In Defense of Troublemakers

The Power of Dissent in Life and Business


By Charlan Jeanne Nemeth

Formats and Prices




$21.99 CAD



  1. ebook $16.99 $21.99 CAD
  2. Hardcover $27.00 $34.00 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around March 20, 2018. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

An eminent psychologist explains why dissent should be cherished, not feared

We’ve decided by consensus that consensus is good. In In Defense of Troublemakers, psychologist Charlan Nemeth argues that this principle is completely wrong: left unchallenged, the majority opinion is often biased, unoriginal, or false. It leads planes and markets to crash, causes juries to convict innocent people, and can quite literally make people think blue is green. In the name of comity, we embrace stupidity. We can make better decisions by embracing dissent. Dissent forces us to question the status quo, consider more information, and engage in creative decision-making.

From Twelve Angry Men to Edward Snowden, lone objectors who make people question their assumptions bring groups far closer to truth — regardless of whether they are right or wrong. Essential reading for anyone who works in groups, In Defense of Troublemakers will radically change the way you think, listen, and make decisions.



THIS BOOK IS FUNDAMENTALLY ABOUT HOW WE MAKE DECISIONS and judgments. In particular, it is about the influence of others on our judgments. People influence us in a distinctly different manner depending on whether they are a majority and have consensus or whether they are a minority voice expressing dissent. We will see in this book that a consensus position can sway our judgments even when it is in error, and even when the facts are in front of our face.

The more insidious aspect of consensus is that, whether or not we come to agree with the majority, it shapes the way we think. We start to view the world from the majority perspective. Whether we are seeking and interpreting information, using a strategy in problem-solving, or finding solutions, we take the perspective of that majority. We think in narrow ways—the majority’s ways. On balance, we make poorer decisions and think less creatively when we adopt the majority perspective.

Dissent, the minority voice, also influences us. Dissenters, too, can sway us to their opinion. Theirs is an uphill battle, but they can get us to agree with them. The “why” and the “how” of a dissenter’s ability to persuade us are very different from how a majority persuades us. Persuasion by a dissenter is more indirect, requires more time, and follows a more subtle choreography of argument.

Perhaps most importantly, dissent also shapes the way we think about an issue, the way we arrive at our position or decision. When we are exposed to dissent, our thinking does not narrow as it does when we are exposed to consensus. In fact, dissent broadens our thinking. Relative to what we would do on our own if we had not been exposed to dissent, we think in more open ways and in multiple directions. We consider more information and more options, and we use multiple strategies in problem-solving. We think more divergently, more creatively. The implications of dissent are important for the quality of our decision-making. On balance, consensus impairs the quality of our decisions while dissent benefits it.

As beneficial as dissent may be, it is not easy for someone who holds a dissenting viewpoint to express it. When we think or believe differently from those around us, we are not sure that we are right. In fact, we are prone to think that “truth lies in numbers,” and when we find ourselves in a minority we think we must be wrong. Additionally, we are afraid of the ridicule or rejection that are likely to come from dissenting. We hesitate. We put our heads down. We are silent. Not speaking up, however, has consequences. If the individual does not speak up, the group suffers and misses opportunities. Worse, a group compelled to make quick judgments while operating from only one perspective can make very bad decisions. Some are fatal.

Three days before Christmas, in 1978, United Airlines Flight 173 was headed from JFK Airport in New York to Portland, Oregon, with a scheduled stop in Denver. It was expected to arrive in Portland a little after 5:00 p.m. There were 196 people on board. The crew was experienced. Everything seemed fine. Everything seemed routine.

As the flight approached Portland, the time came to lower the landing gear. Suddenly there was a loud thump, and the plane started to vibrate and rotate. Something was wrong. The crew started to question whether the landing gear was in fact down and whether it was locked. While not knowing exactly what was wrong, they certainly knew that something was not right.

The pilot made what seemed to be a cautious and wise decision. He decided to abort the landing in order to check out the problem and determine the best course of action. The plane was put in a holding pattern.

For around forty-five minutes, the captain and crew diligently investigated the problem and prepared the passengers. Everyone was “on board,” so to speak. However, another problem was developing. The plane was running out of fuel. They had more than enough fuel when they left Denver, but they were burning it up while focusing on the landing gear problem. The crew hadn’t taken this fully into account. In fact, they didn’t calculate how much time remained before they would run out of fuel because they had become blind to this issue.

As the plane ran out of fuel, the engines failed, one after the other. The plane nosed downward and crashed into a suburban area of Portland around 6:15 p.m., only six miles from the airport. The plane literally fell out of the sky. Ten people died—two crew members and eight passengers. Another twenty-three people were seriously injured.

How could this have happened? Not because of any of the “usual suspects.” There was no inexperience or dereliction of duty among the crew, nor were drugs or lack of sleep a factor. One important reason the tragedy occurred was that the crew members didn’t speak up—or at least, not with conviction. Why?

Real-life situations are always multiply determined. There is never one reason for a sequence of events. Several possibilities come to mind in this case. Perhaps the crew just followed authority, the captain, who was focused on the landing gear. Perhaps the stress prevented them from noticing the fuel level; studies show that high levels of stress narrow attention. Still, when they did notice that the fuel was low, why did they not realize what that meant? Why weren’t they aware of the danger it posed? Why did no one speak up?

I would suggest that the consensus itself inhibited the expression of dissent but also shaped the crew’s thinking to that perspective. It was not just where the crew’s attention was focused that was a problem, but also the information they sought, the alternatives they considered, and the strategies they employed. Once everyone was on the same page, all focusing on the landing gear, they narrowly viewed the situation only from that perspective. They sought information about the landing gear. They considered alternatives only within the context of the landing gear problem. They did not consider the possibility that such a focus had a downside. When faced with information pertinent to another problem—namely, the fuel situation—they failed to fully consider it or to appreciate the growing danger. In fact, they did not even calculate the amount of time remaining before they would run out of fuel. We see the consequences of this thinking in the National Transportation Safety Board accident report’s summary of the last thirteen minutes of United Airlines Flight 173.

In the cockpit at 18:02:22, the flight engineer said that they had about “three [3,000 pounds] on the fuel and that’s it.” They were only five miles south of the airport. At 18:03:23, Portland approach asked about the fuel, and the captain said, “About four thousand, well, make it three thousand, pounds of fuel.” About three minutes later, the captain said that they would be landing in around five minutes. Almost simultaneously, however, the first officer said, “I think you just lost number four [engine].” He added, a few seconds later, “We’re going to lose an engine.”

“Why?” asked the captain.

“We’re losing an engine,” the first officer said again.

“Why?” the captain repeated.

“Fuel,” said the first officer. Almost seven minutes later, the first officer warned Portland approach: “Portland tower, United one seventy three heavy. Mayday. We’re—the engines are flaming out. We’re going down. We’re not going to be able to make the airport.”

A minute later, the plane crashed into a wooded section of suburban Portland. United Airlines Flight 173 had plenty of fuel when it left Denver. At the crash site, however, there was no “usable fuel” left. The plane had literally run out of gas.

“That’s it” when reporting a low fuel level of 3,000 pounds? Why did no one shout, “We’re running out of fuel!” or, “We’re running out of time and need to land!” Everyone seemed to be in agreement, busily trying to find the problem with the landing gear. Even the captain asked, “Why?” when told they had lost an engine. No one seemed to appreciate the importance of the low amount of fuel remaining because they had only one focus.

Which of us would have thought differently? Which of us would have spoken up? Doing so would have meant challenging the captain and the crew members who were all “on the same page.” More importantly, which of us would have even noticed that the plane was out of fuel? When everyone is focused on one thing, they all lose sight of relevant information and options. What we will see in this book is that consensus creates one focus—the group’s. It causes us to miss even the obvious.

In this example, most people recognize that dissent could have had value if it had been correct. If someone had spoken up more forcefully about the diminishing fuel, the crew might have paid more attention to it. Even then, we know that people do not always follow the truth. Not only does it depend on who holds the truth, but people are more inclined to follow the majority than the minority, right or wrong. However, what is less recognized is that dissent has value, even when it is not correct.

What we will see in this book is that the value of dissent does not lie in its correctness. Even when wrong, dissent does two things directly pertinent to the example. It breaks the blind following of the majority. People think more independently when consensus is challenged. Perhaps more importantly—and this is the core message of this book—dissent stimulates thought that is more divergent and less biased. Dissent motivates us to seek more information and to consider more alternatives than we would otherwise, spurring us to contemplate the cons as well as the pros of various positions. I would hazard a guess that had someone on United Airlines Flight 173 challenged the focus on the landing gear, the crew’s thinking about other possible problems—including most likely the fuel—would have been stimulated.

I worry when I see colleagues and friends parse their words or remain silent about their objections when they see the presence of the will of the majority. I worry when I watch individuals with a strong need for control at the helm of groups. Whether it is in an organization or a start-up, in a cult or on the board of a co-op building, we see how power coupled with a need for control can manifest itself in hubris and a tendency to silence opposition. Rather than encouraging a culture that welcomes different views, such leaders make sure that dissent is not present—or if it arises, that it is punished. I have even seen board contracts with a friendly “be a team player” provision cautioning new numbers to “respect the collective authority… by not undermining majority decisions… even when [they] may disagree.” The message about dissent is clear. It is not welcomed.

The claims of this book are broad, but I don’t want you to take them as pronouncements. I don’t want to persuade you through stories, counting on your intuitive acceptance of the claims. I want to persuade you by research facts, drawn from research that has held up over time and in multiple settings.

When I do use narratives, it’s to illustrate the range and applicability of the ideas I discuss, informed by the research. They range from the United Airlines disaster to Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA), to the Jonestown massacre, to the decision-making procedures of successful hedge funds. My own interviews with CEOs add to the mix. My aim is to help you recognize the patterns of influence in the groups to which you belong yourself and their effect on the quality of your own thoughts and decisions. This book will address the complexity of influence processes and hopefully will cause you to reconsider advice that overestimates the value of consensus and underestimates the value of dissent.


The ideas presented here contrast with much common advice as well as some popular books, such as the New York Times best-seller The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, which points out the superiority of the judgments of “the many.” 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. However, the larger concern is that such books can inadvertently give the impression that majorities are likely correct, rather than that they may be correct under certain circumstances. This book also serves as a counter to books, such as James Collins and Jerry Porras’s Built to Last, that link success to cultlike corporate cultures that foster like-mindedness and suppress dissent. Those are the cultures that recommend being a team player, promoting consensus, and being diplomatic (or silent) about disagreements.

This book also contrasts with the work of many researchers of social influence, a field with a long history in social psychology. Social influence is often considered the core issue, since it deals with the influence “that people have upon the beliefs or behavior of others.” Most of that research has been guided, however, by two tendencies. One is an assumption that influence flows from the strong to the weak, from the many to the few. Thus, there have been many studies of the persuasive power of the majority, but far fewer studies of the ways in which the minority persuades. Though research has now documented the ability of the minority voice to persuade, many in the field still view it as unlikely or assume that it is subject to the same patterns as persuasion by a majority. We will see that this is not correct. The ways in which majority and minority voices persuade others of their position are very different and are manifested in different ways.

The other tendency in the research literature is to reduce the complexity of the ways in which people affect our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors to one of gaining our agreement. Reducing the broad area of social influence to persuasion is akin to a focus solely on winning—getting people to agree with you, to say yes to you, or to adopt your position. Your coworker doesn’t like your preference for a new hire, so you get her to agree with you. You favor a guilty verdict when serving on a jury and convince a fellow juror to vote that way. For decades, social psychologists have studied influence in this narrow sense of persuasion—who, when, how, and why you can get people to agree with you—and used a relatively easy measure for it. If you start out taking position A and I take position B, then your movement from position A to position B indicates that I have persuaded you. Research is easier when we confine it to scales that measure movement from A to B.

But persuasion is different from changing the way someone thinks about an issue, and it’s different from stimulating thought. If upon hearing your position on the defendant’s guilt or innocence I look at the evidence again and consider the pros and cons of each position and alternative possibilities, you have influenced my thinking. I may not agree with you in the end, but you have influenced how I think and the quality of the judgments and decisions I make. I have engaged in what most researchers consider good decision-making—the kind that on balance leads to better decisions. Did a person standing over the body at the crime scene flee because he was guilty, or did he flee because he was afraid he would be accused? If I consider both options rather than rush to judgment, I am likely to make a better decision. From a research point of view, it is harder to study something like stimulated thought, which is not as easily schematized as persuasion. You have to find ways to measure the information people seek, the options they consider, the quality of their decisions, and the creativity of their solutions. Thankfully, as this book will demonstrate, we have found reliable ways to do this.

If we study only persuasion—that more narrow form of influence aimed at gaining agreement—we don’t get to the quality of the decision. We rarely know whether a decision was right or not, since our assessment partly depends on our own values. Was the merger a good idea? Was the majority on a 10–2 verdict correct? Would a 12–0 verdict have been correct? We can’t know for sure. In the O. J. Simpson case, which jury was correct: the jury that came to a “not guilty” verdict in the criminal case or the jury that voted “guilty” in the civil case? We all have our opinions on this case, and we all know how clever we can be when we justify our positions. The best way of assessing quality is to instead assess the decision-making process.

We do know something about the process of good decision-making. On balance, a good process leads to a good decision. Good decision-making, at its heart, is divergent thinking. When we think divergently, we think in multiple directions, seek information and consider facts on all sides of the issue, and think about the cons as well as the pros. Bad decision-making is the reverse. 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.

Perhaps you had a grade school arithmetic teacher who taught you to check your work by doing it two different ways. To this day, I don’t just add things up the same way a second or third time to check a calculation. Rather than likely repeat the same mistake, I check my work a different way. I subtract one element from the sum to see what remains. I can add up 15 + 28 several times and continue to think it equals 33 (instead of 43). If I subtract 15 from 33, I will see that I made a mistake: 33 − 15 doesn’t equal 28. I am then far more likely to look more carefully and find that the sum is 43. By using divergent thinking—that is, approaching an issue from several vantage points—we are likely to make better decisions. This is the kind of thinking that dissent stimulates.

My own recognition of the importance of stimulated thought stemmed from my long-standing interest in jury decision-making. It was in doing research on juries and consulting with lawyers that I came to recognize that influence is far more powerful than persuasion. I also realized that I was less interested in who “won” than in the quality of the decisions reached by juries. I could make money—a lot of it—advising lawyers on how to win by crafting their opening and closing arguments for persuasive impact. I could also show lawyers how to assess the dynamics of a jury in order to know which jurors to remove by peremptory challenge, not just because of their likely vote but also because of their ability to persuade the others. When the focus is on winning, everything is about persuasion—about gaining agreement with the position I favor. However, it became clear to me that my interests were in the quality of the decision—and in justice. Regardless of who wins, is the verdict the correct one?

In our initial studies, my colleagues and I noticed that, when there is dissent, the decision-making improves. Our simulated juries that included dissenters considered more facts and more ways of viewing those facts. This led to decades of research on the ways in which dissent stimulates the way we think, the way we solve problems, and the way we detect solutions. However, we also learned about the power of consensus to stimulate our thinking as well—in diametrically different ways.

We designed most of our experiments to study both consensus and dissent. We predicted and found very different results simply on the basis of whether we were looking at the influence of “the many” or “the few.” Moreover, we found the same pattern of results over and over. Consensus narrows, while dissent opens, the mind. Both affect the quality of our decisions. The take-home message of the research and this book is that there are perils in consensus and there is value in dissent.

This message flies in the face of much advice these days. We are told the benefits of liking and being liked, of “fitting in” with the culture. We are taught to believe in the wisdom of the majority and reminded of the likely repercussions of being different, of not “fitting in” or of “speaking up” when we disagree.

Many books, consultants, and academicians echo this advice of “fitting in.” Some of it is correct. 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. Have you ever wanted to scream when everyone was pandering and praising each other and no one would talk about the elephant in the room? For example, have you wanted to yell, “Are we crazy to hire this guy?” or, “Should we really be making this merger?”

As the Japanese saying goes: the nail that sticks up will be hammered down. However, too often there is no nail standing up. Consensus prevails, conformity ensues, and group processes look more like groupthink. Ethical violations and problems within an organization go unreported and are not considered. Everyone is walking on eggshells, strategizing and deciding when to speak up and when to be quiet. All the while, we are in these deadening meetings and interactions where many people are often a bit fake—often opportunistic. This isn’t the case for everyone, of course. Some genuinely believe in the majority position, but they are still influenced by the incentives to agree and belong. When groupthink takes over, we can lose the value of each individual’s input, the experiences and opinions each can bring to bear on a decision or problem. We also lose the stimulating properties of dissent.

Challenging the opinions of others takes courage. I would argue that it also takes conviction to dissent. People don’t like it when you argue another position. I myself still get irritated when people disagree with me. If I am honest, I am sure that they are at best misinformed. And I study this stuff. What I do know, however, is that the challenge that they pose makes me a better decision-maker and a more creative problem-solver.

What I also know is that these benefits do not derive from a diversity of demographics (age, gender, race, and so on). Nor do they come from education and training, which, even though well meant, are limited and have benefits that are often overblown. What I have learned is that these benefits accrue from dissent, from being challenged. We benefit when there are dissenting views that are authentically held and that are expressed over times.


In Part I, we focus on persuasion and the substantial research that helps us to understand how majority and minority views get us to agree with them. I want you to see and worry about the power of the majority, especially when it is unchallenged, for we tend to follow and agree with the majority right or wrong. Too often we assume that truth lies in numbers rather than assess the information rationally. The problem is that we do this unreflectively. We blindly follow the majority. This tendency can be seen in consumer behavior, in ad campaigns, in stock bubbles, and in what we see and believe even in our daily lives.

Even in these situations, I want you to see that dissent provides value. It takes only one dissenting voice to liberate us from the hold of the majority. Dissent makes us better able to think independently, to “know what we know.” Dissent can also persuade us, gaining our agreement with its position. We will see that persuasion by dissent is a more artful journey than persuasion by the majority. Considering that people have many reasons to resist agreement with a dissenter, we will see how the clever use of procedures and techniques as simple as varying the order in which people speak can make all the difference for the dissenter’s ability to persuade.

Once we better understand how consensus and dissent gain agreement, we are in a position to understand why they stimulate different kinds of thinking. This area, covered in Part II, is where I have spent the greater part of my professional career. We will see detailed research evidence on how consensus and dissent stimulate the ways in which we think and decide, and we will see these processes replicated across experiments and real-life situations such as the Jonestown massacre and Edward Snowden’s leak of NSA data.

Part III turns to groups and applications. Groups are complicated, as they involve several people in interaction. However, scores of studies have uncovered well-established patterns for how and why groups find consensus. Groups often arrive at consensus too soon—and not for good reasons. Some of these patterns are captured by the popular term “groupthink.” We will also see the role of dissent in improving group decision-making. Dissent does not just thwart groupthink; it actually increases the quality of the decision-making process.

The message of this book is not that we should create dissent, but that we should permit dissent and embrace it when it is present. The distinction is important, as the most important element of effective dissent is its authenticity, as our research repeatedly underscores. This is one reason why techniques such as playing devil’s advocate do not work. They are role-playing and do not challenge bias or stimulate divergent thinking, as does authentic dissent. Authenticity is also a reason why, when brainstorming, rules such as “do not criticize each other’s ideas” are ill advised.

When you finish this book, I hope that you will be wary of consensus because you recognize its pitfalls, especially in your own thinking, that you will use mechanisms to reduce automatic thinking, and that you will better recognize the importance of thinking for yourself. As a leader, the hope is that you will better manage group processes and will have techniques at your fingertips to keep discussion open, avoiding premature closure on decisions. Just as important, I hope that you will learn to welcome dissent and not just tolerate it, having come to understand that it has value even when it is wrong.

Above all, I hope that this book persuades you not to suppress dissent. We are all subject to biases and our own prejudices, including our tendency to try to silence those who irritate us by disagreeing with us. However, dissent makes us more complex thinkers. In prompting us to consider the pros and cons of all positions, dissent makes us reconsider our own position, which itself inevitably has cons as well as pros, if we bother to analyze it carefully.


  • "There are many such useful ideas in Charlan Nemeth's In Defense of Troublemakers, her study of dissent in life and the workplace. But if this one alone takes hold, it could transform millions of meetings, doing away with all those mushy, consensus-driven hours wasted by people too scared of disagreement or power to speak truth to gibberish."—Wall Street Journal
  • "Nemeth makes her research accessible in a lucid and at times beautifully written form."—Success
  • "In this enlightening and empowering read, psychologist Charlan Nemeth makes a case for dissent in business, in culture, and in everyday life."—
  • "A provocative work that will appeal to broad general audiences as well as avid readers of business and life success how-to."—Library Journal
  • "Good ammunition for contrarians and well-grounded in scholarly research."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "In clear and earnest prose, she shares her evidence, logic, and insights for fostering genuine and productive discussion that can yield useful and original solutions and discoveries."—CHOICE
  • "Charlan Nemeth personifies minority influence; there is no person on the planet better scientifically qualified to write a book on the dynamics of dissent."—Philip Tetlock, Leonore AnnenbergUniversity Professor of Psychology and Management at the University ofPennsylvania and author of Superforecasting
  • "Charlan Nemeth has written the definitive account of dissent and how it affects thinking. This remarkably insightful, grounded, and accessible treatment could not be more important or more timely."—Karl E. Weick, co-author of Managing the Unexpected
  • "This book will fundamentally change your mindset in how to manage a crisis and should be required reading for all MBA programs."—Jennifer Johnson, President and COO at Franklin Templeton Investments
  • "A timely tome on the perils of silence and the value of voice. Charlan Nemeth is one of the world's leading experts on making decisions and influencing others, and she presents a career's worth of evidence on why the views you don't want to consider are often the ones you need to hear most."—Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Originals, Give and Take, and Option B (with Sheryl Sandberg)
  • "A beautifully written and important book that deserves to be read by the docile and disobedient alike. Crowds are sometimes wise, but Charlan Nemeth shows how, when, and why listening to the majority is dangerous, and why disagreement is often an engine of innovation, persuasion, and error correction."—Adam Alter, bestselling author of Irresistible and Drunk Tank Pink
  • "A lucid, practical guide to fostering smarter teams, companies, and societies. Charlan Nemeth demonstrates the power of nonconformists in raising the quality of our group decisions."—William Poundstone, authorof AreYou Smart Enough to Work at Google?
  • "Insightful, easy to read and full of examples... In this illuminating book, Charlan Nemeth demonstrates how dissent improves decision-making. This is a book every manager and board member should read."—Professor Saadi Lahlou, Chair in Social Psychology, London School of Economics

On Sale
Mar 20, 2018
Page Count
272 pages
Basic Books

Charlan Jeanne Nemeth

About the Author

Charlan Nemeth is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. She lives in San Francisco.

Learn more about this author