We encounter persuasive messages every day of our lives. And sometimes, those persuasive messages don’t hold up to the ethical standards we might hope they would. Sometimes we encounter persuasion gone wrong.
We’ve been talking about some common strategies people use to, well, pull the wool over our eyes during arguments. If you missed the first part of our 2-part series on persuasion gone wrong, check it out here. Today, we’ll look at 4 more persuasive fallacies in hopes that we can recognize and avoid them.
This one can sneak right past us if we aren’t careful. A false dilemma argument makes you think there are only two choices when really there are more. Once you learn about false dilemmas, you’ll see them everywhere. Some of my favorite either-or traps come from computer protection programs that give you two buttons to click. One label usually says something like: purchase now, protect your computer, or buy now. The other (and this one really cracks me up) says: accept risk.
This type of argument turns up the heat and tries to make you feel trapped between only two choices. The best thing you can do if you feel like a false dilemma has been presented is to slow down and think rationally about all of your options. And in your own persuasion, make sure you aren’t just giving your audience two choices when there are actually more.
This one has a funny name, but you’ll understand why it’s called this. People who use straw man arguments seek to distort or misrepresent the position of their opponents so that they can easily knock them down. And the want to win is hard-wired into our nature. Author and Professor Dr. Loretta Graziano Breuning says, “our brain rewards social dominance with the good feeling of serotonin.” So it’s no wonder people sometimes misrepresent the opposing argument. They simply want to win.
Sometimes someone builds an argument on a shaky generalization and tries to pass it off as solid. A faulty major premise means the foundation of the argument can’t hold the weight of the conclusion of the argument. This type of deductive reasoning dates back to Aristotle who used the enthymeme (a collapsed version of what we call a syllogism) to help develop logical arguments aimed at truth. Here’s an example of a syllogism:
Major Premise: Pit bulls are aggressive dogs.
Minor Premise: Aggressive dogs shouldn’t be allowed at the dog park.
Conclusion: Pit bulls shouldn’t be allowed at the dog park.
In enthymeme form, it might sound something like this: Pit bulls are aggressive so they shouldn’t be allowed at the dog park. You’ve probably heard an argument structured in this format before. But wait! Are all pit bulls aggressive dogs? Not at all. Sometimes persuasion goes wrong when it assumes or asks us to assume a foundation that hasn’t been proven, properly researched, or fully presented.
In 1915, psychologist Edward Thorndike studied leaders’ “physical qualities, intelligence, leadership, and personal qualities (i.e. character).” He discovered incredibly strong correlations between people’s perceptions regarding these categories. This tendency to relate physical attractiveness to other positive qualities, led him to coin the term “halo effect.”
While this defective persuasion isn’t always an intentional strategy used by the communicator, it can still mislead us. Halo effect happens when our positive opinion of someone prevents us from being unbiased about his or her message. It can be tempting to think that just because person is attractive or likeable, what he or she says must be true. But as we know all too well, that’s not always the case.
Hopefully now you understand some ways that persuasion can go wrong. Being able to identify false dilemmas, arguments made of straw, bad foundations, and biased perceptions will help all of us to be more careful consumers and communicators.
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