split the room, but hopefully, don’t elicit too much of an emotional response. A little bit of controversy ups the engagement level, but too much spirals the class into emotional chaos. So, topics like Apple vs Android or should we legalise marijuana are great, while issues around abortion are a definite no-no.

Once we find the right topic, we break up into for and against groups and have a debate. Pretty standard, right? Except, this time, everyone has to argue against their convictions. In other words, if you’re an Apple fanboy, tough luck you have to be an Android nerd now. If you’re for the use of recreational marijuana, now you’re incensed by the mere idea of it.

In most cases, the students get into the spirit of the exercise and argue vigorously for their newly adopted positions, but some of them don’t find it so easy. While they prepare their arguments, I like to go around and see how their planning is going. It’s at that point I hear the exact same phrase uttered by those struggling with the task, “I just can’t think of any good reason for this”.

Understandably, it is hard to think of arguments which contradict your beliefs, but to say there are no good reasons doesn’t make much sense. After all, there were several people who would have volunteered to take that opinion. Surely some of those folk must have one or two legitimate arguments for why they feel the way they do? If so, can’t you imagine what those arguments might be?

So, I encourage them to pretend they are those other classmates. Thankfully, that last piece of advice does seem to help people see the other side of the argument. We tend to identify ourselves by our beliefs, which makes understanding a different viewpoint hard. When an idea contradicts our beliefs, it feels like it undermines our entire identity. So when we pretend to be someone else, it drops some of our mental barriers and lets us entertain the idea that maybe, just maybe our initial ideas were wrong.

This is by far the most important aspect of critical thinking. You need to be able to entertain the idea that even your deepest beliefs could be wrong. Then, as counterintuitive as it may feel, you need to argue against those beliefs with the same ardour you would argue for them. At the end of the process, you’ll either have changed your mind or have only reaffirmed your beliefs. Either way, if you’ve truly embraced the concept, you’ll be closer to a truly objective understanding of the topic.