A false dilemma presents a choice between two mutually exclusive options, implying that there are no other options. One option is clearly worse than the other, making the choice seem obvious. Also known as the either/or fallacy, false dilemmas are a type of informal logical fallacy in which a faulty argument is used to persuade an audience to agree. False dilemmas are everywhere. They can be deliberate or accidental, but their goal is to make their argument convincing.
Politics use many logical fallacies to persuade the public. These fallacies often veer into political propaganda, which uses emotional appeals as arguments. Here are some examples of false dilemmas that limit a citizen’s choices.
- Vote for me or live through four more years of higher taxes.
- America: Love it or leave it.
- Donate to my campaign if you care about the future.
- If you want our country to be safe, we must increase military spending.
- Either we let every immigrant into our country, or we close the borders for everyone.
Most advertisements use multiple logical fallacies for one reason: they work. If people are afraid of being unpopular or unattractive, they are more likely to fall for fallacious arguments. Read these examples of ways that companies use false dilemmas to sell something. Many of these messages are implied, if not stated outright.
- If you don’t use our beauty products, you’ll never look youthful.
- You can look cool in our clothes, or you can look like a loser.
- Do you want to drink our beer or our competitor’s unhealthy, watered-down beer?
- Subscribe to our streaming service or be stuck with cable.
- You can either eat at this restaurant or have a sad TV dinner alone.
The “would you rather” argument is a common form of false dilemma. It presents two options, one of which is unsavory, and prompts the listener to make a decision. Here are some examples of “would you rather” statements.
- Would you rather pursue your passion or be stuck in a 9-to-5 job?
- Would you rather keep your job or be honest with your boss?
- Would you rather invest in your future or enjoy your money now?
These questions are emotionally loaded, making them inherently flawed. However, “would you rather” games can be fun when players must choose between two equally pleasant or unpleasant experiences. For example, “Would you rather sleep on a porcupine pillow or wear shoes made of slime?”
Sometimes it’s necessary to narrow choices down to two – if the choice is genuine. Presenting listeners with a limited number of choices can be an effective way to move a decision along. Some helpful uses of false dilemmas include:
- Negotiating with children: We can go home or you can behave in the grocery store.
- Customer service: For the side, you can choose either soup or salad.
- Situations with an overwhelming number of options: Let’s watch either Avatar or Star Wars tonight.
While these examples are technically false dilemmas, because they ignore many other options, they are ultimately beneficial for both speaker and listener. Often, having too many options leads to analysis paralysis, which can hamper decision-making just as much as a logical fallacy.
When presented with a false dilemma, consider whether those two options are really your only choices. Determine whether refusing one option will inevitably lead to the second option. If you are presenting yourself with a false dilemma, such as “I must lose 10 pounds or no one will like me,” practice positive self-talk to think through alternative options.
Next, as in any argument, consider the speaker’s purpose and point of view. Are they trying to convince you to do something by offering a false choice? Is making this decision in your best interest, or in theirs? If it is indeed a false choice, call them out on it by naming a third option.
What’s the difference between a false dilemma, a false dichotomy, and a false analogy?
A false dichotomy indicates that two options are opposites. It is a type of false dilemma, which uses these limited options to persuade a listener to make a faulty choice. The terms “false dilemma” and “false dichotomy” are often used interchangeably.
Example: You can either get married or be alone for the rest of your life.
False dichotomies are related to false dilemmas because they both prompt listeners to choose between two unrelated options.
Another related type of logical fallacy is a false analogy. False analogies inaccurately compare two items as completely related when they might be only slightly similar. They are a form of inductive reasoning that discounts nuance in their conclusions.
Example: Children who don’t get enough sleep don’t do well in school. Therefore, extra sleep improves school performance.
False analogies are different from false dilemmas, because they are using faulty comparisons to lead an audience to a conclusion.