What Is the Either-Or Fallacy? | Examples & Definition

An either-or fallacy occurs when someone claims there are only two possible options or sides in an argument when there are actually more. This is a manipulative method that forces others to accept the speaker’s viewpoint as legitimate, feasible, or ethical. This type of black-and-white thinking often appears in political speeches, advertising, and everyday conversations.

Either-or fallacy example
“You can either go with me to the party tonight or sit at home alone and be bored all night.”

The either-or fallacy is also known as the false dilemma fallacy, false dichotomy, or false binary.

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What is the either-or fallacy?

The either-or fallacy occurs when someone incorrectly presents a limited number of options as though there were no alternatives. In such cases, they have (intentionally or unintentionally) overlooked other possibilities. This distortion usually works by presenting only two extreme choices (when there are actually more) or by suggesting that these choices are mutually exclusive (when they are not).

What Is the Either-Or Fallacy?

In the example above, the decision to skip the party will not necessarily result in boredom. There are plenty of possible scenarios besides these two extremes (e.g., deciding to go to the movie theater instead of the party).

The either-or fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy. Although the argument’s structure may appear logically sound, the problem lies in its content, specifically the assumption that only one of the options is true or must be selected. It is important to remember that some “either-or” statements are valid, as some situations have only two possibilities (e.g., lights can be either on or off).

The either-or fallacy often occurs along with the straw man fallacy, which involves misrepresenting an opposing view. When we simplify someone else’s view and present it as an easily attacked alternative, we typically substitute their initial view with a weakened version of it.

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Why does the either-or fallacy occur?

The either-or fallacy can occur for a number of different reasons, including:

  • Simplicity. Considering only two alternatives is simpler and more convenient than exploring a wide range of possibilities. Binary options take less mental effort and time to process.
  • Language. Disjunctions (statements connected by the word “or”) are often used to frame concepts as polar opposites (e.g., good vs bad, moral vs immoral). This can shape our thoughts and lead us to perceive complex issues in terms of extremes.
  • Persuasion. Portraying a scenario with only two extreme choices can be a persuasive strategy to sway others towards a specific viewpoint. Framing a position as the sole viable option makes it simpler to justify and defend.
  • Cognitive bias. There is an inherent tendency to perceive the world in terms of opposites or limited options. Cognitive biases like black-and-white thinking and all-or nothing thinking can unconsciously contribute to the either-or fallacy.
  • Lack of consideration. In some cases, people may commit an honest mistake by not thoroughly considering all available options. This leads them to ignore the middle ground and perceive a situation as an either-or scenario.

Why is the either-or fallacy a problem?

The either-or fallacy is a problem because it limits people’s understanding of the issue at hand. When we present people with only two options, we mislead them and force them to think in extremes, leaving no room for nuance or compromise.

At an individual level, either-or fallacies can cause us to overlook alternatives and miss out on potentially better options. When we fall for false dichotomies, our perception of the problem or issue becomes distorted. This, in turn, can lead to a shallow understanding and incomplete problem analysis. The inability to see beyond binary options can also make us closed-minded and prevent us from engaging in compromise.

At a wider societal level, resorting to either-or fallacies in public discourse can lead to polarization and division. Presenting a false dichotomy can be a persuasive tactic to manipulate people into accepting a particular viewpoint.

Either-or fallacy examples

Either-or fallacies are often used intentionally as a rhetorical device to present issues in a way that pressures people to accept a certain viewpoint.

Either-or fallacy example in politics
Suppose you come across the following advertisement during a political campaign:

“In this election, you have a clear choice to make: vote for Candidate A, who represents progress, economic prosperity, and a bright future for all, or choose Candidate B, who stands for backward policies, stagnation, and uncertainty. The decision is simple: either support Candidate A for a prosperous future, or risk the consequences with Candidate B.”

Propositions like these frequently appear during political campaigns. Candidates across the political spectrum intentionally use either-or statements to oversimplify and reduce positions into two extreme options. By presenting the choices as a binary opposition, advertisements like these manipulate audiences into feeling pressured to choose sides. In reality, both candidates have far more elaborate plans and proposals, but the goal here is to create the illusion that there is only one viable choice.

Either-or fallacies often crop up in our daily discussions as a result of black-and-white thinking.

Either-or fallacy in real life
In the following example, two friends are discussing what to do after they graduate from college:

Person A: I don’t know what to do after graduation. I can either become a doctor or an artist. Drawing is my passion, but being a doctor means a stable income.

Person B: You should definitely be a doctor. Artists struggle to make ends meet. It’s either a stable career in medicine or a life-long struggle as an artist.

Here, person B tries to be helpful, but they act as though there are only two options available: becoming a doctor with a steady income or becoming a starving artist. By not exploring any of the intermediate options, person B commits an either-or fallacy. For example, person A could try to combine their passion for art with medical knowledge and become a medical illustrator.

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Other interesting articles

If you want to know more about fallacies, research bias, or AI tools, make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

Frequently asked questions

How to avoid the either-or fallacy?

Although there are situations when a binary option may be legitimate, we should be cautious with either-or statements in order to avoid an either-or fallacy. More specifically we need to ask ourselves:

  • Are there more alternatives that the other person has not presented? Perhaps more than two options exist.
  • Is the situation oversimplified when in reality it is far more complex?
  • Are the options mutually exclusive? Or is there room for overlap or combination?
  • Is the other person trying to persuade us?

By critically examining the either-or statement and seeking additional information, we can avoid an either-of fallacy.

What is another name for either-or fallacy?

Either-or fallacy is also known as false binary, false dichotomy, and false dilemma. All of these terms are used to describe faulty arguments in which a limited number of options are presented as the only ones, even though more alternatives exist.

Why is the either-or fallacy an informal logical fallacy?

The either-or fallacy is an informal fallacy because it relies on presenting a limited number of options as though they are the only choices available, despite the fact that other alternatives exist.

It is a flaw in reasoning that affects the completeness of an argument, rather than a violation of formal logic rules. As such, it falls under the category of informal logical fallacies, like equivocation fallacy and slippery slope fallacy.

Sources for this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, August 25). What Is the Either-Or Fallacy? | Examples & Definition. Scribbr. Retrieved 23 February 2024, from https://www.scribbr.co.uk/fallacy/either-or-fallacy-definition/

Sources

Schreuder, R., De Jong, N. H., Krott, A., & Baayen, R. H. (1999). Rules and rote: Beyond the linguistic either-or fallacy. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22(6), 1038–1039. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0140525x9947222x

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specialises in writing about research methods and research bias.

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