Why Would Anyone Want to Be the Devil’s Advocate?
It’s a strange phrase. Aligning yourself with the devil is sure to isolate yourself from a broad segment of society. Yet we say we are “playing devil’s advocate” with some regularity. But why? Where did this phrase come from?
The term has come to describe anyone who argues for a less popular cause, simply for the sake or arguing. Some people enjoy presenting a contrary opinion, even when they don’t agree with it.
The term has roots in the canonization process in the Catholic Church. From 1587 to 1983, an appointed official, the promotor fidei (Promoter of the Faith), was tasked with finding all the flaws and misdeeds of individuals proposed for possible elevation to sainthood. He (given the church and the time period it was almost certainly a man) was called the devil’s advocate because the facts he found were presented as evidence of why the person should not be named a saint.
This position appears to have been established by Sixtus V in 1587 (but the term itself is older, dating at least back to the early 15th century when it was used by Pope Leo X). In 1983, Pope John Paul II’s revised the canonization process, so the promotor fidei no longer wields such influence over the proceeding.
According to Boston Globe columnist Ben Zimmer, colloquial use of the term began as early as the 18th century (the meaning we generally use now: to reference people who take an opposing viewpoint, not because they believe in their argument but believe that the argument needs to be made).
But perhaps there is some real value to a devil’s advocate. In Forbes, Chunka Mui argues that there are advantages to deliberately creating a position of devil’s advocate in the workplace; it can be a key force in innovation. Mui says, “The devil’s advocate helps bring to the surface issues that might otherwise be ignored.” This argument makes the devil‘s advocate part of the process from the start, to help identify opportunities and concerns, and to “get everyone on the same page.”
Bruce Eckfeldt in Inc. seems to agree. He described what a good devil’s advocate looks like: His or her role is not to “just be argumentative and create friction on the team” but to serve the team by asking questions and “providing additional or alternative data, logic, or experiences.” This person should present new information and suggest alternatives. The purpose of a devil’s advocate is to inspire and push the team to new heights, not to frustrate and stall their efforts or stifle creativity.
While we may get frustrated by their questions, a devil’s advocate is not necessarily a bad thing. A person’s motive and how far they push the negativity both factor into whether they are acting as a force for good or evil. I guess like many other things, the devil is in the details.