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.
The either-or fallacy is also known as the false dilemma fallacy, false dichotomy, or false binary.
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).
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.
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 fallacies often crop up in our daily discussions as a result of black-and-white thinking.
Other interesting articles
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?
- 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 Sources