The fallacy of composition is the assumption that what’s true for individual parts of something must also be true for the whole. In reality, the whole typically has distinct characteristics.
Arguments that commit this logical fallacy often result from poor reasoning rather than a deliberate attempt to mislead.
What is the fallacy of composition?
The fallacy of composition occurs when an argument assumes that properties of individual members or components apply to an entire group or system.
In other words, fallacies of composition mistakenly infer that distributive properties are also collective properties.
- Distributive properties pertain to individual members or components of a group.
- Collective properties pertain to the group or system as a whole.
Distributive properties, specific to individual elements, often vary significantly from collective properties of a whole system. Behaviors and properties of individual parts often change or intensify in the context of a group. Arguments based on the fallacy of composition fail to account for the effects of iteration, scaling, and interactions within systems.
Fallacies of composition are informal fallacies and render arguments unsound. They occur in inductive arguments, which typically propose general principles (e.g., “This cake must be salty”) on the basis of specific observations (e.g., “The cake recipe includes salt as an ingredient”).
How does the fallacy of composition work?
The fallacy of composition attributes the properties of individual elements to the entire group. Arguments that commit this fallacy assume uniformity even though, in reality, some qualities of the whole can’t be inferred from its parts.
In situations that allow for representative sampling, statistical methods for selecting these samples play a crucial role in mitigating errors like the fallacy of composition. Rigorous sampling methods help ensure the accuracy of data collected in fields such as economics, sociology, and public health, contributing to more valid inferences from part to whole.
When forming conclusions about a whole, it’s important to consider both the interactions among its parts (e.g., chemical reactions within a solution) and how these parts collectively contribute to the whole’s attributes (e.g., combined weight of individual components).
How to identify a fallacy of composition
Identifying the fallacy of composition sometimes requires careful evaluation. In cases of uncertainty, consider the following factors:
- Representative sampling and statistical relevance: To avoid the fallacy of composition, ensure that selected samples accurately represent the whole. This typically involves methodically checking whether the characteristics of a few can justifiably be extended to the entire group.
- Emergent properties: Be aware of emergent properties, which are new characteristics that appear only at the collective level. These properties, arising from the interaction of individual parts, are not observable when considering the parts in isolation. Understanding emergent properties helps in understanding why the whole is often more than the sum of its parts.
Fallacy of composition example
In economics, the fallacy of composition manifests in the concept of the paradox of thrift.
Frequently asked questions about fallacy of composition
What is the opposite of the fallacy of composition?
The direct opposite of the fallacy of composition is the fallacy of division.
- The fallacy of composition occurs when an argument incorrectly assumes that what is true for the parts is also true for the whole (e.g., if a company has some successful products, the company must be successful on the whole).
- The fallacy of division occurs when an argument incorrectly assumes that what is true for the whole is also true for its individual parts (e.g., if a car is well made overall, its individual components must be well made).
A related concept is the ecological fallacy, an error in statistical analysis where conclusions about individuals are wrongly inferred from group-level data. While not the exact opposite of the fallacy of composition, the ecological fallacy also involves the unwarranted transfer of qualities between parts and wholes
What is the difference between the fallacy of composition and hasty generalization fallacy?
The fallacy of composition can be considered a type of hasty generalization fallacy.
- Hasty generalization fallacies involve drawing broad conclusions from an inadequate sample of information.
- Fallacies of composition specifically assume characteristics of a whole based on characteristics of an individual component.
What is the difference between cognitive biases and logical fallacies?
Cognitive biases and logical fallacies are distinct but related concepts that both involve errors in reasoning.
- Cognitive biases refer to inherent human tendencies toward specific erroneous thought patterns.
- Logical fallacies are errors in persuasive communication that undermine the validity or soundness of an argument.
Logical fallacies sometimes result from, or appeal to, cognitive biases.