People Who Say “No” for the Sake of No

There’s a type of personality I call the ‘contrarian.’ The contrarian is someone who disagrees for the sake of disagreeing, nearly all of the time.

Most of you probably have encountered this type. Such a person is usually a rationalist. By ‘rationalist’ I mean someone who doesn’t acknowledge there can be optional preferences in different matters, and who tends to treat optional preferences as matters of moral or objective absolutes. It’s the equivalent of saying, ‘Vanilla is superior to chocolate. You’re wrong if you like chocolate.’ Of course, no rationalist would likely be that outrageous, but you get the general idea.

Such a rationalist will say things like, ‘I hate to tell you, but that’s not the answer.’ The repeated use of this phrase, ‘I hate to break it to you’ is typically the red flag that you’re dealing with a contrarian rationalist.

Example? I once was a guest at someone’s house. The hosts were serving a cheesecake whose brand name was, ‘The World’s Best Cheesecake.’ It actually was a very well made cheesecake, and the bakery who produced it was known throughout the large metropolitan area. One of the guests, known to be a contrarian rationalist said, ‘I hate to tell you, but this isn’t the world’s best cheesecake.’ He went on to make a case against this cheesecake that nobody remembered. Later, witnesses to the event did comment on his rudeness.

To me, the more interesting question was: What errors in thinking would lead to such rudeness? What within this contrarian’s mind would tempt him to inappropriate statements in the first place? It probably wasn’t meant as rude. Such people have inner insecurities, not surprisingly. Being contrary, especially about something unimportant or that’s merely optional as a preference, gives such a person a chance to feel superior about himself. It’s as if in disagreeing, ‘I’m showing what I know, and that makes me smart.’

The most significant part of this error is the false belief that intelligence is relational—that is to say, that intelligence is an attribute of how others perceive you. ‘If I feel superior by knowing something that others don’t know, that makes me intelligent.’ Ridiculous, and again it’s unlikely that the contrarian rationalist would ever admit this openly. But this is the sort of implicit emotional reasoning upon which the obnoxious behavior is based.

Contrarian rationalists are not only concerned with petty matters. They can also be concerned with issues of serious importance, including issues related to ethics, human nature or government, where positions (while not always self-evident) can be objectively right or wrong. Even so, contrarians are not motivated by knowing the truth or figuring out what’s right. They’re motivated by appearing superior, and this is what leads to their obnoxious style and approach.

A person with self-esteem is motivated to survive and flourish in reality. Surviving and flourishing in reality includes the desire and willingness to always be on the lookout for what’s true, what’s correct, or what’s factual. Errors and disputes are always possible in this quest, but for the person with sturdy self-esteem, this is always the quest.

An insecure person is more concerned with looking right, smart and good. It’s as if he or she has concluded these things cannot be gained honestly and rationally, so it’s really more about appearances. The implicit admission of a contrarian is: ‘I’m not able or willing to figure out what’s true anyway; all that matters is that I look like I know what I’m talking about.’

Such a motive (and the resulting obnoxious behaviors) would be unthinkable and impossible to somebody of uninhibited self-respect. While nobody is delighted at being wrong, to a life-loving and knowledge-loving (and truly self-loving) person, new knowledge is always valued and welcomed above all things. Finding out one’s wrong is a simultaneous event to learning something new. ‘Oh, one plus one equals two—not four.’ How empowering to gain new knowledge, and correction of errors by definition involves new knowledge.

New knowledge is nothing to fear. Get this through your head and you won’t be subject to the annoyance of these contrarian ‘know it alls.’  Instead, you’ll see such people as the mentally impotent and really quite sad people that they truly are.


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