Hannah Gadsby made a convincing argument in favor of representation. When you don’t see yourself reflected in the people around you, and particularly in decision-makers, you struggle to know how you fit into society, and that feeling of not belonging creates anxiety. Women have been saying for a long time that equality is not a feeling, and we need more women in leadership positions, making decisions, providing a female perspective, and that seeing women in these roles is important for us as women.

This latest General Conference was lauded for the many speakers who made the effort to include women in sharing scriptural injunctions to readers. Tagging “and women” to the end of things addressed to men is an improvement, although a very cosmetic one. We also saw that having women speak is a mixed bag. Some women like Pres. Eubanks were perceived as speaking inclusively, thoughtfully, and with power. Other women who spoke were perceived quite differently. Representation only gets you so far. Women can be the worst upholders of patriarchy, as its beneficiaries, often policing other women’s choices and limiting women’s roles.

Our church leaders talk about being unanimous in decision making, stating that they discuss openly, disagreeing with one another, researching topics, and sharing information, but then when a decision is made, they all agree with it and uphold it publicly. That’s mostly true from what we can see as members, although there are hints at disagreements, if not in substance, at least of priority. Clearly some decisions are more important to some than to others. It’s probably behind who they present as the public face of the change, seemingly selecting the outlier to support the potentially controversial announcement. [1]

Many church members lauded the addition of apostles from other racial or national backgrounds (Soares and Gong) because they will, in theory at least, bring in diverse perspectives. Whether they do in actuality, though, depends on a lot of different group dynamics and personal qualities. Are their views respected and influential? Are they willing and able to articulate their differing opinions? Do they possess different views or are they “church-broke”?

“One problem is that most people think of diversity in terms of categories—for example, gender or race—whereas, in fact, it is diversity of opinion that better predicts improved performance.” (source below)

I recently read the book In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business by Charlan Jeanne Nemeth. The book talks about the limits of diversity and why dissent is more important than diverse representation. Some of the findings of the book take square aim at the method our church leaders, like other groups, take to make decisions.

Consensus Leads to Bad Decisions

“The first step in decision-making is the search for information. If you want to make a bad decision, you begin with a narrow search for information that corroborates a single preferred position.”

The first finding is that consensus leads to worse decisions than taking a pulse independently. For example, if you have a jury discussing whether to convict or acquit, the majority almost always rules, even if they are seemingly deadlocked for days or even weeks. That’s because a majority has such force that it will wear down the group and cause bad thinking to support whatever idea the majority has. This is particularly true if the bad idea is held by someone in a traditionally more powerful role in the group (e.g. with seniority) or if those who disagree are in a less powerful role in the group or inclined to want to belong and be accepted. Dissent also comes with a social cost, whether you win or lose the argument.

“If you deviate from the crowd, you lose in reputation whether you succeed or fail.”

Even worse, though, is the cost to individuals who agree against their conscience with a majority decision. And that squelching of dissent has negative effects for the group as well.

“There are certainly benefits to being liked and to belonging, and there are certainly risks associated with dissent. What is often not reported is that belonging has a price—our agreement. Paying this price often leads to unreflective thinking, bad decisions, and reduced creativity, not to mention boredom, vulnerability, and deadened affect.”

Just as with cognitive bias, in which an individual has a preference for something and unconsciously finds evidence to support that preference, groups focused on consensus have the same tendency toward the majority position.

“Thinking convergently, we focus more narrowly, usually in one direction. We seek information and consider facts that support an initial preference. We tend not to consider the cons of the position, nor do we look at alternative ways of interpreting the facts.”

We also have a mistaken belief that if a majority has an opinion, it is probably right. The book The Wisdom of Crowds by James Suroweicki is often cited in support of the idea that many people are seldom wrong. However, unrelated individuals all agreeing on something is not the same thing as a majority within a group discussion setting the tone for a conversation.

“Although that book is a good corrective to the value placed on the single “expert,” the accuracy of large numbers of people is limited. The research supports the relative accuracy of large numbers of people when the task involves common knowledge and the judgments are independent—that is, when people are not influenced by one another. These constraints are important in assessing situations where numbers may provide a statistical advantage.”

Unanimity rather than consensus can help the group’s dissenters to come out. When “majority rules” the rush to decide can override dissenting perspectives. Forcing a unanimous decision improves the ability for dissenters to be heard.

“When unanimity was required, the dissenters seemed to argue more vigorously and over a longer period of time. What became clear to me was that this improved the quality of the discussion and the decision-making process. The participants considered more evidence and more ways of explaining that evidence. Instead of rushing to judgment, they considered alternatives. They discussed various possibilities for the same set of facts.”

The conditions that often lead to what the book terms “strain for consensus” (aka “groupthink” which is majority-based poor decision-making) are:

  • A directed leader
  • High stress
  • Little optimism in the group for a solution better than the leader’s preferred position

And the evidence that you are in a “groupthink” situation are easy to identify as well:

  • stereotyping of out-groups
  • illusion of invulnerability
  • self-censorship
  • illusion of unanimity
  • direct pressure on dissenters

How Do We Encourage Dissent?

The book gives several examples of ways to foster dissent in group decision making. Here are some:

  • Anonymity. Gathering input from people in ways that make them unidentifiable lowers the pressure to conform and to care whether or not they belong.
  • Commitment to a position before discussion. This should be done in writing where people can’t change it, not only because they might want group acceptance, but because as they are influenced by others during the discussion, they will try to rewrite their own views to conform, even in their own mind.
  • Designating a devil’s advocate.

While the third option sounds like it would be effective and has precedent in high school debate classes in which students are assigned their position, the book’s studies show that dissent is only powerful when it is authentic.

In other words, pretending you dissent from the majority view isn’t as persuasive or helpful to decision making as someone who genuinely sees things differently. As human beings, we can tell the difference. When a person is designated as the Devil’s Advocate, it can make the group feel as if they have done their due diligence without actually doing any of the heavy lifting real dissent that is taken seriously requires.

Trolls and Dissent

The rise of internet trolls invading “safe spaces” with their provocative (and unwelcome) views is proportionate to the tendency for like minded people to cluster in echo chambers online. As A Turtle Named Mack put it on Steve Evans’ recent BCC post The Splintering:

“When a post goes up that asks for tolerance, expresses genuine distress, or shares personal struggle, you can count on a bona fide turd showing up within the first 5 comments.”

While their intrusions are unwelcome by the majority of the group, they (can) perform an important function, that of challenging the consensus or majority opinion. This is only effective if they are authentic in their challenge, though, and not if they are just randomly lobbing ill-conceived bombs and leaving.

“Even one person, a single dissenter can liberate us to think for ourselves.”

It’s the value of dissent that created the bloggernacle in the first place. In our highly uniform church, there are standard answers that are expected. We repeat these rote questions and answers back and forth to each other like some Gregorian chant. That doesn’t mean it’s an accurate or authentic reflection of our views. As I’ve said elsewhere, they can correlate the manuals, but they can’t correlate the contents of my head! [2] But if my own unique thoughts and feelings aren’t expressed, if they aren’t brought up because it’s not safe to dissent, they have to go somewhere. Either I take those thoughts with me on my way out of the church, or I suborn them until I can’t anymore, or I go online where I can say what I want to say.

The problem is when dissenters are only dissenting online. It’s not dissent if you’ve just sought out a new group that agrees with you, if you’ve found your safe majority, and now you can conform in conscience. That’s still going to lead to blind spots, sloppy research, and poor decision making. You still need dissent to challenge your thinking.

But let’s be honest. We don’t like dissenters. Humans don’t. It doesn’t matter what group you are in. Dissent is treated with derision and ridicule.

“The majority will try to convince the dissenter to change and, if unsuccessful, will reject him.”

If you think about it, Jesus was a true dissenter. He called church leaders and average Joes (and Joannes) to repentance. He called everyone to repentance. He pointed out their corruption, individually and collectively. He said things they didn’t want to hear, repeatedly. Even when his best friend Peter was just trying to demonstrate loyalty to him, he called him Satan. He was one challenge after another, and he was certainly rejected in the biggest way. Jesus’ story is a great example of what dissent leads to for the dissenter, but also for the community, because his dissent allowed people to grapple with ideas in a way they would not have otherwise.

But it’s that challenge to the majority that’s important. It’s the call to question our assumptions. Even if group members appear to remain on the side of the majority, some of them are privately considering the minority view that was expressed, and others are likely to engage with that dissenter, to either try to poke holes in their theories or to justify their majority position. And in that process, the group’s thinking is revitalized and improves.

What Makes Dissent Persuasive?

There are some qualities that must exist for dissent to persuade change:

  • Authenticity. We’ve already discussed that fake dissent is not effective at persuading.
  • Consistency. When negotiating, compromises that are made cannot make the dissenter appear inconsistent in her or his stance or it will undermine the belief in the dissenter’s good faith and authenticity.
  • Privacy. Allowing others space to think and consider new information presented by dissenters without losing face is key. They might not admit in front of the group that they disagree with the group, but their private views often shift.

“Over and over, studies show that dissenters change more minds in private than in public, unlike majorities, which often get public agreement even if people don’t believe in the truth of the majority position.”

The key is to give the majority cover so that they don’t feel exposed. One way to do this is by asking hypothetical questions. They can explore the idea of changing their minds without acknowledging error. It lowers the stakes. It’s also important to recognize that a dissenter can change opinions that people hold privately without gaining a public acknowledgement of the change (which may cause people to lose face). Majority views are public. Dissenting views are often private because dissenters should expect to be rejected. Dissenters are seldom given credit for the changes they influence.

“Influence by a minority never happens immediately. It takes time and a choreography that is consistent and persistent but not dogmatic.”

Because consistency is so important, and yet many decisions are negotiations, one effective strategy is the “late compromise” which shows the dissenter is flexible enough to find agreement, but has still held on to a consistent position for long enough to be taken seriously.

Majority opinions lead to closed-minded thinking (converging around the publicly accepted idea), but minority opinions lead to open-minded thinking (converging around the possibility of the less popular idea). Majority thinking closes possibilities. Minority thinking opens them up.

“Dissent breaks that hold of the majority whether it is right or wrong and even if the dissenter has almost no credibility.”

One of the reasons cult leader Jim Jones was so successful is that he encouraged public expressions of agreement and did not tolerate dissent, including doubt. Friends or family members who expressed doubt were shunned. The book cautions about those individuals in a group who police the thoughts of others in the group:

“They often use “minders,” omnipresent people who report on others’ activities to make sure they are not interacting with non-believers or espousing heresy. Minders make sure that there is the appearance of unquestioned agreement. While the leader can try to mandate consensus, groups are very capable of creating consensus on their own and punishing dissent.” [3]

When a dissenter is confronted with a majority view, the dissenter tries to understand the majority’s perspective by seeking information to bolster that stance rather than to defend their own. So uncomfortable are we with dissenting that we seek to conform against our own inclinations.

“In a powerful twist, rather than look for support for our own position, we prefer information that confirms the consensus. We don’t look at both sides. We take the consensus perspective rather than our own and primarily seek information that supports the consensus position.”

So, dissent is really to benefit the majority, not the dissenter (who often caves anyway). It causes individuals who become aware of a minority viewpoint to seek a broader range of information from different sources. They seek the reasons for both the majority and minority viewpoints.

Conclusions

If religion is in the business of changing hearts, it can only do this if we recognize the power of the majority to exert pressure to conform and to question the assumptions of majority thinking (which often become our own in our insecurity and need to belong). One avenue to this is to open up our discussions to allow criticism and debate, arguably the reason our online Mormon communities started in the first place.

  • Do you see evidence of majority thinking in your local ward or are dissenting views welcome?
  • Do you see evidence of groupthink in online groups that originally started to vent dissent?
  • Do you feel the pressure to conform to majority viewpoints? When is this pressure strongest for you?
  • Do you observe the influence of dissent in either church or online communities?

Discuss.

[1] Christofferson doing the Q&A about the PoX, followed 3.5 years later with Oaks doing the repeal of the PoX. Based on their independent remarks as noted in talks and other addresses, they appear to be closer to the ends of the spectrum for church policies on homosexuality.

[2] I guess that’s what brainwashing and indoctrination is for, TBH.

[3] If you don’t think that sounds a lot like the BYU Honor Code Office controversy, you haven’t been paying attention.