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The Business of Being Wrong: How Playing Devil's Advocate Became a Lucrative Strategy

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Imagine if your local news station decided to hire two weather reporters. The first uses state-of-the-art technology to offer probabilities on storms, temperatures and precipitation. The second predicts snow every day without fail, even in the South, even in July. 

It sounds absurd, doesn’t it? But in a world where , pop culture and commerce connects us across continents — where we have thousands of competitors who all use the same technology and create similar offerings — everyone is trying to capture their own sliver of the target market. And for those who manage to really sink their hooks into even a tiny fraction of the outer margins, that can be enough. 

Within the information and opinion industries, landing that niche sliver of consumer sometimes means being contrarian simply to differentiate yourself. It means being wrong on purpose, not just once — but over and over again.

As Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

The odd history of Skip Bayless and LeBron James

Let’s start with a sports example. Sports provide a great lens for this topic, because there is a clear winner and loser, and no amount of debating or opinions can change those outcomes …  

… right? 

Well, if you have followed sports over the past two decades, you probably know Skip Bayless. He started as a writer and columnist before hosting shows on ESPN2 and then signing with FOX Sports in 2016. Even if you don’t follow sports, you probably know superstar LeBron James. 

How do the player and TV personality relate to each other? Take a look at Bayless’s first tweet, from May 28, 2009:

“Prince James” is meant to be a slight at the moniker “King James,” which the NBA forward has been called since he was 17 years old. The date, too, is significant: On May 28, James and the Cleveland Cavaliers faced elimination from the playoffs for the first time that season, trailing three games to one in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Orlando Magic.  

By this time, Bayless was already well-known for his criticism of James. If the Cavaliers had lost on May 28, it might have provided additional fodder for Bayless’s claims that the then-Most Valuable Player chewed his nails during fourth-quarter timeouts “because he’s scared” of the big moments. It would have supported Bayless’ assertions that the man he called “LeBrick” really was just “an overhyped creation of video games and ‘SportsCenter’ dunks.”

The only problem? Cleveland won on May 28, and James had one of his best games of the season. But, as you can imagine, Bayless was less than impressed:

According to Bayless’ logic, Cleveland only won because of unfair referees, and in fact, Orlando won by losing (they did eventually win the best-of-seven series two days later). When James eventually won a championship with the Miami Heat in 2012, Bayless could only say, “LeBron should’ve won 2 or 3 titles by now. He should wind up with at least 3. Will be favored again next year.” James did, in fact, win the championship again the next year, and then in 2016, when the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the in an upset. 

Here’s what Bayless said on ESPN’s First Take about James earning his third ring: “Let me start my points by congratulating LeBron James, who was obviously terrific … but I’m sorry. I cannot get around or get over what the Golden State Warriors did not do … I cannot digest it, I cannot compute it. I’m baffled.”

If you’re curious whether Bayless has updated his opinion of James since then, well…

And why should Bayless change? His combative and contrarian style has made him rich and famous. He has nearly 3 million followers on Twitter, and in 2016, he signed a four-year, $25 million contract with FOX Sports to co-host Undisputed (a show whose name even winks at the idea that Bayless is willing to argue the inarguable). 

For decades, Bayless has been just as wrong as that weatherman, predicting snow in summer. But having that sort of contract means he can make it rain whenever he chooses.

Related: Chris Paul: ‘I Had $151 in My Bank Account When I Declared for the NBA’

Why does this work?

Bayless is far from the only person in sports or media to attract attention this way. In fact, compared to others, Bayless is positively benign. But, how do these people who, as media commentator Richard Deitsch says, engage in “pro wrestling,” get airtime, attention and high-value contracts? Sometimes we’re not even sure they believe what they’re saying.

Here are four contributing factors.

1. Anger is the most easily generated viral emotion.

Do you remember the last social media post you just had to share with your family or friends, because it was so wrong, ridiculous or frustrating? According to researchers at Beihang University in China, that’s the rule rather than the exception. “Their conclusion: Joy moves faster than sadness or disgust, but nothing is speedier than rage. The researchers found that users reacted most angrily — and quickly — to reports concerning ‘social problems and diplomatic issues.’” 

Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania Professor Jonah Berger reached a similar conclusion after conducting a study in the United States. Importantly, he noted that a piece of content’s chances of going viral had less to do with a positive or negative tone and more to do with how activated someone felt after seeing it.

“Anger is a high-arousal emotion, which drives people to take action,” he told Smithsonian Magazine. “It makes you feel fired up, which makes you more likely to pass things on.”

The only emotion that outpaced anger in the study was awe, but instilling awe into an audience takes more time and investment — you certainly can’t manufacture it on a regular basis the way you can create anger. 

2. Taking a side means creating a tribe. 

While many would still argue that businesses shouldn’t take sides, in practice, that sort of thinking has largely vanished. Take a look at the two most popular licensed stores in America: Starbucks has somehow become a “liberal” company (even though its founder planned to run for president as an independent) while Chick-fil-A is well-known for its “conservatism.”

Take a look at the comments on Donald Trump’s Twitter handle, and you’ll see just how playing to this polarization can lead to big business: A Silicon Valley engineer was paid $69 million to make ventilators for New York after a single reply to the president. The ventilators were never delivered. 

While this sort of circumstance might seem unusual, many people have followed a similar business model. According to a 2017 Bloomberg story about the “seven types of people who tweet at Trump,” one of the president’s loyalists, Scott Pressler, had 10,000 followers on Twitter in 2016. Today, he has more than 593,000. How did he do it?

“I’m pretty good at marketing myself on Twitter,” Presler told Bloomberg in a phone interview. “It’s using trending hashtags, replying to President Trump and top people.”

In the same piece, Bloomberg highlights presidential critic Jordan Uhl, who “posts more than a dozen tweets in a day — almost every one about Trump.” At the time, Uhl had seen his Twitter following increase by more than 50,000 since he began tweeting at the president. Today, he has nearly 209,000. 

There’s an audience and community for every position: Republican or Democrat, Green Party or Socialist. Often, people don’t even need a better reason to support something than the fact that they dislike the alternative. 

For example, if LeBron James just rubs you the wrong way, you might become a Skip Bayless fan because either you agree with his opinions or you want to agree with them. And even if you don’t agree — if his thoughts make you furious — you’re probably sharing his ideas with others, casting a broader net and helping to publicize his niche. Either way, he wins. 

Related: Elon Musk Hastily Deleted Tweet Saying ‘LIBERTY’ After Calling Lockdowns ‘Fascist’

3. Anyone can be an armchair expert.

Are you familiar with the Dunning-Kruger effect? If not, here’s a partial summary of the cognitive bias: “People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains … this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”

Put more simply: When we pick up a new field of study, we can’t grasp just how much we don’t know, so we think we’re closer to mastery than we really are. If you’ve ever watched a professional athlete make an error, you’ve probably thought to yourself, I could do better than that!

We’ve all been “Monday morning quarterbacks” at some point. I know I have. 

But, put me in a football game today, and I’d be — by far — the worst quarterback in the NFL. I don’t know how to call a play or run an offense. I certainly don’t want to be tackled by a linebacker. 

We all need to be more discerning in this regard. It’s okay if we can’t become an expert on every topic, but if we can accept our own limitations and listen to those who know better, we’ll be on the right track. 

We should also be wary of offers and information that fit neatly into our preconceived notions. In the same way that a con artist might target certain people, these myths and hoaxes are often created with a specific audience in mind. And these specific audiences are all too easy to identify on social media, working either to sway you toward a new way of thinking or simply to cast doubt on established truths.

Not everything is a debate. Some things are just true or false. We don’t need to listen to conspiracy theories about why the world is flat when they’re so easily debunked.

4. There’s no penalty for being wrong.

How can you tell who the real experts are? Consider who has something to lose. For example, Bayless can lambast James all he wants, but he’s never had to pay for those opinions. He makes a prediction and it turns out to be wrong, but he doesn’t lose a dime. By contrast, the NBA has polled its general managers — the men whose livelihoods depend upon talent evaluation — every year since 2016. Those GMs named James the league’s most valuable player in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Bayless’s example is fairly harmless. Perhaps James receives some undue criticism, and perhaps he receives undue praise from others. 

But we can find a far more impactful — and disturbing — example of this dichotomy between words and actions with Infowars’ Alex Jones. For years, Jones peddled a lie that the Sandy Hook massacre (which left 27 people dead, including 20 children) was a hoax, “carried out by crisis actors on behalf of opponents of the Second Amendment.”

When he was sued for these claims, Jones said, “I, myself, have almost had like a form of psychosis back in the past where I basically thought everything was staged, even though I’m now learning a lot of times things aren’t staged.”

In divorce proceedings, Jones’s attorney Randall White claimed, “He’s playing a character. He is a performance artist.”

If we are to believe White, then Jones knew he was wrong all along. But being wrong, creating a conspiracy theory, made him famous. He only recanted when he faced a penalty.

Antivaxxer Jenny McCarthy won’t be held liable if someone chooses not to vaccinate their children. Andrew Wakefield, the discredited British doctor who began the original antivaccine crusade, has risen to fame (or infamy). He’s even been seen dating a supermodel. And if the world holds greater distrust in measles vaccinations, more cases of measles and more deaths because of his findings, well, Wakefield will probably still have his supermodel girlfriend. 

A primary care provider, on the other hand, can be sued if they push medical hoaxes onto their patients. That’s why medical practitioners are advised to ask any parents who refuse vaccines to sign the AAP’s Refusal to Vaccinate form. 

These doctors and nurses have something to lose, which means they also have every incentive to be right. In a time of bots and propaganda, hot takes and debate shows, we all need to trust these experts rather than our own gut-feelings or the talking head on TV who gets paid to do exactly that: talk. It’s not all as trivial as trash-talking “Prince James.”

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