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

Reasoning updated on  May 30, 2024 4 min read

An either-or fallacy simplifies complex issues by presenting two choices and disregarding other possibilities. This fallacy is often used deliberately in politics, marketing, or everyday conversations as a rhetorical technique to push an audience toward a specific action or viewpoint.

Arguments that commit the either-or fallacy don’t necessarily include the words “either” or “or,” but they essentially frame an issue in an overly simplistic way by presenting only two possibilities.

Either-or fallacy example
“You’re either with us or against us in the fight against crime. If you don’t support our new crime prevention policy, you must be in favor of lawlessness and chaos.”

The either-or fallacy, alternatively called false dilemma, false dichotomy, or false binary, leads to oversimplified conclusions that are often misleading and promote a closed-minded outlook.

What is the either-or fallacy?

The either-or fallacy is a common logical error in which a complex issue is oversimplified as having only two extreme and opposing options or possibilities. Arguments that commit the either-or fallacy neglect the potential for middle-ground solutions or a spectrum of alternatives.

This common informal logical fallacy can be problematic because it simplifies complex issues and limits choices, potentially leading to an overly narrow, unrealistic view of a situation. Either-or arguments fail to acknowledge that real-world problems typically require a nuanced understanding and may have several possible solutions.

Either-or arguments frequently commit the straw man fallacy, depicting one of the two options in a simplified, distorted, or exaggerated way. The person who commits an either-or fallacy will often malign and mischaracterize the opposing viewpoint.

Why does the either-or fallacy occur?

Either-or fallacies can occur for many reasons, both deliberate and unintentional. When either-or fallacies are committed intentionally, motivations may include the following:

  • Simplification of complex issues: This entails presenting issues in a reductive, easily understood manner, ignoring their complexities.
  • Persuasion: The fallacy is used to make one solution appear to be the obvious choice, influencing the audience’s decision-making process.
  • Emotional appeal: Creating a sense of urgency or dilemma puts pressure on an audience to make a quick, emotionally motivated decision.
  • Polarization: The fallacy is often used strategically to rally support for one side by portraying opposing viewpoints in an extremely negative light.

The either-or fallacy can also occur because of limitations in understanding, including the following:

  • Lack of information or understanding: When individuals fail to comprehend the full range of options or the nuances of a situation, they may accept an oversimplified view.
  • Binary thinking: People often have a tendency to view situations in stark black-and-white terms, neglecting the spectrum of possibilities that exist.

Why is the either-or fallacy a problem?

The either-or fallacy often results from, or is intentionally aimed at exploiting, a cognitive bias known as black-and-white thinking. Black-and-white thinking is the human inclination to view issues in extreme terms and overlook nuances.

Either-or fallacies encourage people to embrace black-and-white thinking by simplifying complex matters into binary choices. This simplistic pattern of thought hinders effective problem-solving and communication.

On a societal level, the either-or fallacy can fuel polarization and conflict by pushing individuals to adopt extreme viewpoints, diminishing opportunities for compromise and constructive dialogue.

The overuse of the either-or fallacy in media fosters closed-mindedness and reduces receptivity to alternative viewpoints, encouraging people to view every issue as a battle of “us vs. them” or even “good vs. evil.”

Either-or fallacy examples

In persuasive communication, either-or fallacies are often used intentionally to pressure an audience to accept a certain policy or vote for a certain candidate.

Either-or fallacy example in politics
During a televised economic policy discussion, a panelist states, “Given the current crisis, our only choice is to reduce corporate taxes or continue to suffer high unemployment rates.”

In this example, the panelist commits the either-or fallacy, suggesting that the government must either reduce corporate taxes or accept high unemployment rates. This oversimplification disregards other potential solutions to a multifaceted issue. Politicians and commentators frequently use such fallacies to promote a policy position, presenting it as the only viable option.

Either-or fallacies occur when people oversimplify complex situations into just two choices, influenced by limited information, biases, and the desire for simplicity.

Either-or fallacy in real life
A coworker argues that you must either adopt a strict vegan diet or experience heart disease.

This either-or fallacy falsely presents only two rather extreme options. In reality, the role of nutrition in heart health is more complicated than the argument conveys. There are many healthy diets that may help prevent heart disease, and veganism is not guaranteed to prevent heart disease in everyone.

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Idioms

Parts of speech

Fallacies

Diamond in the rough

Irregular verb

Slippery slope fallacy

Idioms

Gerund

Sunk cost fallacy

Piece of cake

Infinitive phrase

Red herring fallacy

Better late than never

Infinitive

Appeal to authority fallacy

Salt of the earth

Adverb

Circular reasoning fallacy


Frequently asked questions about either-or fallacy

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

The either-or fallacy is an informal fallacy because it is a content-level error that occurs in inductive arguments. Inductive arguments reason from specific observations to propose general principles. If an inductive argument commits an informal fallacy, it is called “unsound.”

By contrast, formal fallacies are structural errors that occur in formal (or deductive) arguments and make the argument “invalid.”

What is another name for either-or fallacy?

The either-or fallacy is also known as “false dilemma” or “false dichotomy.” These terms are used interchangeably to describe a common logical fallacy that limits options to just two, overlooking the potential for middle-ground solutions or a spectrum of possibilities.

How can you avoid the either-or fallacy?

To avoid the either-or fallacy, consider the following questions:

  • Are there any other options than the two presented?
  • Could a spectrum or middle ground exist between the two extremes?
  • Is every possibility being portrayed accurately and with appropriate nuance?
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Magedah Shabo

Magedah is an author, editor, and educator who has empowered thousands of students to become better writers.

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