Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Why We Need Contrarians

I don't make New Year's resolutions.  I have a variety of reasons for not doing it, but at least one of them is that I like being a contrarian.  When the crowd is doing something just because everyone in the crowd seems to be doing it, I resist.

More seriously, and in a professional context, being aware of the fact that each time I write publically about monitoring and evaluation (M&E), I run the risk of never getting hired to do M&E work, simply because of my skepticism and at times contrarian opinions.  And yes, these are opinions. I don't claim to be correct while everyone else is wrong.  I just wish people would stop and think rather than follow the crowd.  Admitedly, following the crowd is much easier.  You get pushed by its forward motion, going downhill like the little grey people in the picture above.  When going in the other direction, not only are you going uphill but you have to fight your way through a crowd of opposing views.

Today, I will point to research that may support at least some aspects of my thinking and validate my conviction that we need contrarians.  Not surprisingly, it has to do with a cognitive bias, the resulting fallacy.

I first encountered this fallacy through a simple case study run by NASA and developed in collaboration with academics researching decision-making.  The case study describes a mission that was ultimately successful but was considered a near-miss.  In other words, it benefited from a certain amount of luck and it could have been a complete failure. The learning objective of this case study is that people draw conclusions about decisions made based on the outcome.  The mission succeeded, therefore the decisions must have been good.   People studying decision-making and focusing on the resulting fallacy say, "not so fast." You cannot say much about the quality of a decision based solely on the outcome.

What does the resulting fallacy have to do with being a contrarian you ask.  It points to the need for more in-depth analysis of cause and effect and the thinking behind our decisions.  We need more contrarians who are ready to raise their hand and say "not so fast." 

Why be a contrarian?  Someone has to.  When 99% of the people in a particular industry or discipline are jumping on a bandwagon, I like to be the one standing back and watching.  It's not that I don't ever jump on bandwagons.  I do.  There are some bandwagons however where I get tickled and I go, "wait a minute... something is fishy.  I don't know what it is yet but I'm not getting on that one."

I like poking and prodding when I see the bandwagon passing by.  Being a contrarian doesn't make me right.  I can make me useful.  There's always a role for a devil's advocate, a skeptic who will force others to articulate their positions and assumptions.

This is also related to the importance of allowing dissenting opinions in organizations, but that's a topic for another post perhaps.


"Do you have a contrarian on your team?", Insights by Stanford Business, November 13, 2015, by Elizabeth MacBride.

"The Resulting Fallacy is Ruining Your Decisions," by Stuart Firestein, December 7, 2017.

"Understanding Near-Misses at NASA," ASK OCE, August 17, 2006, Vol. 1, Issue No. 12.

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