For some, arguments are best avoided. Assuming, perhaps, that the stances we hold are essentially inflexible, many prefer not to waste time debating them. Others, however, although they may not necessarily enjoy arguing, feel that when controversial topics surface in conversation, it is incumbent upon them to articulate and defend their beliefs.
Then there are those who enjoy playing devil’s advocate, taking an adversarial role in a debate regardless of their own feelings on the subject, to test others’ positions and see how they will react. What would make people court such controversy? The answer might depend on personality type.
To explore this question, we asked our readers whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “Sometimes you intentionally disagree with others to see if they truly believe in what they say.”
Which personalities are most likely to adopt the role of devil’s advocate? We take a look below.
Analysts (67% agreeing)
Analyst personality types tend to view their particular brand of rigorous logic as their most powerful tool. Like a mathematician uncovering a novel proof for an undisputed theorem, an Analyst may be more interested in the soundness of an argument than whether or not they ultimately agree with its conclusions, leading them to sometimes adopt positions contrary to their own, simply to strengthen them through debate.
This tendency is a function of Analysts’ core combination of Thinking and Intuitive personality traits. Their Thinking Nature means that they approach problems and topics of debate through a logical and rational – rather than emotional – filter, even as their Intuitive Energy opens their minds up to creative, imaginative possibilities, giving them the ability to view issues from multiple perspectives. In fact, our survey revealed that the Thinking and Intuitive traits had, by far, the greatest influence on the likelihood of respondents to agree. Individuals with the Thinking trait were 23% more likely to agree than those with the Feeling trait (60% vs. 37% agreeing, respectively), and individuals with the Intuitive trait were 19% more likely to agree than those with the Observant trait (53% and 34%).
The Prospecting trait was another key factor (51% agreeing vs. 40% of respondents with the Judging trait). Prospecting individuals are nonconformists who love to improvise. Taking together the combination of Intuitive, Thinking, and Prospecting traits, we have the single personality type that was most likely to agree with our research statement: Assertive Debaters (ENTP-A) (74%).
As their name implies, Debaters enjoy the art of argument more than any other personality type, seeing debate as an intellectual chess match, a game where personal feelings should be set aside in pursuit of the betterment of ideas. Indeed, even the most heated argument is unlikely to bother a Debater as much as a refusal on another’s part to engage in debate in the first place. So it’s no surprise that this type is the most likely to play devil’s advocate.
As a humorous example of a Debater personality type, think of the character Jim Halpert from The Office. How many times throughout that TV series did we see Jim, purely for his own entertainment, intentionally feign ignorance on a topic, make factually incorrect statements, or disagree with officemate Dwight Schrute – just to provoke Dwight into over-the-top behavior? Needless to say, Jim is an excellent example of a quick-witted Debater personality who loves the mental sparring involved in playing devil’s advocate – but he is also an example of how spending too much energy in that role can hinder Debaters’ own productivity.
Although slightly less than half of Diplomat personalities agreed with our research statement, it may seem surprising at first that this Role was the second-most likely to agree, given that their name implies a fundamental interest in maintaining peaceful harmony. For types who often value ideals and principles above all else, it’s difficult to imagine Diplomats purposely saying something other than what they actually believe.
But Diplomats’ strong Intuitive trait, coupled with their Feeling trait, may give these personality types different motivations for playing devil’s advocate than Analysts have. Their creative minds and empathetic natures allow them to step into an opponent’s shoes and see another side to an issue. But whereas an Analyst might engage in a debate in order to win an argument, a Diplomat might do so in order to achieve a resolution. After all, Diplomat personalities believe that reconciliation can only truly be realized when opposing sides gain a greater understanding of each other’s values and positions.
There is also another possibility to consider that may help us understand Diplomats’ responses. Part of their empathetic nature is an inherent desire to help others, making Diplomats well suited for work in psychology, counseling, and mentorship. Some Diplomat personalities may intentionally disagree with what others say as a psychological strategy, a sort of reverse psychology that can help others realize their potential or achieve a personal breakthrough.
The memorable scene from the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech comes to mind, in which King George VI’s speech therapist, Lionel Logue, disrespectfully sits on the king-to-be’s coronation throne and argues that since George doesn’t want to be king, he doesn’t have to listen to him. Logue mocks and goads George until, enraged, the future king finally shouts, “I have a voice!” This moving moment is a turning point in the film, helping the king overcome his speech impediment.
A minority of Explorers agreed overall, but their responses were drastically divided between the Thinking and Feeling personality traits. Entrepreneurs (ESTP) (63%) and Virtuosos (ISTP) (51%) agreed at significantly higher rates than Entertainers (ESFP) (34%) and Adventurers (ISFP) (28%).
As Thinking personality types, Entrepreneurs and Virtuosos, like Analysts, may see debate as a sort of game. Whereas Analysts might prolong a debate because they’re enjoying the process, Explorer personalities may see it simply as something that must be won. Entertainers, on the other hand, tend to be people-pleasers, and Adventurers can be changeable types who are less sure of their own opinions; as such, both personality types are less likely to engage in debate in the first place.
As with Explorers, Sentinel personality types were also divided along the Nature aspect in their responses, with types possessing the Thinking trait agreeing at notably higher rates. As a group, however, Sentinels tend to avoid debate even when they have strong opinions on a subject, so the idea of contradicting someone simply for contradiction’s sake may strike them as profoundly wrongheaded. Rather than waste time making an argument that they do not agree with, Sentinel personalities are far more likely to work to implement the solutions at which they have already arrived.
Turbulent Defenders (ISFJ-T) were the least likely of all personality types to agree (20%). It’s important to note that as Introverted, Observant, Feeling, and Judging types, Defenders are the opposite of Debaters in every trait. While Debaters have a knack for taking up any position to objectively view an argument from all sides, Defenders tend to be such passionate advocates for their own beliefs that they have neither the inclination nor the ability to stand up for anything else. Of course, while Debater personalities may win an argument on points alone, few can compete with Defenders in terms of absolute sincerity.
Samwise Gamgee, the ultimate sidekick from The Lord of the Rings, is a great example of a Defender to consider here. Reliable and loyal almost to a fault, Sam is there to support Frodo and see him through the terrible burden of his task, not to challenge the reasons behind it and risk causing Frodo to lose hope and give up altogether. Frightened though he may be, Sam never wavers in his beliefs and is always around to remind us, “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for.”
Although there was a slight tendency for Extraverted personality types to be more likely to intentionally disagree with others than their Introverted counterparts (48% vs. 42% agreeing, respectively), overall, there was little variation in the responses of the four Strategies. The People Mastery Strategy agreed at a rate of 49%, Social Engagement at 48%, Confident Individualism at 44%, and Constant Improvement at 41%. Roles, therefore, appeared to play a greater part in our readers’ willingness to engage in devil’s advocacy than did Strategies.
What is the purpose of an argument? Is it simply to win – or is it to come to some greater understanding of the truth?
Those who play devil’s advocate more frequently than others, such as Analysts and other personality types with the Thinking trait, may feel that, in doing so, they are attempting to refine their own ideas as much as those of their opponents. Conversely, those who see devil’s advocacy as a waste of time, such as Sentinel personalities with the Feeling trait, may contend that skill at debate is mere sophistry, and that action is more important than words.
Do you ever find yourself in the role of devil’s advocate? Why? Let us know in the comments!