Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Nicolaus Copernicus. Four very different men, with one thing in common. They were contrarians.
Contrarians are known for going against the grain. They are society’s forces of change, constantly challenging tradition for unconventional thinking. They are admired for swimming against the current, for setting themselves apart from everyone else, simply by thinking differently. Contrarian thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Jeff Bezos, and Isaac Newton are seen in a positive light — courageous, unconventional, counterintuitive — but most of all, they are visionaries.
Being contrarian makes us feel special. It’s difficult to outperform your peers and colleagues when you think exactly the way they do and share the same opinions. Recently, however, everyone wants to be a contrarian. People are constantly clambering for the opportunity to be different, to be the first on “a different wave”, so much so that it doesn’t necessarily seem to matter what wave they’re riding, so long as it’s different and they were the first to do it. It often doesn’t seem to matter what points they’re making, or how wrong or offensive they are, so long as they’re going against the grain. As long as they are the first “contrarian” to make the point. Needless to say, this is dangerous. Truly contrarian thinkers are admired for good reason, but contrarianism that is tainted by ego and conspiratorial thinking is not synonymous to a visionary’s point of view.
Contrarianism and Ego
The desire to be contrarian is often ego-fueled. People tend to espouse contrarian views simply because they want to be and feel different from everyone else, not because they genuinely want to critically analyze a situation or bring anything of value to the conversation. Ego-fueled contrarianism stems from the thought that one is inherently smarter than the general consensus. In fact, by definition, most people are the general consensus they believe they’re outsmarting.
There is nothing inherently valuable in pure contrarianism. Bringing the opposite point of view to the table often does not guarantee any valuable or unique conclusions. In fact, there’s often good reason for the vast majority of people to agree on one problem, decision, or principle. Some things have been normalized for a reason, not because the people who believe them are sheep, but because they simply make sense. It is often completely unnecessary, and even dangerous, to take the opposing view. According to Jeff Bezos, “You have to remember that contrarians are usually wrong.”
Ego-fueled contrarianism is often directly related to an inflated sense of self and a lack of well-defined personal values. Instead of critically analyzing a situation and forming a true opinion based on their belief systems, ego-fueled contrarians often simply take the opposing side with zero regard to whether they are correct or not, or even if they genuinely believe the points of view they defend.
Ego-fueled Contrarianism and Conspiracies
There is also a distinct difference between being a true contrarian thinker and simply being conspiratorial. Many people often fall into the latter, and attribute their belief in a conspiracy theory to a contrarian mindset instead. Recently, in the age of vaccination conspiracies, pandemic conspiracies, and a plethora of political conspiracies, ego-fueled contrarianism and conspiratorial beliefs go hand in hand. There are many people who would rather believe that the masses and everyone around them have been fooled by the media, and that only they and a select few know the truth, than to consider that the circumstances are random, incomprehensible, or simply beyond the scope of their expertise or intellectual capacity.
People’s desire to be contrarian often becomes so entangled in ego that it becomes nearly impossible for anyone to convince them that they’re wrong. Even indisputable facts become evidence for the conspiracy itself, or evidence for the coverup. The circular logic provides a self-soothing echo-chamber for the conspiratorial contrarian. Due to the link between ego and opinion, conspiratorial contrarians often interpret contradictory evidence to their beliefs as personal attacks, making them more likely to double down on their delusions to protect their self image, which often hinges directly on their opinions being true.
There is no inherent good or bad in contrarianism, though it can take both forms. No one wants to be a sheep, constantly swayed by the general consensus, but adopting a contrarian point of view without critical analysis is equally dangerous. Instead, let’s learn how to become truly independent thinkers. Truly independent thinking goes beyond simply adopting the opposing point of view. It involves critical analysis, the desire to question, and above all, bravery.