In a 2011 TV commercial1, the moving company United Van Lines asked:
“Is United right for your move? Ask yourself, do you want:
- (A) A seamless professional move? or (B) Your possessions set on fire?
- (A) Technology experts to set up your home network? or (B) Raccoons to run amok with your electronics?
- (A) Portable containers to move yourself? or (B) Complete chaos?
If you answered A, call United.”
Now, if you’re like me, you’re not thrilled about the prospect of chaos. You don’t want raccoons to fiddle with your electronics. And you certainly don’t want to see all your stuff go up in flames.
But does that mean you have to call United the next time you move? The answer, of course, is no. And the reason for that is that their commercial (although admittedly funny) sets up a false dilemma.
This is a fallacy that occurs when only two options are presented even though, in reality, more choices exist. False dilemmas are usually presented as “either this or that” statements, but they can also come in the form of left-out options.
Sometimes they arise unintentionally, but they can also be used as a rhetorical strategy. When used deliberately, the persuader presents an unacceptable option as the only alternative to the one they want you to choose. Here are some examples:
- “Either we increase taxes, or we learn to live with crumbling roads.” (There are many other ways to fund infrastructure.)
- “You are either with us or against us.” (You can be on neither side.)
- “America: Love it or leave it.” (You can enjoy some parts, be critical of others, and still be a citizen.)
- “I thought you were a good person, but you weren’t at church today.” (Many good people don’t attend church.)
- “Either you buy me this book, or you don’t think it’s important that I learn to read.” (You can refuse to buy the book and still value your daughter’s education.)
Other varieties include false trilemmas, which is when three options are presented, false quadrilemmas, which is when four options are presented, and so on. Any time certain options are considered the only possibilities when more exist, it’s a logical fallacy.
And whether or not it’s brought on intentionally, this reasoning flaw can trick you into making choices you wouldn’t have made if you had considered all the options available.
So when you’re presented with “either this or that” type statements or a limited number of choices, pause and reflect. Ask yourself if the options are truly mutually exclusive and if they are really the only choices available.
That will open up your mind to more possibilities and better decisions.