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What Is a Devil's Advocate?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A devil's advocate is someone who argues against an idea, position, or cause for the sake of argument, rather than out of actual opposition. While a devil's advocate can simply play a contrary role, someone who argues against an idea can also stimulate discussion which can identify weak points in an argument which need to be addressed. Therefore, one could consider this approach incredibly useful, albeit stressful for someone advocating alone against an accepted idea in a group.

The term is derived from a tradition in the Roman Catholic Church, in which someone would act as an advocate for the devil, arguing against the canonization of someone as a saint. The devil's advocate was an official position in the Church between 1587 CE and 1983 CE, and he was known as advocatus diaboli, which literally means "the devil's advocate." The person in this position was expected to come up with reasons why someone should not be canonized as a saint, to ensure that the canonization was undertaken in good faith and that the candidate truly was a saint.

In casual conversation, a person playing this role can seem extremely annoying, especially in a group which is generally in agreement on a topic, and even more so when it is clear that the person is arguing just to be contrary. In situations like this it can be helpful to remember the historical role of the position; rather than reacting with irritation, it can be interesting to actually discuss the issue with someone taking a contrary position.

In a more serious context, like that of a group of people making a major business or foreign policy decision, the devil's advocate is a crucial person in the group. Groups tend to enter a state of mind called "groupthink," in which members of the group make poor decisions because they want to maintain their collective cohesiveness. Groupthink is marked by things like self-censorship and the idea that everyone in the group agrees when this is not, in fact, the case. A devil's advocate can help to test a concept, ensuring that it really is sound.

Many people also use the term to excuse themselves before making a contradictory or potentially offensive statement, often saying something like "not to play the devil's advocate, but ..." This measure is often undertaken out of a desire to keep discussions calm and rational, as many people react unfavorably when their ideas are challenged. Don't be afraid to assume this role in a group, or even with yourself; by doing so, you can promote a probing of ideas, opinions, concepts, and positions to test their soundness. It also prepares you for arguing with someone who is genuinely opposed to the issue.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon64710 — On Feb 08, 2010

I've been living with my cousin for 5 months now but the problem is, how do you feel since she sees everything you do as inappropriate or wrong, intervenes in your private life/personal life and does not greet you or say anything to you?

By overreactor — On Feb 08, 2010

We all need to "save face", so when comments are made that put the other person in an uncomfortable position, especially in front of others, people sometimes react in a strange way.

Sandy, I would simply not argue any more. I would drop the subject, because it does not lead anywhere.

To post number two, when it comes to a boss it is not a good idea to defend oneself. In the final analysis the boss needs to have the task done, not the explanations of why it was not done. I would apologize, even if the reasons for the task not being done are valid. I would make darn sure that the task gets done next time. By getting things done on time, you look good, and moreover you make her look good.

Regarding the pastor, I think a better way for him would have been to graciously thank you for the reminder. He would have scored more points with his congregation that way.

But he is human, and it seems that he does not like to be reminded, even if it is for his own good, particularly if done in front of other people. It might make him feel incompetent, forgetful or something like that. Once that fact is known about him, a gentle private reminder might work better with him.

By anon61329 — On Jan 19, 2010

When my pastor announced that Bible class was being held on a particular day, I reminded him that he was on program at an event on that same day. He replied out loudly to the congregation that "I was the devil's advocate". This statement has baffled me because I was only reminding him of his schedule.

I was not being argumentative or speaking in a contrary way. Was this statement appropriate to be said to the congregation by a shepherd of the flock? I am confused!

By anon39506 — On Aug 02, 2009

I have been told by my boss I was playing the devil's advocate. I really upset me- because I do not oppose or argue for the sake of arguing. I was trying to reason with her and explain why a certain task was not done in a timely way. She was not having the reason- she shut me down and told me I was "playing the devil's advocate."

By sandy — On Jan 13, 2008

How do you deal with someone who simply argues to be contrary?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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