Rhetorical fallacies are often defined as errors in reasoning. Most of them actually are errors of reasoning. Members of that class are easily recognized once we understand them. But rhetorical fallacies that exploit flaws in the human ability to reason often escape detection even after we know how they work. The fallacy known as Misleading Vividness is one of these.
Here's an example: "I wouldn't take a customer to lunch there if I were you. Remember when Grant was hospitalized? I heard that he got sick from the sour cream on their baked potatoes."
Admittedly this "argument" contains errors of reasoning, but its power comes from its vividness: we know that restaurant, we know Grant, we've been to hospitals, and we know the taste of baked potatoes and sour cream. Grant's co-workers can easily imagine the scene.
We humans evaluate the soundness of arguments, in part, in terms of the ease of imagining their elements. If the elements are especially vivid, we're more likely to process the argument heuristically, rather than systematically or analytically. When we do, logical errors are more likely.
When we think, we usually use both heuristics and logic, with each process influencing the other. Those who employ the misleading vividness rhetorical fallacy are often trying to tilt us toward heuristics, away from reason. When they succeed, we're more likely to accept unproven conclusions.
This phenomenon explains, in part, why advertisers use celebrity endorsers. They're trying to trigger heuristic thinking by relying on the good feelings we have for the celebrities. It also explains why politicians so often employ scare tactics. They conjure vivid, scary images that cause some of us to think more heuristically.
When we make decisions at work, we have to be more careful. Here are three indicators of the use of misleading vividness in workplace debate.
- Sensory breadth
- Messages that invoke more senses are experienced as being more vivid. The more direct the invocation, the more vivid the message. The story about the baked potato would have greater impact when told while baked potatoes were being served.
- Sensory breadth We humans evaluate the soundness
of arguments, in part, in terms
of the ease of imagining
their elementsmight be necessary as part of a discussion about, say, a dinner menu while planning a conference. Sensory breadth that isn't required as part of the task at hand could indicate the use of misleading vividness.
- Overly detailed examples
- Although counterexamples can disprove general claims, examples rarely prove claims. They're useful illustrations — nothing more.
- When examples offered as illustration contain powerful imagery that can invoke strong emotions, they could be instances of misleading vividness.
- Personal stories
- Clarifying stories can be helpful. When stories are personal, first person or not, they can evoke strong feelings.
- Personal stories that evoke emotions are especially vivid. When listeners relive the experience of the story, or similar experiences, misleading vividness is a strong possibility.
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More articles on Effective Meetings:
- Games for Meetings: IV
- We spend a lot of time and emotional energy in meetings, much of it engaged in any of dozens of ritualized
games. Here's Part IV of a little catalog of some of our favorites, and what we could do about them.
- FedEx, Flocks, and Frames of Reference
- Your point of view — or reference frame — affects what you see, and how you experience the
world around you. By choosing a reference frame consciously, you can see things differently, and open
a universe of new choices.
- What Makes a Good Question?
- In group discussion or group problem solving, many of us focus on being the first one to provide the
answer. The right answer can be good; but often, the right question can be better.
- The Fallacy of Composition
- Rhetorical fallacies are errors of reasoning that introduce flaws in the logic of arguments. Used either
intentionally or by accident, they often lead us to mistaken conclusions. The Fallacy of Composition
is one of the more subtle fallacies, which makes it especially dangerous.
- On Facilitation Suggestions from Meeting Participants
- Team leaders often facilitate their own meetings, and although there are problems associated with that
dual role, it's so familiar that it works well enough, most of the time. Less widely understood are
the problems that arise when other meeting participants make facilitation suggestions.
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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