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[Book Summary] The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively

The Art of Insubordination (2022) is a research-based, science-backed, anecdote-packed ode to all the rebels and revolutionaries out there. It highlights the importance of dissent in society and teaches aspiring nonconformists the skills they need to confidently challenge majority viewpoints, manage discomfort when rebelling, and avoid losing hold of their most cherished values in the process.

[Book Summary] The Art of Insubordination: How to Dissent and Defy Effectively

Content Summary

Introduction: What’s in it for me? Learn how to elegantly, eloquently, and expertly flip the bird to the majority.
Two Ways to Shoot a Free Throw
Overcoming Bias
Talking the Talk
Managing Discomfort
Winning Responsibly
Final summary
About the author
Table of Contents
Video and Podcast
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview


Psychology, Motivation and Inspiration, Personal Development, Social Sciences, Politics, Government, Political Advocacy, Human Rights, Emotional Self Help, Health, Purpose, Strengths, Wellbeing, Mental Health, Sociology, Language, Communication

Introduction: Learn how to elegantly, eloquently, and expertly flip the bird to the majority.

Do you balk at doing what you’re told? Have a near-compulsive need to rebel? Maybe you have an authority problem. And that’s not a bad thing.

We’re here to talk about insubordination –⁠ more specifically, principled insubordination. If insubordination indicates any type of rebellion against authority, principled insubordination is a type of deviance that’s specifically intended to improve society while causing minimal harm. Principled insubordination means supporting worthy and important ideas, regardless of what the majority thinks about them,⁠ for the benefit of humanity.

This summary explores how to become a principled insubordinate. It shows that taking a stand is empowering – and possible. Are you ready?

In this summary, you’ll learn

  • why you shouldn’t shoot free throws like (most) basketball pros;
  • how you can get the majority on your side; and
  • what to do when your team of rebels ends up winning.

4 Types of Insubordinators

Two Ways to Shoot a Free Throw

Did you know there are two ways of completing a free throw in basketball? One is the way you’re used to seeing the pros do it on TV. You raise the ball up to eye level, with one of your hands supporting the ball and the other keeping it steady. Then you flick your supporting hand up and push the ball toward the hoop while using the other hand to guide it in the right direction. For an optimal shot, the ball should arc upward between 45 to 52 degrees and spin backward to lessen its speed and energy.

Shooting a free throw this way is kind of an overwhelming physics experiment. So maybe it’s no wonder that so many players –⁠ even otherwise amazing Hall of Famers –⁠ totally suck at it. For example, Wilt Chamberlain’s career free throw success rate was only 51.1 percent. Shaquille O’Neal’s was hardly better at 52.7 percent.

The thing is, there’s actually a much more accurate way of shooting free throws. That’s the underhand method, and it works like this. You rock the basketball back and forth between your legs, grip it with both hands, and then arc it upward toward the hoop. It ain’t pretty. But it works. One Hall of Famer, Rick Barry, always shot his free throws underhanded. And guess what his success rate was? An incredible 90 percent over his entire career.

So why the heck, you might be asking, don’t more basketball players shoot underhand? Well, there’s a very simple –⁠ but kind of depressing –⁠ answer. Because in the basketball world, underhanded shooting is considered “girly” or “granny shooting.” Basically, players are too self-conscious to do it. In college basketball, only two players shot underhand in the entire league, and one of them was Rick Barry’s son.

It’s rare for a player to buck the norm and engage in an act of inspiring insubordination. But it isn’t just rare in basketball. In all areas of life, acts of nonconformity are scarce. That’s thanks to the powerful human tendency to conform, to which all of us –⁠ yes, you too! –⁠ are subject.

We can already hear your objections. It’s other people who act like lemmings following each other off cliffs. You, on the other hand, are a thinker, a reader, a questioner. You analyze, challenge, and take risks.

But do you, really? Countless studies confirm that, far from being purely rational beings, we judge people and situations using mental shortcuts called biases.

Take one study, conducted by Scott Eidelman of the University of Arkansas and Chris Crandall of the University of Kansas. They told different groups of participants that the practice of acupuncture had been around for either 250, 500, 1,000, or 2,000 years. When participants thought that acupuncture had existed for a longer period of time, they felt more confident that acupuncture was “a good technique” and “ought to be used to relieve pain and restore health.” Were they making a rational analysis of acupuncture’s potential benefits? No –⁠ they were just making a judgment based on how long they thought the practice had been around. Basically, people blindly assume that something is better if it’s been around longer. We humans have a natural inclination to prefer the status quo.

Our motivation to conform extends far beyond acupuncture. It also prompts us to accept systems that affect and oppress us. For example, a survey of 6,637 Americans found that 33 percent of Black people reported being treated no worse than white people by the US criminal justice system. However, according to 40 years of data from the US Department of Justice, Black adults are almost six times more likely to be imprisoned than whites.

What this indicates is that people tend to support systems that are already in place, even when they harm us. Why? Well, because rejecting a system means a kind of revolution. And revolutions imply new systems that can potentially hold even greater uncertainty and threat than the existing ones. Even when we’re treated unfairly under a particular system, we still feel comforted by the stability and security it provides.

This is an unfortunate psychological reality. And the upshot is that it’s really hard to think differently, dissent, and deviate from the status quo! As an aspiring insubordinate, it’s important to acknowledge that reality so you can ultimately overcome it. And that’s what we’re going to discuss next.

Overcoming Bias

New York City, 1854. Elizabeth Jennings, a young teacher, is on her way to church, where she’s the organ player. She can’t walk all the way, so she hails a cab –⁠ which, in those days, is a horse-drawn streetcar.

When she gets on the streetcar, the conductor promptly and rudely issues a reminder to Jennings. Jennings is a Black woman, and, according to the New York City transport policy, any white passenger who gets on has the right to ask Jennings to leave the streetcar. Furthermore, the conductor has the right to physically enforce the white passengers’ wishes. Basically, Jennings can be unceremoniously thrown off the streetcar at a moment’s notice.

By this point in her life, Jennings is tired –⁠ tired of being told what she can and can’t do because of the color of her skin. So she fires back at the conductor: “I am a respectable person, born and raised in New York, and I have never been insulted before while going to church!” She adds, “You are a good for nothing impudent fellow, who insults genteel people on their way to church.”

Outraged, the conductor grabs Jennings. Then a nearby police officer joins in, and together, they drag her off the streetcar and onto the road. When additional police arrive, they arrest Jennings rather than help her.

After the incident, one lawyer –⁠ and one lawyer only –⁠ agrees to represent Jennings in court. With his assistance, Jennings doesn’t have to pay a fine or serve jail time. Instead, she’s able to sue the transit service for $225 –⁠ a hefty sum back in the day, equivalent to a civil servant’s yearly salary.

After Jennings wins the case, word begins to spread. Others start standing up against the racist transit service policy. And the following year, the transit authority implements a new one. Now, Black people are given equal access to New York’s public transport system, all thanks to Jennings’s act of principled insubordination.

Odds are you’ve never heard of Jennings before. But what her story proves is that the mere presence of nonconformists in society has a way of pushing it forward –⁠ even when history forgets these nonconformists existed. Diverse perspectives lead to the development of creative, counterintuitive ideas that actually work. And teams of people perform better when principled insubordination is encouraged.

In one study, for instance, researchers observed groups of work teams. They randomly selected one person from some of the groups to be trained in principled insubordination. The teams with principled insubordinates produced more original product ideas, as objectively rated by outside experts, than teams that lacked a trained insubordinate. The downside was that the teams with insubordinates experienced more conflict, disagreement, and contention. But the rebels actually received higher performance ratings from their peers than conformists. They may have slowed down the group’s cohesion initially – but ultimately, performance and creativity were enhanced.

To encourage principled insubordination, work toward creating a culture where dissent is not only tolerated, but encouraged. Show rebels that their weird ideas will be heard and tried out in reality. This is the way to unlocking its power.

In the process, you may discover that one act of rebellion tends to lead to another. Research has uncovered the surprising statistic that if more than 25 percent of a group consists of rebels, the group eventually decides on the minority suggestion rather than the original, majority version. If fewer than 20 percent of a group consists of rebels, the minority has no impact.

So how do you break through that 25 percent threshold and start effecting change? The key is communication, which we’ll explore next.

Talking the Talk

Ever heard of the punk rock band Fugazi? Today, the name isn’t as well known as all the artists they influenced, from Nirvana and Jay-Z to Kesha and Blink-182. But Fugazi’s legacy can be found all throughout modern music. And, as chance would have it, the band members were also some of the most principled insubordinates in all of musical history.

Unlike other musical giants, Fugazi’s goal was never to make money. Because they were anti-consumerist and anti-corporatist, they never charged fans more than five dollars to attend one of their concerts. They repeatedly refused offers from major record labels. They never hired roadies, booking agents, distributors, or accountants; they slept in fans’ living rooms; and they always recorded their own albums.

Fugazi also adhered to a lifestyle called “straight edge,” which means they refused to take drugs, drink, smoke, eat meat, or have nonconsexual sex. The members of the band adhered strictly to these rules. But –⁠ and this is a key point –⁠ they never pushed the straight edge lifestyle on their fans. They repeatedly stated in interviews that their way was one way but not the only way.

As a result, Fugazi never appeared to be preaching. Ironically, that made fans more inclined to listen to the band’s opinions and end up adopting straight edge for themselves. According to scientists, people with minority status –⁠ which includes rebels whose viewpoints contradict the majority –⁠ are more likely to instigate change if they’re consistent in what they say without being too rigid.

Fugazi exemplifies many of the factors that – scientists now know – help people with minority opinions effectively persuade others. If you, as an insubordinate, disregard them, you’re essentially ensuring your failure. Here are a few tactics you can implement easily.

For starters, try to frame yourself as a member of your audience’s in-group rather than an outsider. Humans have an innate tendency to favor those that agree with them and who they perceive as “like them” in some way. You can use this to your advantage. Position yourself as a member of the person’s in-group by establishing a common bond with them.

For instance, say you’re politically conservative but support stricter gun safety legislation. Remind your fellow conservative friends that you share many of their beliefs and have a track record of voting for Republicans. Then state your case for why there should be stricter gun safety laws.

Another important tactic is to ensure that your communication style is sparking listeners’ curiosity rather than their fear. The way you present your message is extremely important. So, go out of your way to speak in a neutral, nonthreatening way. If members of a majority perspective view your argument as a threat, they’re more likely to double down on their existing opinions than shift to your side.

But the single best thing that you as a dissenter can do? Be flexibly consistent. In 1994, Dr. Wendy Wood of Duke University synthesized 143 experiments that examined the capacity of minorities to exert influence over a majority. Through the analysis, she discovered that the best thing a minority can do is present a consistent message over time.

This means that in order to effect change, you must present yourself as a true believer. Change is challenging for everyone, and the majority is always looking for reasons not to do it. If you’ve hedged on your positions or, worse, displayed hypocritical behavior in the past, the majority sees you as lacking conviction. On the other hand, if you present yourself as the living embodiment of a cause –⁠ just like Fugazi with their anti-consumerist and straight-edge beliefs –⁠ the majority will be much less likely to find fault with you or your arguments.

One caveat: this doesn’t mean you should ram your message down people’s throats. This is where the flexible part of flexible consistency comes in. Stick to your guns on the most important issues. But on the issues that are less important to you, try to bend a little bit –⁠ concede a point from the other side, show genuine concern for the majority, and be respectful. Such efforts will go a long way in endearing others to you and your point of view.

Managing Discomfort

Back in the 1970s, police departments dealt woefully with cases of rape. When survivors reported crimes, officers often dismissed the survivors and handled physical evidence improperly –⁠ even offensively. During investigations, they would contaminate the evidence by, for instance, cutting off survivors’ shirts with scissors. It was so bad that many women advised each other not to even bother going to the station to report being assaulted –⁠ it would only traumatize them further.

But in 1976, a woman named Martha Goddard decided to do something about it. She and a group of medical experts, prosecutors, and law enforcement officers got together to devise a standardized rape kit that could be used to collect evidence in a safe, noninvasive manner.

In order to convince police officers and health-care workers to adopt the kits, Goddard visited police precincts and hospitals every day of the week and fundraised to spread awareness. Eventually, Goddard’s relentless devotion to her cause paid off, and the use of rape kits is now a standard practice across the country.

Back in the late ’70s, the social environment wasn’t at all sympathetic to rape survivors. Terms like “date rape” and “marital rape” didn’t exist, and judges regularly defended rapists by victim-blaming. On top of all that, Goddard was a survivor of sexual assault herself, meaning that she had to repeatedly relive her trauma in order to obtain some measure of justice. Yet she persevered. How did she manage to do it? And how can you follow in her footsteps as an aspiring insubordinate?

Common wisdom says that the best way to respond to distress is to minimize it as best you can. But recently, psychologists have discovered that trying to reduce and avoid the experience of distress can actually exacerbate it. Instead, we should learn to withstand and manage our distress.

One way to do that is by cultivating psychological flexibility, which is a fancy way of saying “mental resilience.” If you’re psychologically flexible, you have the ability to quickly bounce back and recover from pain and distress so you can resume making progress.

When you’re seeking to cultivate psychological flexibility, there are two directions you can go: hunting for meaning or escaping from pain. Let’s look at one example of each type.

Hunting for meaning is all about reminding yourself of your original purpose for rebelling. When faced with an emotionally challenging event, ask yourself, “What and who is important to me?” Work on ensuring that you have clarity about your mission and its moral basis. Doing this will keep you grounded, help you absorb the pain of criticism and complaint, and remind you of the beliefs that are propping up your fight.

When it comes to escaping pain, your goal is to acknowledge the strain you’re feeling and figure out what coping mechanisms you might be using. Determine this by asking yourself, “What am I doing to reduce, avoid, or control unwanted mental content?” In other words, how are you trying to avoid or mask the unpleasant sensations you’re feeling as a result of rebelling? Maybe you’re seeking distractions by watching TV or scrolling through social media, or maybe you’re taking your anger out on your family members.

Instead of using these strategies, try cognitive defusion instead. The name sounds pretentious and complicated, but it’s basically just an exercise in which you create a mental space between yourself and your thoughts. Treat your mind as if it’s completely separate from you – like it’s some kind of opinion generator. You can be playful or serious depending on your preference. Say, “Thank you, Mind, for being so unhelpful this morning,” or “Mind, do you think readers will enjoy this section of the chapter?” This is a great way of reminding yourself that your thoughts are just thoughts and don’t represent the sum total of your reality.

These tips will help you crack open your jar of psychological flexibility and avoid shrinking from adversity. Cultivate psychological flexibility and you’ll be able to rebel – even when it’s painful.

Winning Responsibly

Evo Morales is the former president of Bolivia. He was born into extreme poverty in his country’s marginalized Aboriginal community. He and his family lived in a traditional adobe farmhouse where one small room served as kitchen, dining room, and bedroom. At just five years old, Morales had to work as a llama shepherd so that his family could afford their daily meals.

As an adult, Morales became active in left-wing politics. He campaigned on a platform of poverty reduction, investment in education and hospitals, increases in minimum wage, higher taxes on the wealthy, and rights for Aboriginal peoples. Once he was elected, Morales helped his country into a period of economic growth by taking back control of oil and gas production. As a result, salaries increased, unemployment fell by 50 percent, and literacy rates rose. Between 2005 and 2018, Bolivia became Latin America’s fastest growing economy.

However, there was a dark side to Morales’s reign. While consolidating power, he and his party quashed dissent. His government regularly intimidated journalists and blacklisted dissenters. In 2013, Morales issued a presidential decree that allowed the government to disband civil society organizations if it wished to. During a 2011 protest, according to one account, Morales’s police bound protestors’ faces with duct tape to shut their mouths. Additionally, although Bolivia’s constitution only allows a president to serve two terms, Morales wormed his way into a third term – and even attempted to stay for a fourth.

What happened with Morales unfortunately isn’t unique. Oftentimes, after insubordinates successfully gain power, they end up abandoning their original values. Just recall the French Revolution, which at first promised liberty, equality, and fraternity –⁠ but ended with nearly 300,000 citizen arrests and some 17,000 executions under Maximilien Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. Frighteningly, dissenters who take power fail to remain self-aware and slide into extremity. Why does this happen, from a psychological perspective?

Well, much of it is related to our old friends – the psychological biases that cause us to preferentially treat those who agree and think like us over those who disagree. We empathize with those on our side but fail to do so with our enemies. As a result, newly successful insubordinates end up persecuting the former majority, causing needless suffering, and discounting the fallen majority’s potentially useful ideas.

As a rebel, it’s important that you stay alert to this dynamic and push back against it. Instead of ignoring your former adversaries, reach out to them and try to establish a shared identity with them. You might not be able to do this on ideological grounds, but you can almost always find something else that unites you with the new minority, whether it’s common hobbies or interests, life circumstances, or past experiences. What new norms or rituals might you create to establish a shared connection with those you formerly considered to be outside of your tribe?

As always, be sure to regularly remind yourself of your core, established values –⁠ the ones that got you here in the first place. Be self-aware in asking yourself these questions: Are your actions truly consistent with your desired legacy? Will you like the way that future generations remember your accomplishments after you gained power? Are there ways of exercising your power that are more humane, rational, and reasonable?

Finally, commit to two key principles of leadership. First, block measures or rules that degrade or unfairly treat the minority. And second, block measures that give extra privileges to the majority. Now that you’ve leveled the playing field and won equal rights for your side, do your best to ensure that it stays level for the next generation of principled insubordinates to come.

Final Summary

The key message in this summary is:

Thanks to cognitive biases that cause us to unconsciously prop up and support the status quo, rebelling against mainstream systems and perspectives is difficult. However, creating safe environments for dissenters and actively testing out their creative ideas is one way to neutralize our tendency to conform. As an insubordinate, the best way to speak to the majority is by keeping your communication nonthreatening and, most importantly, making sure your message and actions are consistent over time. If you can manage your discomfort by maintaining a focus on your purpose and original goals, you can continue to rebel even when it’s most difficult –⁠ and ensure that you don’t lose sight of yourself when you eventually win over the majority.

About the author

Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at George Mason University, and a leading authority on well-being, curiosity, courage, and resilience. He has published more than 220 scientific articles, his work has been cited more than 35,000 times, and he received the American Psychological Association’s Award for Distinguished Scientific Early Career Contributions to Psychology. His books Curious? and The Upside of Your Dark Side have been translated into more than fifteen languages. His writing has appeared in the Harvard Business Review, National Geographic, and other publications, and his research is featured regularly in media outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, and Time. He’s a twin with twin daughters (plus one more), with plans to rapidly populate the world with great conversationalists.

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Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D.

Table of Contents

Preface: Is This Book for You?
1: The Critical Importanc; e of Cartwheeling in the Library
2: The Strange Things We Do to Be Liked
How we’re wired to fit in
3: Renegades Rock
Why principled rebellion matters so much
4: Talk Persuasively
How to win over an audience of skeptical conformists
5: Attract People Who’ve Got Your Back
How to off-load some of the pressure while defying the status quo
6: Build Mental Fortitude
How to handle the negative emotions and pangs of rejection when rebelling
7: Win Responsibly
How to prevent moral hypocrisy if and when you become the new majority
8: Engage the Outrageous
How to overcome barriers that prevent us from heeding unconventional ideas
9: Extract Wisdom from “Weirdos”
How to cultivate rebel-friendly cultures in group settings
10: Raising Insubordinate Kids
Evidence-based strategies for training the next generation of heroes in waiting
Whipping Up Your Next Rebellion Masterpiece
How to get started with the non-conformist’s cookbook


A highly practical and researched-based toolbox for anyone who wants to create a world with more justice, creativity, and courage.

For too long, the term insubordination has evoked negative feelings and mental images. But for ideas to evolve and societies to progress, it’s vital to cultivate rebels who are committed to challenging conventional wisdom and improving on it. Change never comes easily. And most would-be rebels lack the skills to overcome hostile audiences who cling desperately to the way things are.

Based on cutting-edge research, The Art of Insubordination is the essential guide for anyone seeking to be heard, make change, and rebel against an unhealthy status quo. Learn how to

  • Resist the allure of complacency
  • Discover the value of being around people who stop conforming and start deviating.
  • Produce messages that influence the majority– when in the minority.
  • Build mighty alliances
  • Manage the discomfort when trying to rebel
  • Champion ideas that run counter to traditional thinking
  • Unlock the benefits of being in a group of diverse people holding divergent views
  • Cultivate curiosity, courage, and independent, critical thinking in youth

Filled with engaging stories about dissenters in the trenches as well as science that will transform your thinking. The Art of Insubordination is for anyone who seeks more justice, courage, and creativity in the world.

Video and Podcast


Next Big Idea Club “Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2022”

“Todd Kashdan combines cutting-edge science and real-life stories about the kind of insubordination we need to make the world a better place. This is the book that all virtuous rebels need.” – Charles Duhigg, bestselling author of The Power of Habit and Smarter Faster Better

“Why is it so difficult to do the right thing, especially when the system pushes against us? In this engaging, well-researched book, you’ll discover practical ways to speak up, show up and make a difference.” – Seth Godin, author of Poke the Box

“Although dissent is an art, Kashdan shows us something even more important and practical—it’s also a science. He does so with an array of captivating and instructive accounts that reveal the value of this skill.” – Robert B. Cialdini, author of Influence and Pre-Suasion

“Our world is broken, and this book can help us fix it. Todd Kashdan’s work shows us the most effective ways to defy injustice and shake up the status quo  in both big and small ways. This is the book we’ve been waiting for.”  – Judson Brewer, New York Times bestselling author of Unwinding Anxiety

With new research and original, inspiring stories, Kashdan has delivered a manifesto for individuals and organizations who want to spark innovation and creativity.” – Susan David, PhD, author of the #1 Wall Street Journal bestseller Emotional Agility

“If the goal is to continually improve society and make your teams better, read this book. My hope is that The Art of Insubordination will be widely read to inspire a new generation of rebels with a cause. – 
Greg Lukianoff, co-author of the New York Times bestseller The Coddling of the American Mind

“A useful primer for those determined to make waves for a good cause.” – Kirkus Reviews

Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

Preface: Is This Book for You?

This book is for anyone who believes that at least some elements of conventional wisdom and practice require urgent improvement. It’s for anyone who yearns to see more justice in the world. More freedom. More financial stability. More purpose. More community. More humanity. It’s for anyone who understands the value of non-conformity and recognizes that we desperately need freethinkers willing to disrupt unhelpful norms for the sake of progress. (Oh, yeah, and it’s also a book for people who don’t take themselves too seriously and think it’s okay to laugh, cuss, and have a little fun while changing the world.)


CHAPTER 1: The Critical Importance of Cartwheeling in the Library

Despite what you learned in high school, Charles Darwin didn’t invent the theory of evolution.

Okay, maybe he did, but he didn’t do it alone.

In the preface to On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, the awkwardly titled book that would change the world, Darwin listed thirty men who previously mustered the courage to question intellectual and religious orthodoxies about nature.

These characters paid a steep price for their boldness. Have you heard of Abu Uthman Amr ibn Bahr al-Kinani al-Fuqaimi al-Basri (nicknamed Al-Jahiz)? Good luck finding a refrigerator magnet of him. Muslim scholars refer to Al-Jahiz as “the father of the theory of evolution,” and for good reason: he arrived at the notion of “survival of the fittest” a thousand years before Darwin, in the year 860. Al-Jahiz wondered why certain animals imported from Africa and Asia to what is now Iraq easily adapted to their new environment whereas others caught illnesses and perished. His reward for this biological discovery was arrest and banishment from his native land. And he was lucky. The chief Muslim ruler of Baghdad got downright medieval on the wealthy patron funding Al-Jahiz’s research. Military officials imprisoned Al-Jahiz’s patron and executed him inside an iron maiden (a spike-laden metal coffin that impaled victims when the doors closed).

You’d think scientists would take a hint and keep their strange and dangerous theories to themselves. About seven hundred years later, in the 1500s, a French scientist named Bernard Palissy dared question the Catholic Church’s proclamation that the Earth was only a few thousand years old. Noting that tides and winds required long periods of time to visibly alter the landscape, Palissy argued that our planet was much older than a few thousand years (how much older he refused to say). Palissy also proposed that an elephant thousands of years ago would not be the same as an elephant today. This concept of species transformation across generations was heresy. His reward: several arrests, a spate of flogging, and destruction of his books. Oh, and they burned him at the stake.

Others on Darwin’s list received better treatment-the authorities spared them death or ostracism-but nobody would characterize their lives as rainbows and gumdrops. They were denounced as infidels. Monitored by the police. Disowned by their families. Censored. Physically assaulted. Threatened with death. All for doubting Biblical claims that animals and humans were really created in six days, that God was really the only force responsible for their evolution, and that humans were really the zenith of God’s achievements (a rung lower than angels). Questioning orthodox beliefs made you an outsider, a threat, a heretic deserving of torture and death.

I use Darwin’s predecessors as an example here to highlight the price that many, if not most, dissenters, deviants, revolutionaries, rebels, and outliers pay for the sake of progress. Sometimes progress happens by happy accident, but more often a courageous person defies social norms. Somebody noticed that the existing orthodoxy in some small or large way was unhealthy, stagnant, or even dangerous, and championed a countervailing idea. And some member of the majority decided to give new ideas a fair reception instead of the middle finger. More often than not, dissent yields progress. Outlaw dissent, and you slow the speed of cultural evolution.

Darwin’s predecessors matter because they inspire a question: why did he succeed while they failed? Yes, Darwin received hate mail and anonymous nineteenth-century trolls called him a heathen, but his ideas found a big audience. The greatest European scientists of the nineteenth century elected him a Fellow of The Royal Society, the oldest scientific academy in existence; and awarded him the prestigious Royal Medal for his research explaining the formation of coral reefs. Popular readers loved his book of travel adventures, snazzily entitled Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle, between the Years 1826 and 1836. In a world without the Travel Channel and National Geographic, Darwin’s book sparked imagination and enlivened many a dinner table conversation. If highway billboard signs existed, which they didn’t, his face would have adorned them selling sneakers and chocolate milk. So why was his insubordination so much more effective than those of other, like-minded thinkers around the world and across the centuries?

A full answer to this question would fill many books, requiring an extensive historical analysis of both Darwin and his predecessors. But we can raise some interesting possibilities by turning to social psychology. In recent decades, researchers studying a number of topics-emotion, self-regulation, creativity, persuasion, minority influence, intergroup conflict, political psychology, group dynamics-revealed how we might differ and disagree successfully. Science has also helped us understand how members of the majority can become receptive to dissenters, increasing the odds that the valuable but subversive ideas of insubordinates will take root.

Darwin lacked the benefit of this knowledge, but he intuitively followed a number of successful insubordination strategies. We know, for instance, that dissenters boost the odds of convincing others if they take a careful measure of society’s prejudices and calibrate their speech and actions accordingly. Darwin understood how provocative it was to suggest life stemmed from something other than the divine spark of God. His own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, saw the Vatican ban his books for articulating a theory of evolution. In order to preserve his mental health, the younger Darwin sketched out his theory of evolution and then waited not two, not five, not ten, but fifteen years before publishing it. Only at that point, after another controversial work, Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, became an international sensation, did he believe society was finally ready-or as ready as it would ever be-to digest ideas as controversial as his. “In my opinion,” he wrote, Vestiges “has done excellent service, in removing prejudice . . . preparing the ground for the reception of analogous views.”

Psychologists emphasize how important it is for principled rebels to communicate in ways that help overcome listeners’ emotional resistance. Darwin contemplated how to strengthen his argument. He wrote in an accessible, jargon-free style comprehensible to everyday readers, not just scientists. He relied on analogies as illustrations. Victorian readers delighted in Darwin’s vivid descriptions of “hairless dogs” and “pigeons with feathered feet.” They learned about the mingling of ant slaves with masters, what happened when young chickens lost their fear of dogs and cats (it wasn’t pretty), and the engineering feats of bees. Besides entertaining his readers, Darwin engaged them as participants by using phrases such as “we can see,” “we can understand,” and “we ought to find.” He asked for reader commitment by posing questions such as, “What now are we to say to these several facts?” An interactive video game it was not, but by the standards of the time, it was compelling.

Researchers studying successful dissent have found that allies play a critical role in the promotion of unconventional ideas. Here Darwin truly shined. A year before he published Origin of Species, he received a manuscript from Alfred Russel Wallace outlining a competing theory of evolution. Having delayed publication of his book, Darwin feared that Wallace alone would receive credit for discovering evolution. To stake his own claim, Darwin allowed friends to take charge and set up a presentation at an upcoming public meeting. The meeting featured Wallace’s manuscript and a time-stamped letter showing that Darwin arrived at his conclusions first. Neither Darwin nor Wallace were present, but Darwin’s four-man infantry of fellow scientists-Charles Lyell, Joseph Dalton Hooker, Asa Gray, and Thomas Henry Huxley (the latter known as “Darwin’s bulldog”)-fought valiantly on his behalf, lending their own credibility to his theory. Darwin was an unimpressive orator. His friends, though, were skilled enough to debate critics and win over experts and laypeople.

Darwin deployed specific strategies for successfully selling his theory to the mainstream and radically changing how people today think about the origins of human behavior. These strategies, coupled with later research, can help non-conformists in our midst become more resilient, persuasive, and effective at mobilizing others. I know because over the past decade I’ve conducted, collaborated on, and synthesized studies that explore how people with fresh ideas can become courageous. I’ve designed practical strategies for championing ideas others regard as outlandish, threatening, or just plain weird. I’ve taught these strategies to corporate executives, government intelligence officers, global financial leaders, and other prominent people around the world. These interventions work, and published studies provide the scientific evidence explaining why. With a bit of extra effort, we can all succeed more in our efforts to help members of the disbelieving majority overcome their internal resistance and give change a chance, whether our ideas are minor refinements of conventional wisdom or revolutionary departures, like Darwin’s were.

Of course, the success or failure of a subversive idea hinges on more than its merits. We humans are tribal creatures who frequently sacrifice sound reasoning to bolster our group affiliations, whether with political parties, sports teams, religions, genders, racial groups, countries of origin, or musical genres. Tribal thinking leads us to exact a “novelty penalty” on unorthodox thinkers, particularly if we perceive them as “others” or outsiders. To prepare the way for more successful insubordination, my colleagues and I created research-based strategies to help people think more flexibly when confronted by unfamiliar—and thus potentially distressing—ideas. These strategies boost tolerance and civil discourse, creating environments where non-conformists can flourish and members of the majority can extract more value from divergent thinking.

Principled rebels are more relevant now than at any time in recent memory. Notables include Malala Yousafzai (who risked her life advocating for girls’ education in Pakistan), Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck (who helped exonerate over 375 wrongly convicted prisoners in the United States), and Alexey Navalny (who served time in prison and faced multiple assassination attempts just for protecting citizen votes from Vladimir Putin’s interference). Each of them is speaking out and demanding change, as are countless lesser known activists. But many of us are not resisting successfully. Nor is society greeting our resistance in healthy ways.

In 2020, a picture circulated on the Internet showing an elderly woman standing at a rally and holding a sign that read, “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit.” Many of us can sympathize with that sentiment. But as slow as change can be, and as bleak as the world might sometimes seem, we’re not at all doomed to see our controversial ideas ignored, repudiated, or banned. By learning to practice and respond to dissent more effectively, we can overcome fear and mistrust, replace commonly accepted ideas with something superior, and build better functioning teams, organizations, and societies.

The Art of Insubordination is what Darwin’s thirty unlucky predecessors wish they had read before embarking on their lonely quests. I wrote this practical handbook to teach readers how to increase their odds of success as dissenters, non-conformists, rebels, or as I’ll often refer to them, insubordinates. I also wrote it to help readers prepare the ground for other insubordinates everywhere to succeed, whether we happen to agree with what they propose or not. As important and valid as non-conformist ideas might be, insubordinates can’t expect the world to welcome them with open arms. If you’re going to rage against the “man” or the “machine,” you must think ahead and protect yourself with some psychological armor and weaponry. And you must prepare yourself and others to receive new ideas more effectively rather than reject them out of hand, as we so often do.

The Art of Insubordination can be viewed as a cookbook filled with recipes for reaping the benefits of a neglected asset in life and the workplace. Recipes for permitting dissent and embracing it when present. Recipes for effectively expressing unpopular, important ideas and how to best champion them. Recipes for managing the discomfort when trying to rebel or when interacting with a rebel. The chapters ahead provide powerful “recipe steps” for introducing novelty and baking change into the system. In Part I, I prepare you to rebel by helping you understand why most of us resist new ideas, and why society so desperately needs the rebels in our midst. Part II of the cookbook—the heart of the book—offers tactics for furthering new and unusual ideas. You’ll learn how to communicate more persuasively, attract valuable allies, persevere in the face of resistance, and conduct yourself responsibly once your ideas go mainstream. Part III of the cookbook advises how you can build a society that is more receptive to challenging ideas and that can make the most of the opportunities they represent. I’ll reveal how to better engage the outrageous as an individual, how to extract wisdom from non-conformists in team environments, and how to raise a generation of insubordinate kids in your capacity as a parent or educator. Insubordination matters. I want to jar you into looking at the world a little differently, challenging others more carefully and deliberately, and lowering your guard when others might challenge your own beliefs and assumptions.

Skeptics might accuse me of indulging an overly romantic view of insubordination. The Cambridge Dictionary, after all, defines insubordination as “the refusal to obey someone who is in a higher position than you and who has the authority to tell you what to do.” Lots of people do that, sometimes in ways that don’t benefit society or even hurt it. Principled insubordination is a brand of deviance intended to improve society with a minimal amount of secondary harm. Principled insubordinates seek to build momentum for worthy and important ideas. At some point, they consciously decide to take that first, uncomfortable step away from the security of the herd, not for their own benefit (or at least not exclusively), but for humanity’s. I want more of us to take that step, and I want society to refrain from punishing us.

Defining Rebellion

Not all insubordination is created equal. In writing this book, I’ve sought to sniff out people who are rebellious for the wrong reasons. Because they are impulsive. Because they don’t like anyone telling them what to do. Because they want attention. I hope to draw attention to rebels with integrity and ethical standards. “Principled insubordination” is my name for a rebellious bent on contributing to society, and we can think of it as a simple equation:

If you’re not a math nerd, don’t worry, we’re going to unpack this. DEVIANCE is the most important element defining principled insubordination, which is why I’ve positioned it as a multiplier.

Bear in mind, we’re talking about a particular kind of deviance here, one that you consciously take on. Successful rebellions don’t come from a place of ignorance, duress, compulsion, or randomness. There’s nothing impressive about being different merely because you are not paying attention to existing standards of behavior (ignorance), you are forced to disagree (duress), you can’t resist the temptation of disagreeing (compulsion or a lack of self-control), or you give little thought to what you do on any given day.

If you consciously choose to rebel, your motivation matters. I include AUTHENTICITY in the definition to ensure that the principled insubordinate’s actions arise from deeply held convictions as opposed to superficial preferences. Principled insubordinates act from the heart. They don’t simply deliver what others want from them, nor do they imitate others who came before them. They’re secure and powerful in their own uniqueness and individuality. Given how easy it is for audiences to sniff out insincerity, you must be authentic if your stand against authority is to have a fighting chance of succeeding.

I include CONTRIBUTION in the formula to ensure that principled insubordinates intend to create social value. As I envision it, principled insubordination is an act of kindness and caring. Those who perform it don’t question authority from a place of disdain (feeling one is above the norm), spite (wanting to upset the mainstream or powerful minority for the hell of it), or self-interest (such as the financial benefit of crime). They question authority because they want to give back in some way. Contribution is what distinguishes insubordination with a cause from its cynical, destructive, superficial cousins. It entails careful consideration of collateral damage that might arise from questioning and attacking social orthodoxy.

Another critically important element of contribution is remaining respectful and open to those who might disagree. Contribution is not the province of white supremacists or cop killers. Yes, they’re insubordinates, but their ideas are inherently hateful and intolerant, and history shows they don’t lead society anywhere good. You’ve probably met people across the political spectrum and members of various religions who harbor principled views. These individuals might be well-intentioned on some level, but if their views are ultimately intolerant and close-minded, they’re not principled insubordinates as I think of them.

Let’s not forget the all-important denominator in our formula, SOCIAL PRESSURE. Insubordination means little without stakes. The real test of your principles is if you hold on to them when the deck is stacked against you. Acts of rebellion begin with a single, uncomfortable step away from the safety and security of the herd. Take Charles Darwin’s story to heart, and don’t underestimate the risks of making your ideas visible to the outside world. You become fair game for misrepresentation, criticism, scorn, and even hatred—an unpleasant consequence of principled insubordination as I’m defining it.

Even better, I’d like society to reward and encourage principled insubordination, like my mom and grandmother did for me. As a twelve-year-old, I asked my rabbi why Jews are allowed to eat shrimp but not tuna fish. Did God really have so little to worry about that he/she spent time devising painfully specific dietary rules? This learned man turned me away without even entertaining my legitimate if provocatively posed question (Jews can’t eat shrimp—I purposely reversed shrimp and tuna fish to demonstrate that regardless of which food is deemed blasphemous the rule is absurd). On the drive home, my mom kept her gaze fixed on the road and said to me, “Keep questioning the rules until you get good answers.”

She died the following year but my grandmother, who became my caretaker, also relished insubordination. As one of the first women to work on Wall Street, she acknowledged that although authority figures often possess wisdom, we should judge them by what they do, not what they say. People defer easily to the powerful, she argued. We should celebrate the brave renegades who stand up to authority figures in their teams, organizations, and social groups. And we should endeavor to manifest that bravery ourselves.

I’ve written this book in homage to my mother and grandmother. I’ve written it to encourage people who deserve to be heard but who are struggling and perhaps even giving up. As I see it, it isn’t only our continued progress that is at stake, but also, quite frankly, our sanity. If nobody deviated in principled ways from society’s prescribed script, civilized life would be less interesting and inspiring, in addition to being less just, safe, and prosperous. It would be less fun—and funny.

I opened with a story of a dead white male who rustled the branches of convention and succeeded. Here’s one about an undead white female. One evening during my freshman year in college, some friends and I were sitting in the library studying. At one point, as I struggled to stay focused, a beautiful blond woman appeared. No, she wasn’t walking idly through the stacks in search of a book. She was turning cartwheels and barreling right at us. When she had come close enough, she stopped and made eye contact with me. “Give me that textbook you’re studying,” she said, gesturing with her hand. Bewildered, I handed it over. She opened to a random page and scribbled something down. “Here you go. When you get to this chapter, give me a call.” Before I could respond, she cartwheeled away.

I was flabbergasted. In this one, small act of principled insubordination, this woman broke many of the established, gender-based rules of dating. On the one hand, society has long taught women to hide their physical selves, suppress their sexual desires, and wait passively for men to approach them. On the other, society applauds men for confidently seeking out willing partners. This woman didn’t merely ask me out; she did it in her own unique way. She owned that library study space, gifting me a story that I continue to ponder to this day. Imagine a society without people like her who experiment with unconventional ideas and practices, even in relatively minor ways, because existing social scripts seem stifling. How often would we experience emotions like curiosity, inspiration, awe, admiration, elevation, and elation without such daring and imaginative souls?

I called this woman a few weeks later. We went out on a date but never started a relationship. A year went by. I transferred to another college. During orientation week, I walked across the main quad and there she was again—this incredible cartwheeling woman. I walked up to her, tapped her on the shoulder, and asked if she would think it weird if she happened to be studying in the library and someone performed gymnastics around her, only to say nothing other than “call me.” She smiled and said something to the effect of “I can think of no other way of asking a boy out.” We went out again and dated for over a year. She was the first woman I ever loved.

If you have an exceptional idea or if you occupy an outsider position of any kind, I urge you to speak up and make yourself heard. Don’t wait. Don’t ask permission from the powers that be. Do it now. Make your mark. Educate and enlighten the rest of us. Change the world. Listen to others who seek to do the same. But for heaven’s sake, do what Darwin did. Be smart about it.


  1. Be deliberate and disciplined. Famous rebels like Charles Darwin deployed specific strategies for selling their theories to mainstream audiences, and so can you.
  2. Know the difference between reckless and principled insubordination. If you’re contributing to society and taking action from a place of authenticity, consider your rebellion principled.
  3. Don’t take rebels for granted. Principled rebellion is vital for improving society. It’s also part of what makes your life and the lives of those around you rich, fun, and fulfilling.

CHAPTER 2: The Strange Things We Do to Be Liked

How we’re wired to fit in

As any kid versed in playground ball will tell you, there’s a simple way and a less simple way to shoot a basketball from the free-throw line. The simple way is to shoot it underhand. You stand fifteen feet away from the basket. Nobody guards you (the other players stand still, waiting for you to shoot). You rock the rock (as pro players call a basketball) back and forth between your legs and release it so that the ball arcs upward toward the hoop. It’s not pretty, but it f*#$ing works. One of the National Basketball Association’s greatest players of all time, Hall of Famer Rick Barry, shot free throws in this way, sinking an incredible 90 percent of his attempts over the course of a ten-year NBA career. During his last two seasons combined, he took 322 free throws and missed only nineteen, an incredible 94.1 percent success rate. By comparison, today’s greatest basketball player, LeBron James, missed 132 overhand shots in a single season, a 73.1 percent success rate.

The less simple (and according to multiple sports scientists, less effective) way to shoot a free throw is to do it overhand. You grasp the ball with two hands and raise it to eye level, with one hand supporting the ball and the other steadying it from above. Gazing intently at the basket, you flick the wrist of the hand supporting the ball so that the ball flies toward the basket. Your hands work together, but they bear varying amounts of weight and perform different tasks. You rely primarily on the shooting hand to push the ball with considerable strength while simultaneously using the non-shooting hand as a guide. For an optimal trajectory, as your wrist snaps with the ball gently rolling off the fingers, the basketball should arc upward between 45 to 52 degrees. If you get the basketball to spin backward, the speed and energy lessens upon contact with the rim—allowing for a softer shot that might bounce off the backboard and drop. I could go on, but you get the picture. Break down the mechanics of a free throw, and it becomes an overwhelming physics experiment. No surprise, then, that many otherwise amazing players suck at it. Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain made only 51.1 percent of the free throws he attempted during his career. Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, just 52.7 percent.

Given the great success Rick Barry had shooting underhand free throws, you’d think a solid chunk of pro and college players would try that method, especially those who, despite endless hours of practice, remain piss-poor at shooting overhand. You’d be wrong. In thirty-five years, not a single NBA team has reached out to Rick Barry for foul-shooting advice. In college basketball, only two players shoot the simple, underhand way, and one of them is Rick Barry’s son. The basketball world perceives underhand shooting as “girly” and a “granny shot,” so players are too self-conscious to do it. Former NBA great Shaquille O’Neal, notorious for his poor free-throw shooting, proclaimed that he’d “rather shoot zero percent than shoot underhanded. Too cool for that.” Another epically bad free-throw shooter, Andre Drummond, refused to adopt the granny shot in no uncertain terms. “Let me make this clear,” he said. “I’m not shooting free throws underhand.”

To his credit, Wilt Chamberlain did try underhand for a spell during the 1962 season, about ten years into his career. It went astonishingly well. He averaged a league record 50.4 points per game that season and improved his free-throw shooting percentage from an abysmal 38 percent to a not stellar but respectable 61 percent. In one memorable game, he scored an astronomical one hundred points, hitting twenty-eight of thirty-two free-throw shots. But rather than stick with shooting free throws the simple way, he returned to shooting overhand. His free-throw shooting declined once again. Why would he possibly have gone back to what didn’t work? “I felt silly, like a sissy, shooting underhanded,” he explained in his autobiography. “I know I was wrong. I know some of the best foul shooters in history shot that way. Even now, the best foul shooter in the NBA, Rick Barry, shoots underhanded. I just couldn’t do it.”

Think about that for a minute. Professional basketball players are paid enormous sums to score points and win games. Wilt sacrificed points, in the process failing teammates and disappointing fans, just to avoid looking foolish. Thousands of professional and college players since have done the same. The average player in the National Basketball Association shoots at about 75 percent, college players at about 69 percent. Not bad, but not Rick Barry-awesome. And these averages haven’t improved in decades. As talented as they might be, these players lacked the cojones to buck the norm and undertake a simple act of principled insubordination that would improve their performance.

We shouldn’t beat up on basketball players. Brave acts of non-conformity are tragically rare. We know the names of great mavericks and renegades like Nelson Mandela, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Leonardo da Vinci, Martha Graham, and Jesus, not just because of their successes, but because they were among the relatively few of their generation to reject conventional thinking and pursue progress. In recent decades, social psychologists and scholars in other disciplines have chronicled just how powerful our tendency to conform really is. Scientists delved into the specific emotional dynamics that cause us to perform stupid, self-destructive acts for the sake of being liked. Before we examine how we can break with convention more effectively, we must take a closer look at why we struggle to muster the courage to buck convention, and why it’s an uphill battle to convince others to question outdated, undesirable norms and practices.


To disobey effectively, it helps to know our enemy: the overriding human motivation to fit in, stick to the herd, accept conventional wisdom, and “go along to get along.”


This enemy might be more pervasive than you think. In fact, it might sweep along the last person you ever thought would fall victim to it: you. Other people act like lemmings who would run over a cliff if that were accepted belief and practice. Not you. You read. You question. You critique. You analyze. You challenge. You take risks. You think differently.

I used to see the world this way, until I came across research by the University of Arkansas’s Scott Eidelman and the University of Kansas’s Chris Crandall about how we make decisions about the value of ideas or practices. In one study, researchers told different groups of participants that acupuncture had been around for 250, 500, 1,000, or 2,000 years, respectively. When participants thought acupuncture had existed for a longer period of time, they felt more confident that acupuncture was “a good technique” and “ought to be used to relieve pain and restore health.” Participants thought they had conducted a rational analysis of the benefits of acupuncture. In truth, participants made judgments based primarily on how long-standing or widely accepted the practice was. Acupuncture’s appeal jumped by 18 percent if participants learned that it was ancient, with no information given about whether it worked. As skilled in critical thinking as we might think ourselves, humans have a general preference for the entrenched status quo.

In another study, researchers told one group of participants that a painting was created a century ago, another group that it was merely five years old. Participants who thought the art older judged it as higher quality and more pleasant. In yet another study, United States citizens were more inclined to support the use of violent enhanced interrogation techniques on terror suspects in the Middle East if they learned such techniques had been a standard military practice for forty years as opposed to a new practice. This finding held for both liberals and conservatives.

We rationalize the existing state of affairs when we feel an undesirable situation is “psychologically real.” Consider the strange mental shift in voters from the moment a candidate wins a presidential election to the inauguration ceremony—honoring day one of the presidency. In a remarkable longitudinal study, Dr. Kristin Laurin at the University of British Columbia found that even Americans who disliked and did not vote for the president held increasingly more positive attitudes about him. The power of “psychological realness” extends beyond elections. Something strange happened once the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruled racial segregation unconstitutional. Even students at an all-Black college “unambiguously opposed to segregation” felt increasingly negative attitudes about the existence of all-Black colleges after, compared to just a few weeks before, the legally binding decision. Dr. Laurin proposed “that it is this sense of realness—the recognition that a state of affairs is an immediate part of their lives—that drives people to rationalize.” Feeling the “psychological realness” and inevitable consequences of the current state of affairs pushes us to swap out resisting for a new trifecta of coping behaviors: conforming, rationalizing, and legitimizing.


People blindly assume that the prevailing system is better. Next time you want to convince someone of an idea or approach, remind them of its long, storied history.


It’s one thing to harbor a bias for established wisdom when it comes to subjects like acupuncture, art, or torture that don’t directly impact our lives all that much. But our motivation to conform is so powerful that it prompts us to accept established systems or regimes that do affect us, and indeed, that oppress us. As a presidential candidate in 2015, Donald Trump expressed disdain for Mexican immigrants, saying, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have a lot of problems . . . They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” You’d think Hispanic Americans hearing that would be appalled (especially since 76 percent of Hispanics are Mexican), but they weren’t. Over a quarter of them agreed with Trump’s statement.

A survey of 6,637 randomly selected adults in America found that 33 percent of Black people reported being treated no worse than Whites by the criminal justice system. This sounds reasonable—until you consider that America’s criminal justice system has a long, sordid history of discrimination against Black people, and that it stands today as perhaps the clearest modern example of institutionalized racism. According to forty years of nonpartisan data from the U.S. Department of Justice, Black adults are almost six times more likely to be imprisoned than Whites. Despite representing only 13 percent of the population, Black people account for more than 33 percent of state and federal prisoners. And yet, 41 percent of Black people polled in 2001 said they are treated identically to White people, or that Whites are the ones treated unfairly. Surveys fielded since have produced similar findings.

If you’re tempted to disparage Black and Hispanic people for dismissing a system that oppresses them, do me a favor and pay close attention to the psychological biases discussed here. We all tend to support systems in which we function, even if those systems harm us. Since its inception, the discipline of psychology has struggled to explain this tendency. Professors John Jost of New York University and Harvard’s Mahzarin Banaji have led the way by propounding a theory of system justification. As they’ve observed, people feel internally conflicted when the systems of which they’re a part treat them indifferently or oppressively. People will go to bizarre lengths to rationalize and protect a social system that harms them. Disadvantaged people often do just as much (or more) to affirm a system’s validity than those who occupy privileged positions within the same system.

As Dr. Chuma Owuamalam at the University of Nottingham explained, rejecting an entire system is a big deal, a step that often goes too far even for the most disadvantaged people existing within it. “The alternative to accepting a social system is to reject it,” Owuamalam wrote. “In most cases, such a rejection is likely to be regarded as being unrealistic because it implies a revolution and anarchy that could invoke much greater uncertainty and threat than the alternative of dealing with dissonance. Hence, people who are invested in their group identities and interests may choose to explore all options before considering the revolutionary role of system rejection.” Citizens with ties to Mexico, targeted in Donald Trump’s comments, want to believe that home in the United States is a place where they feel safe, secure, and a sense of dignity. Once you have family, friends, and perhaps a job, leaving the United States is not a simple, realistic option. A strong dependency on the system leads numerical minorities in a society to respect the status quo and even accept principles, norms, and rules that oppress or harm them.

Over the past quarter century, psychologists have produced a large body of research supporting system justification theory, shedding light on our tendency to uphold and support oppressive systems. It turns out that a slew of rational and nonrational impulses lead to our continued loyalty to standard, long-standing practices when better alternatives might exist. For the sake of brevity, I’ve teased out from the literature some key mechanisms that induce us to conform much of the time.


Four psychological “boosters” fuel voluntary conformity on our part.

1. We Feel Reassured by the Status Quo’s Familiarity

We like to believe we retain personal control over our lives. We want to feel a sense of agency, deciding what happens to us as opposed to existing as pawns pushed and pulled by outside forces. Hurricanes, terrorist attacks, and other crises shake our confidence in a predictable, stable world. Even in “normal” life, so much lies beyond our influence. When your fellow passenger on a packed flight starts coughing violently while eating a pungent peanut butter and raw onion sandwich, there’s not much you can do. Mother Nature, bad highway drivers, your next-door neighbor’s membership in the douchebag hall of fame, mistakes you’ve made in the past, anything that’s happened in the past—you can’t control any of this.

Deprived of control, we tend to take comfort in the familiar, well-understood parts of our lives because they offer a sense of stability and security. Hence we show relatively little resistance to existing systems such as governments, religions, and corporations, even those that might oppress us. In one study, researchers prompted a group of participants to feel temporarily disempowered by asking them to reflect on a particular incident in the past when they lacked control. Another group of participants received instructions to imagine a future where uncontrollable incidents happen—they, too, came to feel temporarily disempowered. Researchers then gauged participants’ willingness to defend the existing society and its accomplishments or argue that the system was flawed and required an overhaul. Compared with a control group, participants who felt a loss in personal control were more willing to defend the existing society and its accomplishments. Researchers noted a 20 percent increased willingness to defend the establishment.

In the search for a coherent, sensible system, we often accept harmful consequences rather than wade through feelings of uncertainty. When we feel impotent, we don’t just support leaders who promise law and order. We try to surround ourselves with people who uphold the system against critical detractors. We seek to affirm our fundamental belief that the world is progressing just fine and that we thus need not remove authority figures nor challenge existing norms.

2. In the Face of Systemic Threats, We Salute

On September 10, 2001, President George W. Bush held a job approval rating of 51 percent, with 38 percent of Americans saying they disapproved of the way he was handling his job. Just two weeks later, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Bush’s job approval rose to 90 percent, the highest level of presidential support recorded since Gallup began tracking data in the 1930s. It remained high for a full two years before tumbling back to where it had been. Conservatives extended an already high level of support for a conservative president, while liberals showed an appreciation for policies that ran counter to their own value system.

Events that jeopardize the survival of a group on which we depend tend to motivate a defensive reaction. Our initial impulse is to protect what we care about, especially if the perpetrator of the attack is an outsider. Few elements are more effective at bringing people together than a common nemesis. We become upset at the outsider. We share our dismay with other group members. And we support the powers that be inside the system. Rallying behind a system under siege feels like a worthy cause. Even if we feel ambivalent, there’s a time and a place to criticize, and this isn’t it. Now we’re in Proud Defender mode. Love it or leave it, baby.

Authorities and organizations often intentionally evoke symbolic links to powerful, dominant belief systems as a means of sustaining legitimacy. They know people swept by patriotic fervor will easily forget that the system they are justifying is the same one that has been depriving and harming them. The presence of threats to the system and our identity-based reactions to them goes a long way toward explaining why human beings favor the status quo, including the very organizations that compromise our well-being.

3. We Feel Dependent on the Status Quo

If you’ve served any time in prison you know the chances of survival go way up if you’re affiliated with a gang. Stand next to a pack of people wearing the right colors or bearing the right tattoos, and other potentially murderous prisoners will identify you with the gang. You’ll enjoy enough protection to walk fearlessly through the dining halls and outdoor yards. You might even lie in bed at night untouched instead of suffering at the hands of another inmate. By joining that gang, you’ve entered into a dependent relationship with the group and will feel hesitant to voice concerns about its rules, hierarchy, and leadership. The gang is keeping you alive and safe. Your fellow gang members might treat you like crap, but it’s better than getting killed or raped. And over time, that gang becomes part of your identity. You’re no longer just a person. You’re a member.

The deal with the devil we strike in prison doesn’t differ all that much from those we strike with other existing hierarchies in our lives. We rally behind the status quo because the group of which we’re a part satisfies our basic needs to feel understood, validated, and competent. Because we identify with the group, we no longer have to think for ourselves all the time: knowing what high-ranking members of the group prefer makes it easy to select what to wear, what music to listen to, what beliefs to hold, what politicians to support, and so on. Our sense of belonging comforts us because we know that our fellow group members will show us favoritism over outsiders when we need it.

As research has found, people are willing to sacrifice material payoffs to feel connected with powerful authority figures. Individuals who are poor, who lack education, and who live in crime-ridden neighborhoods will vote against their own self-interests and fight against economic redistribution if they identify strongly with the nation and its power. Perceiving the country as a direct extension of their own identity, they willingly forgo their own self-interest because their attachment to the country serves other needs, providing a sense of security, safety, and belonging as well as a stable sense of meaning. You remind yourself that this is your country, and it’s far better than living in countries you view as inferior. You can justify corruption as a few bad characters in a system that, if operated as intended, would be the best imaginable. What could be more American than feeling discontent while plastering on a goofy smile?

Researchers find that conformity intensifies as people become more dependent on a system. In Malaysia, the authorities regularly mistreat the country’s Chinese minorities. Because members of this minority are successful economically, the Malaysian government reserves college scholarships for Malays only, not Chinese. Thanks to government-mandated quotas, colleges only allocate a small number of slots to Chinese citizens. Government loans exist for buying houses and starting businesses, but many are reserved for Malays, not the Chinese minority. If you are Chinese and fortunate enough to secure a loan, expect to pay a premium rate.

You’d expect the Chinese minority to be pretty pissed off. Not so. In one study, Dr. Owuamalam had Chinese adults in Malaysia reflect on their government-sponsored disadvantages. He found that members of this minority articulated strong support for the existing government. Why? Although the Chinese received inferior treatment, they depended on the government for transportation, health care, and everyday survival. It’s not easy to defend mistreatment handed down from the existing system. Chinese minorities in the study had to work harder cognitively than Malays did when asked to write down supportive comments about the Malaysian government. But as mentally draining as it is to be oppressed in Malaysia, the Chinese minority maintained strong support for the government.

None of this means oppressed people like being part of the system. Of course they don’t. It’s not easy for a woman to accept that even in 2021, the business world is still dealing with misogyny—high-level positions are dominated by men, giving male friends an edge when finalizing leadership succession plans. And yet, for all its sordid injustices, America still offers more autonomy, financial opportunities, and safety for women than most other countries. Human beings often do what they can with the world as it is rather than complicating their lives in a possibly unsuccessful quest to produce the world they’d like to live in.

People often end up expressing appreciation and fondness when forced to operate within a social system, defending the benefits while ignoring the pain. In one Canadian study, researchers told participants that the government was tightening immigration policies and they wouldn’t be able to leave the country. When people believed the system was inescapable, they reconsidered Canada’s endemic sexism. Instead of regarding sexism as a systemic problem, Canadian citizens attributed it to biological differences between men and women. Believing there was no escape from Canada, they shifted from criticizing to legitimatizing an unfair status quo. Researchers obtained similar results in a separate experiment when they told college students they would have difficulty transferring to another institution. College students who thought their university was inescapable showed less interest and desire to help a student-led group that criticized and offered suggestions to the administration for improving the university. Students who felt empowered to transfer anytime showed stronger support for the student-led group.

Restricting people’s movements didn’t lead to their greater scrutiny of authorities or the system oppressing them. Instead, individuals defended the legitimacy of the powerful, higher-status, decision-making figures in their lives. Even worse, those reluctant to acknowledge problems with the existing system also held stronger negative attitudes about dissenters who stood up and criticized the system. When we regard an existing social hierarchy as problematic and unchanging, and we happen to be positioned on a lower rung with little power and influence, we exhibit a status quo bias. Oddly, we support policies that perpetuate existing inequalities. It happens when we deal with big problems, such as people experiencing economic disadvantages in society. It happens when we deal with smaller problems, such as when we feel unable to leave an unsatisfying friendship or romance.

4. You Hold Out Hope for Better Days Ahead

Hope is powerful. A conservative college student can matriculate for another semester, despite repeated prejudice in the classroom, as long as they see signs of progress—such as the founding of a club for conservatives or a statement by the university newspaper that it will cover liberal and conservative viewpoints equally. A low-level military member deployed abroad can stifle moral disagreement with a superior’s directives if they know the situation will eventually end. We can bide time within a crappy system if we believe our situation is temporary and that existing disadvantages are eroding.

When we feel hopeful, we won’t merely tolerate the existing system, but accept, defend, justify, and protect it. Dr. Chuma Owuamalam’s research shows what happens when a country starts to display signs of gender equality over a fifteen-year time span. As women make inroads in society, such as greater decision-making autonomy and greater representation in corporate boardrooms, women throw more support behind status quo beliefs that sex is irrelevant to opportunities and success. Feeling hopeful about upward mobility helps explain why women in the present support beliefs, policies, and politicians that appear antithetical to women’s interests. Experiments produced similar findings. After learning their university suffered a dramatic drop in prestige, students didn’t try to transfer nor did they pen op-eds denigrating the university. As long as students believed their university’s reputation would improve over time and the value of a degree would rise again, they maintained high levels of trust and affection for their academic home.

If you think about it, there is nobility in being able to stick with the program in hopes of a better future. The hopeful defenders of oppressive systems possess true grit, a factor that often predicts educational, financial, and occupational success better than curiosity or intelligence does. But let’s not get carried away in celebrating our capacity to endure a hurtful system.

Tell me, which of the following seven statements accurately describe you?

  1. I’ve always felt that I could make of my life pretty much what I wanted to make of it.
  2. Once I make up my mind to do something, I stay with it until the job is completely done.
  3. When things don’t go the way I want them to, that just makes me work even harder.
  4. 4It is not always easy, but I manage to find a way to do the things I really need to get done.
  5. In the past, even when things got really tough, I never lost sight of my goals.
  6. I do not let my personal feelings get in the way of doing a job.
  7. Hard work has really helped me to get ahead in life.

If many of these items describe you, you’re probably congratulating yourself for grittiness. But despite appearances, these questions capture not grit, but something called John Henryism. Coined by Dr. Sherman James, John Henryism denotes the tendency of disadvantaged racial minorities to work too hard in ways that bring short-term success but that create long-term health problems. In the old folk tale, John Henry was the strongest man for hundreds of miles. Competing against a steam-powered drill in a race to break rocks for a railroad tunnel, he emerged victorious but then died from exhaustion. John Henry stands as a legend for superhuman single-mindedness. He persevered at his short-term goal with unwavering commitment, unrelenting vitality, and the circumvention of emotional and physical impediments. Yet his story serves as a parable for the potential costs of working as hard as possible to gain social approval and success when operating within a dysfunctional system.

Scientists followed 3,126 young adults (in their twenties) for twenty-five years. They discovered that young adults who displayed extreme perseverance suffered physically, just like John Henry himself. Higher blood pressure. Higher risk for cardiovascular disease. Twenty-five years later, they were still suffering. Slower mental speed. Poorer memory. Inferior executive functioning (a lack of attentional control, planning, and mental flexibility). The physiological and psychological toll of persevering through hardship is particularly pronounced in people from disadvantaged backgrounds. They’re told they just need to buckle down, work harder, and the future will reward them. Sure, hope has its benefits. Let’s just remember the potential costs that come with believing that oppression will subside and everything will turn out okay.


Reading about how primed the oppressed are to conform to unjust and flawed systems might feel odd in a book celebrating insubordination. Am I blaming victims for not being more enlightened? Hell, no! I’m detailing psychological reality. Defending oppressive social arrangements makes sense if, as a member of a disadvantaged group, you feel psychologically vulnerable. It’s difficult to embrace an aspirational vision of the future when you’re coping with imminent dangers, when you find it impractical to escape a group, and when you hold out hope for the promise of a better future. As we’ve seen, during times of uncertainty, all of us tend to glom on to conventional wisdom.


It’s human nature to defer toward long-standing, widely accepted practices and beliefs. The would-be insubordinates among us must acknowledge this reality so that they can deal with it and ultimately overcome it. The rest of us must, too, so that we can overcome our internal resistance to change and support progress.

It’s f*#$ing hard to be different, to dissent, to deviate from traditional thinking. Fitting in offers a short-term respite from the turmoil of being the target of animosity and rejection. If you’re suffering in an unjust system, sometimes you just want a break from thinking about it. But sticking by the system is ultimately unworkable, as it will compromise your well-being over the long term by making change impossible.

Let’s all become more aware of our tendency to conform, opening our minds to the prospect of change. This cookbook provides psychological recipes for the rebels and renegades among us, those who have found a mission worth fighting for. I’ve also written it for the rest of us who are less inclined to resist but still seek a better life than the one we’re living. As we’ll see, non-conformists can get more people onboard if they make small tweaks in their behavior. And the rest of us can adopt tactics to help us glean the most benefit from non-conformists and their brave interventions. But before we get to all that, let’s set the stage just a little more. We acknowledge the strange things we do to be liked, and some key psychological mechanisms underlying and influencing our behavior. Now let’s examine why principled insubordination is necessary. Let’s unpack why renegades rock.


  1. Point out the cost of inaction. Adults rarely (if ever) switch brands of soap, yogurt, and cable providers, even when they don’t like them. Non-partisan voters overwhelmingly vote for the incumbent in political elections. By sticking with undesirable goods, services, and decisions, we allow negative events to dominate daily life when healthier, more meaningful alternatives exist. Next time you want to convince someone of an idea or approach, remind them that doing nothing when problems exist harms your well-being.
  2. Know the four psychological boosters. Gaining insight into the mechanisms that fuel voluntary conformity on our part will help you to resist conformity pressures. What pulls for conformity and legitimization of a corrupt state of affairs include a lack of personal control, threats to the system, dependence on the system, and hope of upward social mobility.
  3. Acknowledge your status quo bias. It’s human nature to defer to long-standing, widely accepted practices and beliefs. Would-be insubordinates among us must acknowledge this bias so that they can deal with it and ultimately overcome it.

CHAPTER 3: Renegades Rock

Why principled rebellion matters so much

In American history, institutionalized racism was always a Southern thang. The Northerners were righteous warriors fighting for freedom and equality. That’s the stereotype, right? A feisty young teacher named Elizabeth Jennings would beg to differ. Institutionalized racism was a Northern thang, too. She had the cuts and bruises to prove it. As well as $225.

The date was July 16, 1854. The place, New York City. Jennings headed to church, where she played the organ. It was too far to walk, so she hailed one of those newfangled, eco-friendly, biofueled vehicles known as a horse-drawn streetcar. No sooner did she get on than the conductor reminded her of three pertinent facts: (1) she was a Black person; (2) according to New York City’s transport system policy, any White passenger who was a racist hater could have a Black person thrown off the streetcar; and (3) if a White patron asked, the conductor would enforce rule two. Jennings received no respect, no gentle plea, only a barked order from the conductor: if anyone here objects to your presence, you can get the f%$# off and walk.

Jennings could have nodded her head, sat down, and enjoyed the ride. But she was having none of it. It was one too many times that someone told her what she could or could not do because of the color of her skin. She lit into him, “I am a respectable person, born and raised in New York, and I have never been insulted before while going to church!” Not to mention, in her humble opinion, “you are a good for nothing impudent fellow, who insults genteel people on their way to church.”

The conductor wasn’t used to Black people talking back. Because at the time, they tended to keep quiet. He grabbed Jennings and, with the help of a nearby police officer, physically dragged her off the streetcar and onto the road. They tried to rip her off the platform steps, but she held her own. As a result of the struggle, her dress became soiled and her body cut and bruised. When additional police arrived, they didn’t help her. They arrested her.

The only lawyer who agreed to represent Jennings during her court appearance was a sprightly twenty-one-year-old White dude named Chester Arthur (who would later go on to become the twenty-first President of the United States). In the view of one expert, Chester sported “both the bushiest and boldest mustache of any president.” Chester did his thing. Not only did Jennings not pay a fine or serve jail time; she sued the transit service. The court granted Jennings $225—quite a princely sum back in the day, about as much as a civil servant made in a year. But that’s not all. News of the incident spread. Black folk in the city were pissed. Others stood up against the transit service’s racist policy. The following year, in response to another court case, the transit authority installed a racially neutral policy giving Black people equal access to their choice of public transportation and seat selection.

It’s time to set the record straight. Although segregation in the South only ended during the second half of the twentieth century, the Northern states weren’t exactly paragons of virtue. The government of New York State abolished slavery in 1827, almost three decades before Jennings’s tangle on the streetcar. And yet New York retained racist laws, regulations, and policies for decades after abolishing slavery. It took brave souls like Elizabeth Jennings to challenge the powers that be and show society a new and better way. Over a hundred years before Rosa Parks allegedly pioneered the tactic of civil disobedience by refusing to sit in the back of an Alabama bus, Elizabeth Jennings was already doing it.

Nobody placed Jennings on a U.S. postage stamp or mentioned her in history textbooks. Elementary schools don’t teach kids her story. But forgotten acts of insubordination like hers make a big difference. We need rabble-rousers in society as well as in our organizations and teams. As we’ll see in this chapter, the very presence of non-conformists pushes us forward, even when we disagree with them, and even if their proposed solutions are wrong. Creating space for principled insubordination enables an upward spiral to take root, affirming that nothing is ever “finished” and that we should always strive for improvement. Principled insubordination makes individuals more rational, and groups more creative and productive.

That’s not to say that having principled insubordinates in our midst is easy. Quite the contrary. As Bill Clinton told an audience in 2016: “America has come so far. We’re less racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-specific religions than we used to be. We have one remaining bigotry: We don’t want to be around anyone who disagrees with us.” His audience laughed. It’s no laughing matter. Humanity today continues to struggle with injustice, and we face existential challenges, from global warming to nuclear weapons to global pandemics. If we want to survive, we better up our game, and fast. That means seeking out brave souls—unsung heroes like Elizabeth Jennings and famous ones like Rosa Parks—to point out problems, provide their best ideas, and rally others to do the same.


To nurture bravery, we must improve at not just tolerating people who disagree with us, but welcoming and fostering them.


The power of principled insubordination becomes obvious in situations when non-conformists have taken down unjust systems like segregation. Less obvious are the multitude of ways a non-conformist’s spirit fuels incremental progress across society, making daily life more efficient, productive, prosperous, safer, and just plain better.

I hate to be a downer, but we desperately need more progress. Although we do have The Simpsons, self-cleaning fish tanks, and an ability to 3D-print a fully functional acoustic guitar, other important dimensions of daily life either totally suck, largely suck despite some recent improvement, or only moderately suck but could still be better. Doctors might not bore holes in people’s skulls any longer, drain blood from bodies, or give poisonous mercury and arsenic elixirs as a wellness treatment (I’ll save the Egyptian dung ointments for the endnotes). Still, at least 44,000 patients die each year in the United States from avoidable medical errors. Astronomy has improved since the days when humans thought they resided at the center of the universe. Still, scientists in 2019 discovered they had been somewhat off when estimating the universe’s age—like, by more than a billion years. Our educational system is better than it was in Elizabeth Jennings’s day, when virtually no Black people attended school and only about half of White kids aged five through nineteen did. Still, as of 2019, 22 percent of American citizens failed to name a single branch of the U.S. government; only 39 percent could name all three. Not to mention, school-based physical education affords students a mere sixteen minutes of bodily movement per class, with “a few jumping jacks before a halfhearted game of softball.” Will 960 seconds of exercise prevent kids from growing into morbidly obese adults? C’mon, people!

The way to do better, in these areas and practically any other, is to actively recruit people like Elizabeth Jennings. More frequently than you imagine, diverse perspectives lead in turn to refreshingly counterintuitive ideas and highly workable solutions.

Consider the issue of how to prevent or stop mass shootings. One of the most popular solutions advocated around the country is to allow teachers and other employees to carry weapons. That way, teachers can fight back when an active shooter menaces their classrooms—they don’t have to wait for law enforcement.

In the wake of a 2013 attack on a heavily secured Washington Navy Yard building that killed a dozen people and injured eight, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers convened a panel of experts to proffer their opinions. The panel’s goal: Generate new solutions to prevent future tragedies and, specifically, to keep the body count in every workplace targeted by active shooters to one victim or fewer. Instead of inviting the usual collection of bureaucrats, the Centers brought in a collection of outsiders, including a forensic psychologist, a psychiatrist, a surgeon, an architect, a Navy SEAL, and frontline responders who had experience with mass shootings.

The forensic psychologist offered up the creative but seemingly odd idea of training kids in schools to head straight for the girls’ bathroom. “Nearly every shooter is male,” he said, “and if you watch the video footage, they always walk past the girls’ room.” The Navy SEAL had a completely different idea. “I would grab a fire extinguisher,” he said, describing what he’d do in an active shooter situation. Other panelists assumed he would advise using the fire extinguisher to hit the shooter in the head and take him down, but that wasn’t it. “I’d spray it to create a smoke screen and plus the chemicals remove oxygen from the air making it harder for shooters to breathe and easier to take down.” Remarkable for their simplicity and pragmatism, these ideas required mental leaps that only non-conformists—in this case, outsiders—were likely to make.

Of course, these tactics might not work. But it’s not like arming teachers is such a great idea, either. When researchers asked 15,000 law enforcement professionals for solutions to gun violence, 86 percent believed that legally arming citizens would reduce the death count. In truth, when highly trained New York City police officers participate in gunfights, shooters miss the target 82 percent of the time. When only police fire the bullets, they still miss the target 70 percent of the time. Each bullet could inadvertently kill or wound an innocent person. Shouldn’t we let the poetry teachers out there stick to rhyme and meter?

In this instance as in countless others, conventional wisdom is flawed. Room for improvement exists. Maybe girls’ bathrooms and fire extinguishers would work better than having poetry teachers play Call of Duty in real life, but maybe not. But one truth seems clear: unleashing more non-conformity will probably allow us to find other potentially helpful solutions nobody has thought of or had the ovaries (or cojones) to put forth.

As evidence shows, groups of people perform better when we encourage principled insubordination. In 2012, Google began a much-publicized research initiative called Project Aristotle, seeking to identify what distinguished top performing teams. Frequently voted one of the greatest places to work, Google wanted to know why only a few teams fulfill their promise and produce higher quality work than any individual could do. After two years, researchers had their answer: psychological safety. Exceptional teams created conditions that encouraged team members to participate without fear of ridicule, chastisement, intellectual theft, a hit to their career, and so on. The media loved it. The New York Times published a front-page story, “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.” As of June 2019, 10,600 articles and videos have covered Project Aristotle’s results. Organizations have undertaken a “safe place” revolution in the hope of boosting motivation, learning, performance, and innovation.

And yet, Google missed half the story. A year after Project Aristotle ended, two psychologists dissected fifty-one studies on the importance of psychological safety to team performance. The result: psychological safety often didn’t correlate with performance. Sometimes teams that spent hefty sums training and hiring with psychological safety in mind did fantastically. Other times, they tanked. One factor does determine whether psychological safety works or not, and that’s principled insubordination. Group members want to feel psychologically safe. But as research has shown, psychological safety reliably translates into superior performance only when sufficient minority viewpoints exist, and we permit and embrace them when present. You might tolerate minority dissent but this says nothing about whether its stimulation exerts influence on other group members. As emphasized by organizational psychologists Drs. Katherine Klein and David Harrison, “It is not sufficient for a group member to improve on another’s solution; he or she must also win others’ approval of the improved solution as the next best course of group action.” Too many people fail to capitalize on the stimulation of principled insubordination. Teams need psychological safety and a welcoming of constructive dissent and deviance before they can consistently be open-minded to divergent thinking, make more informed, high-quality decisions, and be innovative.

If principled insubordination is so important, how exactly does it work? Here are three of the best explanations set forth by psychologists:

Reason 1: Principled Insubordination Neutralizes Our Cognitive Biases

As smart as we humans are, we struggle to form rational judgments. When confronted with information that threatens closely held beliefs, we respond automatically and defensively, dismissing perspectives that clash with our worldview. One big reason: cognitive biases. Our capacious sapiens brains possess limited processing power. We can only pay attention to a limited amount of stimuli at any given time. To make do in a world of infinite information, our brains take cognitive shortcuts, causing us to default to biases.

We also feel motivated to experience certain emotions and beliefs and prefer to avoid others. We want to be right. We want to be liked. We seek to validate our identities. We care about certain people, objects, sports teams, and ideas because of what they say about us. We defend what we care deeply about against detractors. Our sense of reality becomes biased and skewed.

To date, psychologists have identified about a hundred cognitive biases to which we fall prey, divided into three categories. The first category of biases relates to our need to feel like we belong to an in-group. We love in-groups. Thanks to our evolutionary experience, our brains tell us it’s better to mistakenly avoid a kind, compassionate, altruistic stranger than to mistakenly approach a dangerous one. So, we pledge fidelity to all sorts of in-groups, including those based on race, gender, nationality, social status, political beliefs—even vegetarianism. We treat members of our in-group better than we do outsiders, hold them to different moral standards, interact with them more, evaluate their ideas and proposals more favorably. Most important for our purposes, we tend to associate unfamiliar ideas with the unfamiliar people who promote them, thus becoming resistant to changing our beliefs.

The second category of biases has to do with what scientists call “motivated reasoning,” a jargon-y way of saying that we tend to evaluate evidence not in a perfectly objective way but based on what we hope to conclude. When we hear of information that confirms what we already think we know, we accept it more readily than information that doesn’t. We tend to avoid information that doesn’t conform to our beliefs. Thus, we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people who say like-minded things. We delude ourselves into thinking that our perspective alone is the very embodiment of fairness and truth. Deluded approaches to acquiring and processing information interfere with our ability to recognize and accept alternative ideas that might serve us better.

The third category of biases relate to what scientists call “motivated certainty.” As political psychologists Cory Clark and Bo Winegard note, motivated reasoning concerns “the substance of a belief, [whereas] motivated certainty refers to the ‘momentum’ of that belief.” Simply put, we humans tend to feel overconfident in our positions and fail to see the costs of adopting them. We think we’re so smart—or at least correct. For instance, we might believe immigrants should be able to cross borders freely and live wherever they want, that any human being can decide on their gender for whatever reason at any time, and that genetics fails to explain differences between men and women. In a dream world, such positions cost us nothing to hold. In the real world, holding a position comes with costs. We invest money, attention, and emotion into our ideas and their implementation, becoming increasingly motivated to feel certain about our beliefs. Weirdly, we become more motivated—and feel even more confident in our beliefs—as uncertainty increases. Our grasp on reality slips away, without our even realizing it.

Ten Biases That Eff Up Our Thinking

  1. Confirmation bias—We tend to prefer information that matches our existing beliefs.
  2. Familiarity bias—We prefer what or who is already known.
  3. Naïve realism—We tend to believe that we perceive the world objectively, as it is, and that people who disagree with us are uninformed, irrational, or biased.
  4. Illusion of knowledge—We think we know what other people are thinking.
  5. Fundamental attribution error—We attribute others’ mistakes and failings to their identity, but when we screw up, we conveniently blame it on circumstances and bad luck.
  6. Self-consistency bias—We tend to think that our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are always stable, when in fact they change.
  7. Projection bias—We think others tend to share our preferences, beliefs, and behavior more than they actually do.
  8. Authority bias—We like ideas better when voiced by someone powerful or prestigious.
  9. Stereotyping bias—When we observe a tendency in one member of a group, we assume that some or all fellow group members share it.
  10. Bias blind spot—We think we can easily spot biases in others even as we fail to recognize our own.

If biases abound, if they skew and imprison our thinking, we’re pretty much doomed to stupidity, right? Not necessarily. A tribe of heroic bias bashers live among us. They’re called non-conformists. Bring in someone like Elizabeth Jennings who thinks differently and isn’t afraid to let you know it, and we’ll better see our own biases and correct for them. We’ll become more curious about the world instead of remaining locked in and intellectually sterile.

Dr. Stefan Schulz-Hardt conducted an experiment exploring how best to obliterate cognitive biases in German business managers. Schulz-Hardt homed in on confirmation bias (defined in the sidebar above). He created small groups and tasked them with choosing between investment opportunities in one of two countries. To make their selections, groups had to weigh fourteen different factors, including country tax levels, economic growth, environmental legislation, and the like. Groups could access up to a dozen articles written by economic experts familiar with both countries. Half of these articles pointed to one of the countries as an ideal investment, while half argued the opposite.

Do groups seek out information that confirms their initial investment choice and ignore the rest? What happens to deliberations after seeding groups with dissenters, as opposed to a bunch of like-minded? Schulz-Hardt found that groups of managers seeded with dissenting views were twice as likely to request articles that conflicted with the group’s initial decision than homogeneous, ideologically similar groups were. If you want to override the tendency to think in more extremely polarized or prejudiced ways, inject a little good old-fashioned dissent.

Of course, dissent in a group setting doesn’t come without cost. Groups with dissenters experienced twice as much controversy in their conversations (batting around alternative viewpoints) compared with homogeneous groups. Positivity, cohesion, and decision-making all took a hit. In the absence of dissent, homogeneous groups fell prey to strong confirmation biases, primarily seeking information that justified their premature conclusions while ignoring highly useful information that conflicted with group momentum. Although the homogeneous, dissent-free groups sought only half of the available information to make investing decisions, they felt an alarmingly high level of confidence compared to the broader thinking, questioning attitude of groups with dissenters. Studies of hospitals, courts of law, Broadway musical productions, and social movements observed similar findings. Inject dissent, and you find that confidence decreases and the number of arguments increase—a relatively small price to pay for improved group problem-solving and creativity.


Something special happens when you have even one dissenter in your midst. You don’t robotically default to assuming the dissenter is right. Instead, you feel motivated to contemplate an issue carefully and consider that the dissenter might have good reason for upholding a contrary position.

Exposed to a dissenter’s viewpoint, you become more apt to review information that supports positions contrary to your own. You open yourself to testing reality and raise questions about your own positions. Instead of remaining beholden to motivated reasoning and confidence, you become more critical minded and balanced. You start thinking less like a partisan and more like a disinterested scientist pursuing the truth. Overall, the presence of a dissenter prompts group members to abandon low-effort mental shortcuts and switch to elaborate, deep information processing. The Big Three categories of cognitive bias are toast.

Reason 2: Principled Insubordination Boosts Creativity

Here’s a question: what factor best predicts whether elementary school children will receive recognition as innovative creators fifty years later? It’s not whether they like to build weird things out of Play-Doh. It’s not their levels of curiosity or intelligence. It’s whether they’re “comfortable being a ‘minority of one.’ ” In research published by Dr. Mark Runco and colleagues at the University of Georgia, sixty-year-old adults achieved more lifetime creative accomplishments if as kids they expressed comfort being a minority voice. They published books and plays, built profitable businesses, earned public acclaim, and exerted a greater influence on others. True, these young insubordinates suffered emotionally from their tendency to challenge the status quo, experiencing broken friendships, persecution, and so on. But as a group, they blossomed into creative trendsetters far more than their conformist peers.

Other research has found that exposure to principled insubordination enhances creative decision-making by stimulating divergent thinking. In one study, researchers took certain work teams and randomly selected one person for training in principled insubordination. Over a ten-week period, the group engaged in a variety of creative tasks, such as creating new products and navigating morally questionable business situations. Colleagues in these teams produced more original product ideas (as objectively rated by outside experts) than did members of other teams that lacked a trained insubordinate. Conversations in these teams were contentious at times, with some of the rebels feeling isolated and under strain. “It wasn’t easy,” one rebel reported. Another said, “Much of the time another group member and I were at each other’s throats.” But team members ultimately acknowledged the rebels’ contributions. Rebels received higher performance ratings from peers than others. Initially, they slowed down the group and interfered with group cohesion. Over time, the presence of principled insubordinates helped clarify each person’s role and thus amplified performance and creativity.

Many of us think of ourselves as tolerant people who appreciate the value of difference, dissent, and deviance. Throw a rebel or two in the mix, however, and we become irritated as tension erupts and group cohesion frays. For our own good, we need to push through that irritation and embrace insubordination.


Creativity isn’t an innate gift. It’s a way of thinking. Regularly interacting with those who hold non-conformist views pulls us into a creative mindset. With rebels openly airing alternate and unpopular views, groups become better than the sum of their parts.

Reason 3: Insubordination Breeds Even More Insubordination

As we saw in chapter 2, the pressures for conformity are wicked strong. But principled insubordination holds some persuasive power of its own. Drop a rebel into a group, go away for a period of time, and you’re liable to find more rebels than you started with. We know this because of one of my favorite pieces of research, an experiment led by Dr. Charlan Nemeth. Wondering what made some people defy authority and group pressure, Dr. Nemeth and her colleagues instructed study participants to view twenty blue-tinted slides and state aloud the color. Tested alone, participants judged 100 percent of slides to be blue. Researchers then tested participants in groups of four, with each grouping seeded by an actor whose role was simple: dissent from the majority. When it was their turn, the actor stated quite confidently that the blue slides were green. Faced with the objective reality that blue slides were clearly blue, and the dissenter was obviously mistaken, participants ignored the dissenter and judged a full 100 percent of the slides to be blue.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The experimenter brought each person to a private room as part of a new four-person group. You couldn’t see the three new members, but there was a microphone for group communications. Participants received another set of slides to view, all of which were red. Now, when asked what color they saw, for each slide the three other group members spoke the same word into the microphone: “Orange.” The conditions were ripe for conformity. The researchers wanted to know, what would participants do? Participants who did not witness any dissent in the first part of the study showed a reluctance to challenge error-filled judgments by the majority. Only 29.6 percent of the time would they timidly eek out the word “Red?” However, participants witnessing an actor’s dissent in the first part of the study were transformed—bravely blurting the correct answer, “Red, obviously!,” 76.1 percent of the time. And get this: The transformation occurred even though in the first part of the study the majority was right and the dissenters gave wrong-headed answers. Even though participants didn’t publicly agree with the dissenters in the first part of the study. Think about that. Acts of insubordinates influenced people who initially ignored them. Somehow, exposure to an act of insubordination altered people’s way of seeing the world.


Acts of insubordination don’t usually win over members of the majority right away. Instead, they sow seeds of doubt, and these mature over time into new perspectives.

Dr. Robert Cialdini, one of the world’s foremost experts on persuasion, found that opponents of the status quo often initially fail to change other people’s attitudes and perceptions. Follow up weeks and months later, however, and you witness modifications in how others think and behave. Initially shocking, insubordination over time ultimately has a much more profound impact, changing how people regard themselves, others, and the world.


In presenting this research on the benefits of insubordination, I hope to inspire you in two ways. First, I want you to behave more rebelliously. To think differently. To speak up. To take action. I also want to inspire you to look upon deviants you encounter with a more open mind, especially when you disagree with them. As I like to say after a whiskey or two, insubordination is a portal to the adjacent possible. It allows us access to new possibilities that, because of biases, inexperience, or a lack of wisdom, we wouldn’t cultivate on our own. As we’ve seen, principled insubordination enables social changes both large and small. You don’t have to agree with every non-conformist out there. Just hear them out. Instead of sticking with your existing opinions when confronted with a novel perspective, do something radical and make openness your default.

The openness of non-rebels matters because, as scientists have documented, lone rebels don’t get very far on their own. Researchers wanted to see what it would take to get a group of people to change an established social norm. They set up an experiment in which they assigned 194 participants to groups of twenty to thirty people, showed groups the headshot of a stranger, and had groups decide on what name to give that stranger. Researchers fostered conversations within the groups about the name choice. Unbeknownst to participants, a certain number of them were rebels assigned the task of overturning whatever name the group was on the verge of agreeing on by offering alternate suggestions. The researchers discovered that if more than 25 percent of a group were rebels, the group eventually decided on the alternate name. If fewer than 20 percent of a group were rebels, this minority had no impact on the final selection. One or two brave rebels like Elizabeth Jennings might trigger a change in a particular policy, but it takes a solid block of about a quarter of a population espousing a minority position to transform a group’s beliefs or behavior.

I’ll show later how you can shine as part of that 25 percent by becoming more receptive to non-conformists around you and making the most of their wacky ideas. But first, let’s examine how you rebels out there can win over more people so you break clear of that 25 percent threshold and effect change. A good part of it comes down to how you talk. You can have the best, most earth-shattering ideas out there, but if you don’t know what you’re doing as a communicator, you won’t get far. Scientists have produced intriguing insights into how underdogs can best present their ideas to win over doubters. If you have an unpopular idea you think might serve the cause of progress, please do me a favor. Hit pause on that YouTube video, stop checking your Instagram, and pay close attention. The world needs you.


  1. Bring dissenters into your teams. Exposed to a dissenter’s viewpoint, you open yourself to testing reality and raising questions about your own viewpoints. With a single rebel airing alternate and unpopular views, a group reduces its confirmation bias and motivated reasoning and increases its creative output.
  2. Be patient. Principled insubordinates often initially fail to change other people’s attitudes. But over time insubordination ultimately has a much more profound impact, changing how people regard themselves, others, and the world.
  3. Make openness your default. You don’t have to agree with every non-conformist out there. Just hear them out instead of sticking with your existing opinions.


CHAPTER 4: Talk Persuasively

How to win over an audience of skeptical conformists

What I’d like you to pay close attention to is a little something called Fugazi. Fuga—what? No, it’s not a $150,000 Italian sports car brand, nor is it a curse word levied by a fist-shaking Italian grandma. It is, according to Urban Dictionary, a slang word originating among military veterans for a “fucked up” situation, so I guess an Italian grandma could use it. But the Fugazi you need to know about is a four-man punk rock band, probably the most influential musical artist of the past thirty years.

That’s a bold claim. What about Nirvana? Or Jay-Z? Yeah, influential acts, but consider this: Fugazi directly influenced Nirvana as well as Jay-Z, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lorde, Blink-182, Kesha, the Foo Fighters, Billie Eilish (thanks to the musical tastes of her older brother). All of them are huge Fugazi fans. When you consider that numerous musicians influenced by Fugazi are big influencers themselves, you realize today’s musical landscape would have looked radically different were it not for this uniquely named band.

According to one music journalist, Fugazi, drawing on an array of reggae, funk, and jazz artists, established itself “as a channel through which to vent the confusion, rage, and anxiety bred by hostility to the absurd security of conformist culture.” Unlike giants such as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, U2, or Garth Brooks, who became money-making machines, Fugazi stood for artistic integrity, bold political activism, anti-consumerism, anti-corporatism, and a do-it-yourself (DIY) mentality. Its enemies were self-importance, showmanship, and “selling out.” More than any rock or pop band of the late 1980s and 1990s, Fugazi stripped away the puffery and elevated its audience to active participants rather than fawning worshippers.

These guys were hard-core artists with a soul. No matter how popular they became, Fugazi only charged fans five dollars to attend concerts, and ten dollars for a record, tape, or CD. To keep costs low, the band said f%$@ it to roadies, booking agents, distributors, accountants, and other money-grubbing professionals whose services musicians feel compelled to buy. Members of Fugazi recorded their own albums. They slept in fans’ living rooms. They just didn’t care about becoming rock stars. Remembering how much it sucked being a teenager barred from attending shows, they refused to play shows that weren’t open to all ages. They embraced a general ethic of inclusion, welcoming everyone as fans including women (whom they didn’t objectify sexually) and people of color (whom they didn’t treat as “others”). A great deal of popular music today stands up to injustices of one sort or another, whether misogyny, homophobia, violence, economic inequality, materialism, unethical government intrusion—you name it. That very gesture is a Fugazi thing.

Fugazi declined to play in bars because band members didn’t want the musical experience muddied by intoxication. They spurned mainstream magazines that published alcohol and tobacco company advertisements targeting impressionable teenage readers. To maintain creative control, they declined million-dollar offers from major labels. They skipped music videos because the oversexualized content splattered on the likes of MTV repulsed them. To minimize transactional relationships with fans, they didn’t sell T-shirts, stickers, or buttons at shows. Fugazi’s priorities were clear: music first, fans second. The band always—always—supported the little guy over big business.

People assume that artistic integrity and commercial success are mutually exclusive. Fugazi smashed that assumption. The band sold more than three million records during its seventeen-year existence. As of this writing, over 1.5 million monthly listeners stream its music, even though the band has been on “hiatus” since 2003. On a deeper level, Fugazi succeeded where so many musical artists failed: its members shifted cultural norms, creating a movement of grassroots, DIY, socially conscious musical artistry. The band expanded the circle of moral concern in music, which is why famous musicians like Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder invoked the names of Fugazi band members in interviews, hoping the integrity would rub off.

What was the secret to Fugazi’s success as principled insubordinates? One answer is sheer determination. Between 1987 and 2003, Fugazi played more than a thousand live shows, amounting to one live show roughly one out of every five days for seventeen years straight! That is serious visibility. But there is a second, more important answer. Fugazi became influential because its members mastered what we might call the “underdog’s guide to influence.” Like Charles Darwin, they had an uncanny knack for getting their points across in ways that won over members of the majority, including music industry power brokers and fans who never before identified with the punk rock community.

Scientists have established that people with minority status (a designation that by definition applies to rebels) instigate change more readily if they’re consistent in what they say, without being overly rigid. Fugazi checked that one off. The band lived by an ethos called “straight edge” that translated into a ban on drugs, drinking, smoking, meat eating, and nonconsensual sex. While band members espoused these values for themselves, they never pushed them on fans. On stage, in interviews, and during face-to-face conversations, members of Fugazi clarified that theirs was simply one approach to living, not the only way. They refused to cast judgment on others who chose differently, nor did they expect fans to copy or obey them. Because fans didn’t view Fugazi as preachers, they were more inclined to listen to Fugazi’s opinions and adopt “straight edge” lifestyle habits for themselves.

Scientists have arrived at a number of fascinating insights that inform how those with minority opinions most effectively persuade others. These insights come baked into several psychological theories, including Conversion Theory, Conflict Elaboration Theory, the Context/Comparison Model, the Source-Context-Elaboration Model, and the Elaboration Likelihood Model. Cutting through this sea of academic jargon, I’ve arrived at certain governing principles rebels can use to maximize their persuasive potential. Disregard these principles, and you all but ensure your failure. Pursue them, like Fugazi and other principled insubordinates have, and you’re in a much better position to gain a hearing.

Asked “Who is you favorite band?,” my answer remains the same since the age of thirteen: Fugazi. Quizzical looks follow, and then I rattle off details about them before playing their greatest album, Repeater. I listen to them when working out, on long car rides, or for a jolt of vitality. My three daughters know Fugazi. Past Father’s Day gifts include a flask with the band name inscribed, hand-drawn bookmarks of album covers, and a ceramic mug with lyrics. When I first moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., I met lead singer Ian MacKaye at a local church concert where 100% of the proceeds went to clean needles and contraception for streetwalkers. After finishing this chapter, make sure to appreciate Fugazi’s cathartic fusion of musical sounds, not just their cultural contributions. Give these beloved songs a chance (one from each album): “Waiting Room,” “Repeater,” “Reclamation,” “23 Beats Off,” “Bed for the Scraping,” and “Break.”


There are five essential principles rebels can use to maximize the persuasive potential of their message.


Rebels take note: audiences will more likely listen if they view you as a member of their in-group rather than as an outsider. We know this in part thanks to studies such as one conducted at the University of Arizona in the mid-1990s. Legalized gay marriage seemed unfathomable then. Government officials adopted the infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that allowed gays to serve in the military so long as they hid their sexual identities. In this social milieu, researchers asked students supportive of gay rights to read an article called “The Case Against Gays in the Military.” Some students learned that the Student Association of the University of Arizona authored the article—in other words, it reflected a mainstream opinion within the student community. A second group learned that a small, radical, conservative organization from the University of Arizona wrote it—in other words, a minority within their University of Arizona tribe. A third group learned that a radical group of outsiders from another college penned the article.

Students objecting to the anti-gay article (perceiving it as contrary to their core beliefs) had more than twice as many positive thoughts about the arguments if they thought a mainstream member of their University of Arizona tribe wrote it. However, students spent more time systematically processing the article’s message and retained more information if they thought minorities from their tribe wrote it. Minorities have special persuasive powers, if and only if they articulate how a common identity exists between themselves and their audience.

The mechanisms underlying this phenomenon are pretty interesting. When someone in an in-group thinks differently from the rest, that dissenter elicits a spark of curiosity in the majority. Two questions pop into audience members’ heads: “Why does this person think differently from the rest of us?” and “What information does this person have that I don’t?” In the short term, deviance might unsettle the group, causing tension or conflict. But it fuels innovation by bringing attention to new ideas, unresolved problems, or a broader list of options. Group members listen carefully to acquire knowledge and wisdom. They reassess their existing beliefs, behaviors, and policies to determine which have become outdated and unworkable. Because the deviant, as an insider, possesses credibility that an outsider doesn’t, they can better catalyze change.