The either-or fallacy occurs when someone is presented with only two options and must choose one. The two options appear to be mutually exclusive. However, additional logical analysis can reveal a third, or more options.
It is sometimes referred to as a false dichotomy or a false dilemma.
The fallacy is based on a false premise which asserts that only one of the presented options is possible. This presents an oversimplification of most situations and suggests that no other alternatives exist.
Common forms of either-or fallacy include the false dilemma, false dichotomy, black-and-white thinking, all-or-nothing thinking, polarized thinking, and binary thinking.
Either-Or Fallacy Examples
- You’re either a cat person or a dog person. Nobody loves them both equally!
- If you’re not a vegetarian, you must not care about animal welfare. There’s no principled in-between position.
- You must choose between capitalism or socialism; the middle-path won’t work!
- If you’re not with me, you’re against me. I have friends and enemies but not acquaintances.
- You either love your country, or you’re unpatriotic. You can’t be apathetic about your nation!
- You either go to university or you’ll end up poor. There’s no other way you’ll get ahead in life!
- If you don’t study a STEM field, you’ll never find a good job.
- People are either introverted or extroverted. The idea of introverted extroverts is silly pop psychology.
- You’re either a Republican or you’re evil. You can’t be a good Democrat!
- If you don’t support this policy, you must be a horrible person.
- You can either have a high-paying boring job or a low-paying fun job. There’s no such thing as a fun high-paying job.
- You’re either a feminist or a sexist. You have to take a side!
- People are either good or evil. If you think you’re in between, you’re probably actually evil.
- You either believe in climate change or you’re a climate change denier. You can’t be on the fence!
- If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
- You are either a Democrat or Republican; people who claim to be independents aren’t really.
- You’re either pro-choice or anti-woman. There’s no other moral stance.
- You can either be an artist or make a living, but not both. Artists don’t really make a living.
- People are either religious or atheist; agnosticism is intellectually ridiculous.
- You either discipline your children strictly, or they’ll grow up to be unruly. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile!
- You either stand for free speech or you’re against freedom. I’m a free speech absolutist!
Types of Either-Or Fallacy
1. False Dilemma Fallacy
A false dilemma refers to a situation where you might think there are only two possible outcomes, when in reality there are other options worth considering.
Sometimes, people are given a false dilemma in order to manipulate them or back them into a corner. For example, politicians often frame a debate as a false dilemma when there are other options, such as minor parties, who you could feasibly vote for.
By limiting the options to only two, a false dilemma can lead to negative or under-optimized outcomes.
But engaging in divergent thinking – where you brainstorm multiple different possibilities – you can overcome the false dilemma fallacy.
2. False Dichotomy
The false dichotomy is similar to false dilemma, but specifically refers to the division of a subject into two mutually exclusive categories, ignoring the fact that there may be a continuum or overlap.
I tend to think of a false dichotomy as a Venn diagram where the two circles are pulled apart, whereas they should be overlapping. Often, the dichotomy is false because there actually is overlap, and there is likely a combination of the presented options that could be considered.
3. Black-and-White Thinking
Black-and-white thinking is a cognitive distortion where a person views ideas in absolutes—either good or bad, right or wrong, success or failure, etc.
This is an approach that fails to see complexity by oversimplifying reality.
An extension of the black-and-white thinking concept is the concept “there are shades of grey”, meaning there is a spectrum between black and white.
Black-and-white thinking is different from either-or because it’s not necessarily about making a choice; rather, it’s about a way of seeing the world that is too reductivist.
4. All-or-Nothing Thinking
All-or-nothing thinking involves seeing situations in extreme, all-encompassing, and hyperbolic terms.
All-or-nothing is similar black-and-white thinking, but typically focuses on success or failure specifically.
It is a common cognitive distortion that perfectionists fall victim to. They feel like something has to be perfect or it’s hopeless. Usually, something that’s a “work in progress” to a perfectionist is perfectly good for others.
This way of thinking can, however, be very useful in some situations. For example, if you start a business, you’ll want to be all-in to maximize the chances of success. You don’t want to have one foot out the door!
5. Polarized Thinking
Polarized thinking is a thought pattern in which situations or people are judged as being at opposite ends of a spectrum, with no room for middle ground.
This form of thinking has become very common in recent years due to social media, whose algorithms have pushed people into political bubbles that demonize the opponents. This has led to the term “political polarization.”
Polarized thinking tends to create an “us vs. them” mentality. This is often an oversimplification of complex issues and leads to failure to understand and empathize with people of differing opinions.
6. Binary Thinking
Binary thinking (or dualistic thinking) is another way to talk about the either-or fallacy. The word ‘binary’ refers to 0 and 1 – two options, with nothing in between.
This mentality involves categorizing things into two categories, either the zero category or the one category. It dismisses any possibility that falls between or outside those categories.
Binary thinking is related to other forms of either-or fallacies, as it simplifies reality into black-and-white, all-or-nothing, or polarized choices, without considering the complexities and nuances that exist in most situations.
The either-or fallacy presents a choice between two dichotomies. The individual is faced with the decision to say yes to one and reject the other. Compromise is not an option.
Of course, life is not black and white. Nearly everything exists on a continuum. The problem with the either-or fallacy is that it only offers a choice of two polar extremes.
Despite this fundamental flaw, the fallacy exists in numerous domains of life. Educators debate about which instructional approaches are best, when really they should be coordinating balance.
Even life and death turns out to be a false dichotomy. And sooner or later, that continuum will go on to infinity, or at least as long as the computer is plugged in.
From politics to lifestyle choices, from how we form impressions of others to death itself, false dichotomies are everywhere.
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Image source: Dalrymple, Louis, 1866-1905, artist – Library of Congress Catalog: https://lccn.loc.gov/2010651418 Image download: https://cdn.loc.gov
Title: Young America’s dilemma / Dalrymple. Abstract/medium: 1 print: chromolithograph.