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:
- Decisions, Decisions: II
- Most of us have participated in group decision-making. The process can be frustrating and painful, but
it can also be thrilling. What processes do groups use to make decisions?
- Meta-Debate at Work
- Workplace discussions sometimes take the form of informal debate, in which parties who initially have
different perspectives try to arrive at a shared perspective. Meta-debate is one way things can go wrong.
- Historical Debates at Work
- One obstacle to high performance in teams is the historical debate — arguing about who said what
and when, or who agreed to what and when. Here are suggestions for ending and preventing historical debates.
- Characterization Risk
- To characterize is to offer a description of a person, event, or concept. Characterizations are usually
judgmental, and usually serve one side of a debate. And they often make trouble.
- Chronic Peer Interrupters: II
- People use a variety of tactics when they're interrupted while making contributions in meetings. Some
tactics work well, while others carry risks of their own. Here's Part II of a little survey of those tactics.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 11: The Rhyme-as-Reason Effect
- When we speak or write, the phrases we use have both form and meaning. Although we usually think of form and meaning as distinct, we tend to assess as more meaningful and valid those phrases that are more beautifully formed. The rhyme-as-reason effect causes us to confuse the validity of a phrase with its aesthetics. Available here and by RSS on December 11.
- And on December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
- As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
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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.