I’ve been reading In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business by Charlan Nemeth, a fascinating read about group dynamics and the power of the majority to overwhelm minority viewpoints, whether those viewpoints are right or wrong.

The book dissects the classic movie Twelve Angry Men as a case study in how a minority viewpoint can persuade others against the odds and pressure of a bullying majority. Last week I blogged about the new council meetings and the concept of an Underground Church from the Arrington biography, the idea that more open discussions happen in less formal settings than our usual Sunday School meetings. The councils are a potential way to bridge that gap between formal teaching and informal discussions that could allow individuals to share their views, even if they are not the party line. But most commenters reported that despite the potential for more sharing of viewpoints, there was also a lot of policing of non-majority opinions happening.

Twelve Angry Men demonstrates tactics that enable a minority viewpoint to be heard and eventually to persuade. If you are unfamiliar with the plot, the entire show is a jury discussing a murder case that has been presented to them. At the beginning of their deliberations, 11 of the 12 have voted guilty. The one hold-out simply says he doesn’t feel it’s right to condemn someone of murder without more discussion. Several vocal members of the jury, including the foreman, are increasingly angry at the lone dissenter. The room is hot, and there’s an important baseball game everyone wants to get to. They trust the district attorney’s word and distrust the accused, a young man who allegedly stabbed his father. They trust eye witness testimony (and overheard testimony), and the defendant’s lawyer didn’t present a very capable defense to refute the charges.

It’s a helpful case study for those with different viewpoints who want to be heard.

The take-home message is that, if you control the process, you control the outcome.

During the initial polling of the jury, the foreman who is an outspoken bully who wants to get home as soon as possible requests that everyone raise his hand if they believe the defendant is guilty. While there are eleven hands that go up, a closer watching reveals that some of the hands go up quickly, while others wait to see how many hands have gone up. The delay is brief, and on first watching, it’s hardly noteworthy. Only when they feel they are comfortably a part of the majority do they weigh in. One hand goes up for “not guilty,” and immediately, the focus is on trying to bully that person into submission to the will of the majority. Everyone attacks him as the barrier to their “success,” the one creating disunity, the one getting in their way.

An important turning point comes when the foreman suggests that the eleven “convince this man where he is wrong and we are right.” Hubris is out in full force . . . This suggestion changes the usual offensive position of the majority to a defensive one. Rather than press Fonda to defend his position, which we know would likely result in ridicule, each juror now explains his own position. One by one they defend their belief that the defendant is guilty, usually with pronouncements such as, “It’s obvious,” or reminders that an eyewitness “saw” him commit the crime.

As we quickly see, several of those who hold the majority opinion have simply not considered whether some of their assertions might be wrong. Their confidence derived from being part of the majority. The eyewitnesses could be wrong, as the dissenting Fonda points out. And then it becomes apparent that there are some gaping holes in the eyewitness testimony.

Having each individual defend his position has another consequence. Their testimony shows the holes in the majority’s unanimity. We know that a break in that unanimity will severely undermine the power of the majority. The eleven may agree on the verdict, but not for the same reasons. In the film, they disagreed on those reasons and argued about it.

Each also reveals his certainty–or lack of it. If you are looking for an ally, it is important to notice those in the majority who are unsure.

In knowing who is unsure, he also knows who is most likely to be persuaded. Although the foreman intended this exercise to be one that would favor the majority, it actually revealed to the dissenter who was most likely to be persuaded.

At one point, the jurors seem to be at an impasse. Sensing some uncertainty, Fonda wisely announces that he wants another vote, but this time he wants the vote made privately–in written form rather than verbally. He announces that he himself will not vote. If all eleven vote “guilty,” he will not stand in the way. They can stop the deliberation and return a verdict of “guilty.” Note that he takes the high road in his suggestions. It is hard to deny him. Note, too, that he does not indicate any uncertainty or change in his own position. He is simply acknowledging the power of the majority and the difficulty of changing their minds.

Predictably, when the vote is taken and a new lone dissenter is found, the majority once again immediately begin to point fingers, to try to ferret out the one who has prevented consensus. One old man raises his hand and says that while he’s not yet persuaded, he is no longer certain. He also feels that Fonda has shown courage and deserves to be heard in earnest. Deliberation can now begin afresh.

Here’s a quick recap of how Fonda’s character, the lone dissenter, was able to be persuasive, point by point:

  • He recognized that a verbal, open vote would simply reinforce majority viewpoints by making it unsafe to dissent and reinforcing the opinions of the most vocal group members.
  • He is willing to disagree with the majority, demonstrating courage and honesty.
  • Rather than stonewalling or attacking other group members’ views, he simply asks to have a discussion given what’s at stake.
  • Rather than sharing his own reasons (which puts him on the defensive), he asks those who claim to hold a majority opinion to state their reasons. Not everyone has equally good reasons or equally strong convictions. In some cases, he has revealed their lack of courage or lack of honesty in asking them to defend their views. This opens the eyes of the group members to just how shaky a consensus really is.
  • He pays attention to the verbal and non-verbal clues that tell him who is most likely to become an ally.
  • He lowers the stakes for someone to become an ally by requesting a secret ballot rather than an open verbal one.
  • At the same time, he encourages an ally to take a stand by recusing himself from the process. Anyone who is even partly persuaded or has a doubt about the majority viewpoint now feels the pressure of knowing that without their dissent, the accused will be convicted. The verdict rests on their (newly shaken) confidence. By doing this, the ally is no longer allowed to remain hidden, but must come into the open.
    • Tellingly, the man who now dissents points to Fonda’s courage, considering it admirable. He wants to emulate that courage that Fonda has demonstrated. Because Fonda has stepped aside, he is willing to demonstrate that same courage in front of the group.

This case study is helpful if a group is making a decision and wants to improve the ability to make the best decisions possible. If everyone simply goes along without having to think about their agreement, there is no learning, no understanding of their own or each others’ reasons. One lone dissenter, even if she doesn’t persuade another person, even if she ultimately changes her own mind in the process, will improve the group’s understanding and decision-making.

Massage: An Analogy

Why is groupthink and majority opinion such a hindrance to good decision-making? What if that majority just happens to be right? Even if the majority is right, a contrary viewpoint exercises reason-making that is otherwise not required. Group members flex their thinking muscles rather than just riding the coattails of the group.

Consider a massage therapist’s work. Certain parts of the body hold tension from repeated motions, or lack thereof, patterns of behavior. Glutes may become tense from too much sitting at a desk. When a worker repeatedly hunches over a computer, the shoulder muscles become knotted and hardened from remaining in one position for too long. A traveler with a heavy handbag may strain one arm more than the other, resulting in pain and limited motion. Therapists recommend stretching the muscles in the opposite ways to counteract the effects of these repeated motions, to release the built up tension in the muscles so that the body has more range of motion and to eliminate pain. Without treatment, over time, these repeated motions (or lack thereof) can alter one’s posture or ability to do certain tasks. The therapist counteracts these negative effects.

Any good massage (IMO) involves some pain as you allow the therapist to probe at the knotted muscles and gently move them in ways they have become unused to moving. Similarly, the lone dissenter pushes the group, creating momentary discomfort and even anger. Group members cry out for the person to be silent or find another group because they dislike the struggle and pain and would rather remain comfortable–for the moment–with their limited range of motion. That’s a natural response, but it’s not a good strategy for a healthy body.

In the Church, we have comfortable answers and arguments, ones we proffer reflexively without thinking. No thought is even required after years of giving the same old comfortable answers that are unchallenged by the group: read scriptures, pray, obey, follow the Prophet, pay tithing, go to the temple. These answers are not always problematic in their own right, but they are shallow, vain repetitions when we are giving them without thinking. Our spiritual muscles also get hardened from the repetition. Opening up our thinking and sharing new ideas is required to truly create a healthy body of Christ.

Consider these thought patterns you may have observed that are very comfortable for the majority:

  • Quoting male church authorities to back up one’s argument; the higher the authority, the more secure one feels in their rightness.
  • Relying on one’s own pedigree of church callings to give credence to one’s argument.
  • A minority viewpoint being countermanded by someone in a higher position of authority in the meeting.
  • People saying “When the brethren speak, the thinking is done,” usually meaning it never began.
  • Discomfort when someone shares a personal story that doesn’t have the expected happy ending (e.g. grief, faith struggles, divorce).
  • Willingness to bash those who have left the faith with assumptions that they have a “darkened countenance” or terrible lives or that bad things are happening to them now.