A false dichotomy is a logical fallacy that presents only two options or sides when in reality there are more possibilities.
Although the two extremes appear to be mutually exclusive, a more careful analysis reveals that there are also a range of other options that could be considered.
The term false dichotomy can apply to people’s views on various issues. For example, a person may be so emotionally involved in a matter that they fail to consider anything other than one extreme or the other.
False Dichotomy Overview
A false dichotomy refers to a situation which is falsely presented as only containing two opposite extremes.
This is sometimes referred to as black-and-white thinking.
Both false dichotomy and black-and-white thinking often occur with controversial sociopolitical issues.
A similar term, the either-or-fallacy, is sometimes used in reference to a situation in which a person must choose between one of two opposing options or two mutually exclusive viewpoints.
Most situations and controversial issues usually contain shades of grey that represent varying degrees of two extremes.
Because life is complicate and usually involves multiple factors, both sides of an issue are more complicated than they may initially appear.
When it comes to controversial topics, getting both sides to compromise somewhere in the middle is when the trouble begins.
False Dichotomy Examples
- In Political Ideology: When a person makes a statement contrary to one political ideology, they might be labeled as supporting the opposite political perspective: “Jim often criticizes capitalism; therefore, he must be a communist.”
- Introverts or Extroverts: Either a person is quiet and withdrawn or outgoing and talkative. This ignores the fact that there are plenty of people whose temperaments are mixed, and depend on the context.
- Accepting Immigrants: Some people find it difficult to accept foreigners. If a foreigner complains about something in their adopted homeland, one of the locals might say, “Like it or leave it.”
- In Personal Relationships: Unfortunately, there may be times when a disagreement with a mutual friend can create a false dichotomy: “You’re either my friend or hers.”
- In Supporting the Iraq War: At the beginning of the Iraq War, President George W. Bush presented an either-or proposition to world leaders by stating: “You are either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” It was a statement that forced nations to make a moral choice between an unjustified war or supporting an ally.
- Parents’ Expectations: A lot of parents think that the only route to success is through a university degree: “Are you going to college or be a failure?”
- A Celebrity’s Image: When a celebrity gets caught-up in a scandal, it can completely destroy their career. Their public persona is like an either-or-fallacy. Either they are sincere and trustworthy, or they have major character flaws and should never be trusted again.
- In Veganism: Either you’re a vegan or you like killing animals. For some, there is no middle ground.
- In Geo-Politics: Sometimes the world can seem divided into two political camps: capitalism and democracy, or communism and autocracy/dictatorship. Either you subscribe to one or the other, but you can’t have both.
- In Exercising: A lot of people on social media that have devoted their life to exercising espouse a common mantra: either max-out or go home. No middle road in this mindset. Not pushing yourself to the point of pain is the same as sitting on the couch with a bag of salty snacks.
Applications of False Dichotomy
1. In Educational Philosophy
A false dichotomy mindset has plagued educational philosophers for nearly a hundred years.
John Dewey, one of the greatest scholars in Western education, wrote extensively on educational practices and the nature of learning that still apply today.
For instance, in Experience & Education (1938), he noted the tendency for human beings to think in terms of false dichotomies, “Either-Or, between which it recognizes no intermediate possibilities” (p. 17).
Modern scholars also find themselves caught in this flawed thinking. Some supporting the rigors of traditional educational practices and others supporting a more natural pedagogy that considers student profiles and individual interests.
Dewey is often mistakenly placed into the progressive camp. However, as Tan (2016) states, this represents a misunderstanding of his stance:
“Rather than subscribing to this ‘either natural or logical’ position, Dewey maintains the need to see the validity of both” (p. 4).
We can see this debate play out across many academic disciplines. For instance, Sierpinska (2005) points out the false dichotomy of emphasizing either practical or theoretical thinking in mathematics.
Dietrich and Evans (2022) state the mischaracterization of the traditional lecture format as being prohibitive of active-learning.
In a similar vein, Riley and Ritz (2023) describe how humanities and STEM are complimentary, not antagonistic.
Similar false dichotomies regarding educational practices have expanded to include a debate as to whether university faculty should focus on developing students’ academic skills, or foster their sense of social responsibility and commitment to public action (Wilhite & Silver, 2005).
A more balanced perspective on all of these issues would allow educators to see that educational practices exist on a continuum, with students benefitting by experiencing a full range of instructional approaches.
2. In the Nature Vs Nurture Debate
One of humanity’s longest running false-dichotomies is the debate over nature vs nurture. Are people the product of their genes or does the environment shape them as we grow?
It is clear that genes affect many physical features such as height, but at the same time, improved nutrition can have a substantial impact on this genetic manifestation.
In regards to psychological constructs, research has demonstrated the effects of the environment as well. For example, children raised in environments with certain parental practices and educational opportunities are more likely to become financially successful adults (Krueger et al., 2008).
However, the nature vs. nurture dichotomy still leads researchers down the wrong path of inquiry. As Angoff (1988) pointed out:
“Many inherited characteristics are changeable, and conversely, many environmentally acquired characteristics are extremely resistant to change” (p. 713).
Instead, contemporary research has moved away from choosing one side of the debate or the other. Today, researchers try to quantify the varying degrees of impact that nature or nurture have, depending on the specific phenomenon studied, and how genes and the environment interact.
This approach attempts to take into account the bidirectional influences of biological and environmental factors (Collins et al., 2000).
For instance, the temperamental characteristics of infants and young children may increase the likelihood of particular parenting practices, which can either put the child at risk or protect them from developing specific behavioral and psychological profiles (Hetherington, 1989, 1991).
Studying behavioral-genetic reciprocating influences avoids the misdirection of the nature vs nurture false dichotomy.
3. In Impression Formation
People have a tendency to categorize others into discrete groups; strong-willed or weak; shy or outgoing; trustworthy or dishonest. This is a natural tendency due to most people being lazy thinkers.
There is simply not enough time or energy to reserve judgment on a person until we have known them for a significant period of time and observed their behavior directly in a wide range of situations.
If the first time we are introduced to another individual they act cold and aloof, then they are put into the “cold and aloof” category. This kind of impression formation happens almost instantaneously.
In social psychology, this is referred to as the fundamental attribution error (Heider, 1958).
Even though further analysis would most likely reveal a range of situational factors that could have affected their actions, the fundamental attribution error allows us to save valuable time and cognitive resources.
The term false dichotomy is often used when discussing controversial issues and the opinions that people hold.
For example, when an issue that exists on a continuum is only viewed from its two polar extremes, that is referred to as a false dichotomy. The term “false” implies there are actually many angles to the issue.
When we form an initial impression of people, we have a tendency to put them into one of two opposite categories. This is in part because people can be lazy thinkers and it is just easier to see people as either this or that.
We can see other manifestations in the thinking of scholars as well. When debating the educational merits of rote memory or experiential learning, it is easy to fall into one camp or the other.
However, a more balanced perspective allows for both practices to exist in the classroom because both benefit student development.
Perhaps one of the longest debated false dichotomies in philosophy and psychology revolves around the nature vs nurture debate. Fortunately, modern research tries to identify the relative impact of both biological and environmental factors and their reciprocating influences.
Angoff, W. H. (1988). The nature-nurture debate, aptitudes, and group differences. American Psychologist, 43(9), 713.
Collins, W. A., Maccoby, E. E., Steinberg, L., Hetherington, E. M., & Bornstein, M. H. (2000). Contemporary research on parenting: The case for nature and nurture. American Psychologist, 55(2), 218.
Dietrich, H., & Evans, T. (2022). Traditional lectures versus active learning–A false dichotomy? STEM Education, 2(4), 275-292.
Dowden, B. (n.d.) Fallacies. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved March 5th 2023 from https://iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#FalseDilemma
Hansen, H. (2020). “Fallacies”. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.
Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York Wiley.
Hetherington, E. M. (1989). Coping with family transitions: Winners, losers, and survivors. Child Development, 1-14.
Hetherington, E. M. (1991). The role of individual differences in family relations in coping with divorce and remarriage. In P. Cowan & E. U Hetherington (Eds.), Advances in Family Research, 2, 165-1. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Engel, S. M. (1982). With good reason: An introduction to informal fallacies. St. Martin’s Press.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience & education. New York: Touchstone.
Dewey, J. (1997). How we think. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications.
Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. New York Wiley.
Krueger, R. F., South, S., Johnson, W., & Iacono, W. (2008). The heritability of personality is not always 50%: Gene‐environment interactions and correlations between personality and parenting. Journal of Personality, 76(6), 1485-1522.
Riley, D., & Ritz, C. (2023). False Dichotomy: How STEM and the Humanities Support Each Other. In Teaching and Learning Through the Holocaust: Thinking About the Unthinkable (pp. 183-204). Cham: Springer International Publishing.
Sierpinska, A. (2005). On practical and theoretical thinking and other false dichotomies in mathematics education. Activity and Sign: Grounding Mathematics Education, 117-135.
Tan, C. (2016). Beyond ‘‘either-or’’ thinking: John Dewey and Confucius on the
subject matter and the learner. Pedagogy, Culture and Society, 24(1), 55-74.
Tomić, T. (2013). False dilemma: A systematic exposition. Argumentation, 27(4), 347-368.
Wilhite, S. C., & Silver, P. T. (2005). A false dichotomy for higher education: Educating citizens vs. educating technicians. National Civic Review, 94(2), 46-54.