The Tenth Man Principle

Humans tend to go along with the others especially when there is overwhelming consensus on a course of action. Over the centuries, there has developed an antidote to this tendency. The Tenth Man Principle. Put simply it says, “It is the duty of the tenth man to disagree.”

We have seen it in use. The Catholic church use a “Devil’s Advocate” to attempt to find reasons to deny someone sainthood.

It is a difficult role.

Many, possibly most, people cannot effectively organize and argue the other side of a condition they think right. When the other nine are sure they are right and you agree with that position, it is hard to know where to start. It involves stepping outside yourself and trying to know about what evidence has not been considered or has been considered, but weighed improperly

It is the intellectually mature approach to both thinking and acting. If you see just one side clearly, it is near impossible to “know” you are right. As any trial lawyer about his opponents case. They’ll know it as well as their own. That helps them to find flaws in both of the cases

It is a necessary role

It is very easy to be influenced by the excitement of the crowd. If you look at the history of big mistakes, you will find, there was an observable flaw before the action was taken. Unanimous agreement is not your friend. Reasoned consensus is the goal. Identification of weaknesses in both sides, the purpose.

Have you seen the movie World War Z? In it you will find the Israelis building defences against an invasion of zombies. There is a reason they are the model for preparation. The 1973 Yom Kippur war was the impetus. In that war, the Israelis underestimated the likelihood of an attack. It was a close thing and nearly cost them their independence. Tom Clancy’s novel “The Sum of All Fears” draws form the narrowness of the victory. Would the Israelis have used nuclear weapons to prevent the loss? Clancy assumes they were at least considering it.

Obviously the agreement of all was a failing and since then Israeli intelligence, a ten person committee, has a Tenth Man position.

You should make the appointment formally. If you don’t, the contrarian cannot have value. The crowd will minimize them. After all, if the majority agree and feel the need, who can safely disagree?

The role of the contrarian

How many people have found in board meetings, social gatherings, and politics, that they have some misgivings but in the face of strong consensus they go along. Inferior decisions result? If a person has misgivings, it is their duty to articulate them.

Ray Dalio is one of the outstanding leaders in business. His view is weak decisions have some value, but only at the first level. Weak decisions have problems that don’t show up immediately and as they are conflicting with the consensus, they are seldom well handled.

“Failing to consider second- and third-order consequences is the cause of a lot of painfully bad decisions, and it is especially deadly when the first inferior option confirms your own biases. Never seize on the first available option, no matter how good it seems, before you’ve asked questions and explored.”

Why have groups or committees?

The idea is to bring more experience and knowledge to important questions. The problem ultimately is that people want to be accepted by the group more than they want to raise issues. I have never been part of such a group where, if the group has reached consensus, they are happy to hear questions or challenges to the orthodoxy.

Clarifying questions and presentation of dismissed evidence or ideas are unwelcome. Patrick Anderson has a point, “Group-think and conformity are enemies generously welcomed in most groups.”  That is disconcerting. Enemies within are not frequently to your advantage.

How has political discourse evolved?

It has become a case where the loyal opposition is to be cancelled. Is there a better example of the existence of group-think?

To make the position reasonable, one would have to believe the consensus is both complete and right. I cannot think of a single real-life condition where you can establish both of those conditions. They are both based on belief not specific objective evidence. The outcome is at least predictable.

The too narrow expression of either ideology can only be made real by acquisition of the power to impose it. Truth lies somewhere else and without valuing the opposition and seeking correction, no one wins. Power, rather than better outcomes, becomes the goal. It eventually becomes not who wins, but who loses least.

A practical insight to group-think

“When two men always agree, one of them is useless. When two men always disagree, both of them are useless.” Henry Ford

Consistent agreement means too few variables have been considered. Consistent disagreement means no rational decision will be taken. Neither is the way forward.

Look for balanced, well-reasoned, choices based on objective evidence. Be prepared to change as more evidence is derived from unforeseen outcomes.

The takeaway

Learn to value and explore, even seek out, approaches and evidence that differ from your own. That’s how you grow. That’s how you defend yourself successfully from the zombies should World War Z happen.

Until you admit the existence of value in the other side’s position, you are vulnerable. Learn to be a contrarian. The best approach lies between.

There is no requirement for the Tenth Man to be a man.  Women, children, immigrants, and visitors from other planets, each have something to contribute that you have not thought about yet.

Value feedback that outcomes provide. Never double down when the outcomes disagree with predictions.

When a course of action is decided by consensus, or opinion, a contrarian becomes necessary. Be that person.


I help people have more retirement income and larger, more liquid estates.

Call in Canada 705-927-4770, or email don@moneyfyi.com

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