What Is Fallacy of Composition? | Examples & Definition

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.

Fallacy of composition example
“All the cells in this organism are microscopic, so the entire organism must be microscopic.”

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.

Fallacy of composition example in economics
“Saving money improves an individual’s financial security, so if everyone in the nation saves money instead of spending, the economy will improve.”

In this example of a fallacy of composition, the argument incorrectly assumes that what benefits an individual will benefit the group.

This fallacy is related to the paradox of thrift, an economic concept that highlights the irony that saving money is good for a household, but it’s not good for the economy as a whole. Widespread saving by all members of an economy can reduce overall spending and lead to economic downturns.


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Magedah Shabo

Magedah is the author of Rhetoric, Logic, & Argumentation and Techniques of Propaganda and Persuasion. She began her career in the educational publishing industry and has over 15 years of experience as a writer and editor. Her books have been used in high school and university classrooms across the US, including courses at Harvard and Johns Hopkins. She has taught ESL from elementary through college levels.