In group discussions, debates about issues are informal and sometimes fast-moving. They can move so quickly that the group's members don't realize that they have reached incorrect conclusions. When this happens, one or more rhetorical fallacies probably played a role — accidentally or intentionally inserted by one of the group's members.
Because of its subtlety, the Fallacy of Composition is a favorite of those who intentionally use rhetorical fallacies. When people use the Fallacy of Composition, they make statements about some parts of a whole (or even every part of a whole), and then conclude something about the whole. To illustrate the use of the fallacy, here's a particularly transparent form, just to give you the idea of how it works:
Since the global economy is in recession, and our jobs are less secure than they once were, everyone should pay off their debts and increase the fraction of their income that they save.
If we were to follow this advice, the recession would quickly become a depression, because economic activity would contract severely. Although the statement is probably true for individuals, the conclusion about the entirety of all individuals is false.
The Fallacy of Composition also occurs in group discussions about managing projects:
We can make up some time and get closer to the original schedule if Tim and Ellen work through the weekend. So it's probably best if everyone works every weekend for the rest of the project.
If we take this approach, people will become fatigued, their work quality will degrade, some will seek reassignment, and the project might never complete.
Here's an example in which an approval board finds two issues in a proposal, and then rejects the entirety on that basis:
We've found serious problems in the proposal. The Localization budget is too low, and the schedule for customer extensions is too aggressive. You need to rethink the whole thing.
The above Because of its subtlety,
the Fallacy of Composition
is a favorite of those
who intentionally use
rhetorical fallaciescomment omits any proof that the two flaws cited are justification for the final recommendation.
And from Glen's performance review:
I'm sorry I couldn't recommend you for a promotion this year. You had some trouble working with Fran, and there were also problems with Leo. You need to learn how to work better with people.
Perhaps the conclusion above is correct, but two difficult relationships are probably not adequate proof. For instance, if both Fran and Leo have problems with everyone, perhaps the problem isn't Glen's. This application of the Fallacy of Composition offers a convenient alternative to justifying decisions made for other reasons.
One important distinction between a Fallacy of Composition and valid inductive reasoning is the nature of the generalization. An inductive argument contains a proof of its generalization; a fallacy of composition merely suggests its generalization. It is the subtlety of this distinction that makes the Fallacy of Composition so difficult to identify in the moment. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Irrational Self-Interest
- When we try to influence others, especially large groups or entire companies, we sometimes create packages
of incentives and disincentives that are intended to affect behavior. These strategies usually assume
that people make choices on rational grounds. Is this assumption valid?
- Our Last Meeting Together
- You can find lots of tips for making meetings more effective — many at my own Web site. Most are
directed toward the chair, or the facilitator if you have one. Here are some suggestions for everybody.
- What, Why, and How
- When solving problems, groups frequently get stuck in circular debate. Positions harden even before
the issue is clear. Here's a framework for exploration that can sharpen thinking and focus the group.
- Overtalking: II
- Overtalking is a tactic for dominating a conversation by talking to stop others from talking. When it
happens, what can we do about it?
- Ending Sidebars
- We say that a sidebar is underway in a meeting when two or more meeting participants converse without
having been recognized by the chair. Sidebars can be helpful, but they can also be disruptive. How can
we end sidebars quickly and politely?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming June 3: Capability Inversions and the Dunning-Kruger Effect
- A capability inversion occurs when the person in charge of an effort is far less knowledgeable about the work involved or its purpose than are the people doing that work. In capability inversions, the Dunning-Kruger effect can intensify group dysfunction, sometimes severely disrupting the effort. Available here and by RSS on June 3.
- And on June 10: They Don't Reply to My Email
- Ever have the experience of sending an email message to someone, asking for information or approval or whatever, and then waiting for a response that comes only too late? Maybe your correspondent is an evil loser, but maybe not. Maybe the problem is in your message. Available here and by RSS on June 10.
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- Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?
Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.