The Egocentric Bias: Why It’s Hard to See Things from a Different Perspective

The Egocentric Bias

 

The egocentric bias is a cognitive bias that causes people to rely too heavily on their own point of view when they examine events in their life or when they try to see things from other people’s perspective.

For example, if you do something embarrassing, the egocentric bias might cause you to overestimate the degree to which other people are likely to notice it, because you naturally assume that they care about your actions as much as you do.

Since the egocentric bias influences the way we process and remember information, it’s important to understand it. In the following article, you will understand what the egocentric bias is and why we experience is, see some examples of how the egocentric bias affects us, and learn what you can do in order to mitigate its influence.

 

What is the egocentric bias

The egocentric bias is a cognitive bias that causes people to rely too much on their own point of view when they examine or remember events in their life. Essentially, this means that people tend to either underestimate how different other people’s viewpoint is from their own, or to ignore other people’s viewpoint entirely.

Accordingly, the egocentric bias causes people to project their beliefs, desires, thoughts, and emotions onto other people, especially when those people are close to them. Furthermore, the egocentric bias also hinders people’s ability to empathize with others, since it causes them to focus primarily on their own emotions, and to ignore how other people feel.

In some cases, the egocentric bias can also cause people to believe that situations that favor them are fair, even if they think that favoring others in a similar manner would be unjust. This means, for example, that people might think they deserve to receive more than others when it comes to splitting positive outcomes, such as credit or profits, while they might also think they deserve to receive less than others when it comes to splitting negative outcomes, such as blame or penalties.

Note: there is a related cognitive bias called the altercentric bias, which has a somewhat opposite effect than the egocentric bias, since it causes people’s judgment of their own emotional state to be influenced by other people’s emotions. People experience both these biases to varying degrees, and display different levels of egocentrism and altercentrism in different situations.

 

Examples of the egocentric bias

There are various examples of how the egocentric bias affects people in their everyday life:

  • The egocentric bias can cause someone who is giving a public talk to assume that their nervousness is more apparent to others than is actually the case.
  • The egocentric bias can cause someone to overestimate the amount of work that they contributed to a group project.
  • The egocentric bias can cause someone to assume that his colleagues all share his political beliefs and social values.
  • The egocentric bias can cause someone who did something embarrassing a few days ago to overestimate the likelihood that others will remember it now.
  • The egocentric bias can cause someone to remember themselves as having been the key player in a past event, despite the fact that they only played a relatively minor role in it.

 

Why we experience the egocentric bias

The egocentric bias, like other cognitive biases, occurs due to the limitations of our cognitive system, and namely due to the imperfect way we process information. Specifically, the egocentric bias occurs primarily due to the fact that we spend the vast majority of the time seeing things from our own perspective, so we tend to naturally examine and remember events primarily through our personal point of view.

Even when we realize that we should adjust our perspective to see things through other people’s eyes, we tend to anchor this new perspective to our own, and we often fail to adjust from our original viewpoint enough to properly assess how other people feel.

The reason why we are predisposed to this issue is that our cognitive system is heuristic-based, meaning that it often tries to run calculations and form judgments in a quick way, that reduces our use of cognitive resources, at the cost of causing us to form incorrect judgments. Accordingly, our cognitive system finds it faster and easier to simply assume that other people’s thought process is similar to our own, than to try and assess what their perspective is actually like.

Furthermore, when it comes to how we remember past events, another reason why we tend to experience the egocentric bias is that our cognitive system generally arranges our memories around ourselves, since our own presence serves as a stable constant that stands at the center of our attention most of the time.

Overall, we experience the egocentric bias because of the imperfect way our cognitive system works. Specifically, we are so used to seeing things from our own perspective, that we find it difficult to account for the fact that other people’s viewpoint is different from ours. As such, our cognitive system assumes by default that other people have a perspective that is similar to our own, in situations in which we try to assess what other people think or how other people feel.

 

The influence of background factors

There are various background factors which affect the likelihood that a person will experience the egocentric bias, as well as the degree to which that person will experience this bias.

A person’s age, for example, can significantly affect the likelihood that they will experience the egocentric bias, and in general, it appears that adolescents and older adults display increased egocentricity compared to young and middle-aged adults. Similarly, the number of languages that a person speaks also plays a role in a people’s predisposition to the egocentric bias, and bilinguals appear to be less likely to experience the egocentric bias than monolinguals.

However, it’s important to note that such background factors only have a relatively minor influence on people’s predisposition to the egocentric bias, and that every person experiences the egocentric bias to some degree, since it’s a natural byproduct of our universal cognitive system.

 

Related cognitive biases

Since the egocentric bias can affect us in a variety of ways, it’s considered to be the primary mechanism behind several other cognitive biases. These biases are often viewed as subtypes of the egocentric bias, meaning that they represent specific and notable ways in which the egocentric bias affects our thinking. Such biases include, for example:

  • The illusion of transparency- the illusion of transparency is a cognitive bias that causes people to believe that their internal state, in terms of their thoughts and emotions, is more apparent to others than is actually the case. This occurs as a result of the egocentric bias, and specifically because our internal state is so readily available to us that we forget that it’s not as readily available to others.
  • The spotlight effect- the spotlight effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to overestimate the degree to which other people notice and care about their appearance and actions. This occurs as a result of the egocentric bias, and specifically because we are so focused on our own actions, that we forget that other people are not as focused on them.
  • The false consensus effect- the false consensus effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to believe that their opinions and beliefs are more common in the population than they actually are. This occurs as a result of the egocentric bias, and specifically because we are so used to our own opinions and beliefs, that we struggle to remember that other people might hold different ones.

 

How to reduce your egocentric bias

Experiencing some degree of the egocentric bias is normal, since, as we saw above, this bias occurs due to the way our cognitive system works. Nevertheless, there are some cases where it can be beneficial to mitigate the egocentric bias that you experience. Doing so can help you assess situations more clearly, and allow you to make more rational decisions.

The first step to reducing this bias is to simply be aware of it. However, while being aware of the egocentric bias is crucial to your ability to mitigate it, it’s not enough if you want to be able to debias yourself successfully.

As such, in the following sections you will see a few useful debiasing techniques that you can use to reduce the degree to which you experience the egocentric bias. These techniques are similar to one another, since they all help you reduce the egocentric bias by enabling you to view things from a different perspective, and by reducing your inherent focus on your own point of view.

 

Use self-distancing language

One way to reduce the egocentric bias is to increase your psychological self-distance. You can accomplish this using a simple self-distancing technique, that allows you to see things from a different perspective.

Specifically, you can increase your self-distance by thinking about the situation that you are in using self-distancing language, meaning that instead of thinking about yourself using the first-person pronoun (e.g. “what should I do”), you should think about yourself using the second-person pronoun (e.g. “what should you do”) or using your own name (e.g. “what should John do”).

Doing this helps you increase your psychological self-distance, which in turn can help reduce the egocentric bias that you experience.

 

Consider alternative viewpoints

Since the egocentric bias occurs due to our innate focus on own perspective, you can mitigate it by trying to visualize the situation from a different viewpoint. Specifically, instead of looking at things only from your own perspective, you can either try to see things from someone else’s viewpoint, or you can try to see things from a generalized external perspective.

For example, if you got into an argument with a friend, you can try to see things from their perspective, in order to understand why they feel the way that they do.

Similarly, considering arguments that are at odds with your stance can also help reduce your self-focus, and thus mitigate the egocentric bias. For example, if you believe in a certain political stance, you can try to come up with reasons why a competing stance might also be good. This will allow you to understand why people support that alternative stance, and will help you assess your own beliefs in a more rational manner.

 

Increase your self-awareness

Being more self-aware can help you reduce the egocentric bias, by helping you become conscious of your innate tendency to focus on yourself.

You can increase your self-awareness in various ways. One study, for example, found that doing something as simple as sitting in front of a mirror while making a decision can help increase your self-awareness, and reduce the egocentric bias that you experience.

Other techniques could also work, as long as they accomplish the same thing, by helping you become actively conscious of yourself, and of your tendency to focus on your own perspective.

 

Other debiasing techniques

There are varioous general debiasing techniques that you can use in order to reduce the egocentric bias that you experience.

These techniques include, for example, slowing down your reasoning process, asking others for feedback, and creating an optimal environment for decision making.

To learn more about these techniques, see the guide to debiasing, which explains how cognitive debiasing works, and how you can use debiasing techniques to reduce the influence of various cognitive biases, including the egocentric bias.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The egocentric bias is a cognitive bias that causes people to rely too much on their own point of view when they examine or remember various events in their life.
  • Accordingly, the egocentric bias can cause people to underestimate how different other people’s perspective is from their own, and to project their own beliefs, desires, thoughts, and emotions onto other people. Furthermore, the egocentric bias can cause people to believe that situations which favor them are fair, even if they think that favoring others in a similar manner would be unjust.
  • The egocentric bias can, for example, cause people to overestimate the degree to which other people notice their actions, or to overestimate their contribution to a shared project compared to other group members.
  • We experience the egocentric bias because we are used to seeing things from our own perspective, which makes it difficult for us to imagine other people’s viewpoint and which causes our cognitive system to rely on our perspective as a primary point of reference.
  • There are several techniques that can help you reduce the egocentric bias, including using self-distancing language, considering alternative viewpoints, and increasing your self-awareness. In addition, you can also use general debiasing techniques, such as asking for feedback from others, and slowing down your reasoning process.

 


The Familiarity Backfire Effect: Why Debunking a Myth Can Make People Believe It

Familiarity Backfire Effect

 

The familiarity backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember a myth as true, after they are shown information which is meant to prove that it’s false.

Since the familiarity backfire effect plays a crucial role in how people respond to refutations of pseudoscientific theories and conspiracies, it’s important to understand it. In the following article, you will learn more about this cognitive bias, understand why people experience it, and see what you can do in order to debunk myths in a way that accounts for it.

 

What is the familiarity backfire effect

The familiarity backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember a myth better, and to remember it as being true, after they are shown information which is supposed to debunk it.

Essentially, this means that if someone is shown information that proves that a certain myth is false, then after some time passes they are often more likely to remember the myth itself, rather than the information which disproves it. Furthermore, they are also more likely to believe that the myth is true, despite being shown information which proves that it isn’t.

The familiarity backfire effect plays a role in people’s thought process whenever they are exposed to information which is meant to correct some prior belief of theirs. As such, it can affect people not only when it comes to myths, but also when it comes to other types of misinformation, such as pseudoscientific theories or political conspiracy-theories.

For example, showing people data which proves that a certain alternative-medicine treatment doesn’t work, can often cause people to remember that treatment as being effective, after some time passes from the debunking attempt.

The familiarity backfire effect is therefore one of the main contributing factors to the continued influence effect of misinformation, which occurs when people continue to believe in inaccurate information even after being presented with a credible refutation of it.

Note: since the familiarity backfire effect represents a phenomenon where an attempt to change someone’s opinion by providing them with corrective information ends up backfiring, it’s considered to be a type of a backfire effect, as is evident in its name.

 

Examples of the familiarity backfire effect

There are many examples of how the familiarity backfire effect influences people’s thought process. Many of the research studies which examined this phenomenon focused on the topic of personal health, as in the following two examples:

  • One study found that presenting people with false health-related claims while stating that those claims are false does help people understand that those claims are false in the short term, but increases the likelihood that they will remember those false claims as true after a few days have passed.
  • Another study found that when people are given health-related warnings about what not to do, after some time has passed they often end up remembering those warnings as instructions on what they should do.

The familiarity backfire effect can, of course, play a role in other domains beyond personal health, and it can essentially influence people’s thinking in any situation which involves a debunking attempt.

For example, consider the following political situation, where one candidate attacks another one by claiming that they spend too much money on personal expenses:

Candidate A: just last year, you spent over $100,000 on personal travel expenses, which is an outrageous amount.

Candidate B: the idea that I spent $100,000 on travel expenses is ridiculous. You must be making stuff up, because I don’t know where you got the $100,000 figure from.

Here, the second candidate attempts to refute the accusation against him, but the way he does it can actually end up reinforcing the accusation. Specifically, the fact that he repeats the $100,000 figure increases people’s familiarity with it, which increases the likelihood that they will remember it, and believe that it’s true.

 

Why people experience the familiarity backfire effect

There are several cognitive mechanisms which explain why people experience the familiarity backfire effect.

First, increased familiarity with a statement makes it easier for people to process that statement. Essentially, each time people hear or read the statement which is being debunked they become more familiar with it, which makes it easier for them to process.

Since people prefer to accept explanations which are easy for them to process from a cognitive perspective, this increased familiarity increases the chance that they will view that statement as being true.

Secondly, increased familiarity with a statement causes people to feel that they have heard this statement before. Since people tend to believe that true statements have a higher probability of being repeated compared to false statements, repeatedly hearing about the debunked theory makes people more likely to believe that it’s true.

Essentially, since people are more frequently exposed to widely-accepted beliefs than to fringe ones, familiarity with a certain belief or statement signals social consensus towards it, and provides it with familiarity-based credibility.

Finally, people’s imperfect memory sometimes causes them to remember only the information being debunked, rather than the debunking attempt itself. This means that the corrective information ends up being forgotten, and so the debunking attempt ends up only reminding people of the information that it was meant to debunk in the first place.

This often occurs because people find it easier to remember simple information, and so the easy-to-understand myths tend to stick in people’s memory over time, while the complex scientific explanations which are necessary in order to debunk them tend to be forgotten.

Note: in general, people tend to develop a positive attitude towards things that they become familiar with through repeated exposure even outside the context of debunking, as a result of a cognitive bias which is known as the mere-exposure effect.

 

How to avoid the familiarity backfire effect

So far, we saw what the familiarity backfire effect is, why it’s a problem, and why people experience it.

There are several things that you can do in order to reduce the impact that this cognitive bias has on people, which will increase the effectiveness of your debunking attempts. First, there are two main guidelines that you should keep in mind with regards to how you should conduct the debunking process:

  • You should focus on the facts. Throughout the debunking attempt, you should remember to focus on the new facts that you’re presenting as much as possible, rather than on the misinformation that you’re trying to debunk, in order to ensure that this is the information that people will remember.
  • You should not repeat the misinformation any more than necessary. Though it is often necessary to address the misinformation itself during the debunking attempt, you should not reference it any more than is necessary, since doing so could increase people’s familiarity with it.

In addition, there are several guidelines that you should keep in mind with regards to how you should structure the debunking process:

  • Start with the facts. When you start the debunking attempt, you should begin with the facts, and only then introduce the misinformation.
  • Before presenting the misinformation, identify it as such. Before you mention the myth itself, you should explicitly state that the information that you are about to show is false, and also explain why it can be misleading, and why misinformers promote it in the first place.
  • After presenting the misinformation, follow up immediately with corrective information. The debunking attempt must immediately follow the description of the original misinformation, to ensure that the focus isn’t on the misinformation, and to ensure that information pertaining to the original myth is replaced in the person’s memory by the real facts.
  • The corrective information must include an explanation of the phenomenon. When you present the new facts, make sure to include a reasonable explanation for the phenomenon, which can replace the original myth as a valid explanation in people’s mind.

For example, let’s say that you want to explain to someone that Earth is not flat, while avoiding the risk of causing the familiarity backfire effect.

When it comes to your debunking attempt, your focus should generally be on explaining why the Earth is a sphere, rather than on explaining why the belief that the Earth is flat is wrong.

Furthermore, while you do need to reference the original myth in your debunking attempt, you should do so as little as possible, and emphasize that this myth is wrong, while ensuring that people understand the explanation which proves this.

In addition, you can also use general debiasing techniques, such as improving the decision-making environment and increasing people’s involvement in the reasoning process, which could further help reduce the likelihood that people will experience the familiarity backfire effect.

Finally, an important thing to keep in mind is that you should try to make your explanations as easy to understand and as accessible as possible, given your target audience. This makes it likelier that people will respond well to your debunking attempt, since, as we saw earlier, making an explanation easier for people to understand makes it more likely that they will accept it as true.

This is crucial, since simple myths are often more appealing to people from a cognitive perspective than the complex scientific explanations which are needed in order to debunk them. Therefore, by using simpler explanations, you make it more likely that people will listen to you and accept what you have to say.

 

Reducing your own familiarity backfire effect

It’s important to remember that we’re all vulnerable to the familiarity backfire effect, and that you might also suffer from this cognitive bias.

Though it’s difficult to reduce the likelihood that you will experience this bias by yourself, you can try and identify cases where you are vulnerable to it by looking for situations where you are more focused on the information that someone is attempting to debunk, than on the debunking attempt itself.

If you notice that this is happening, you can try to shift the focus back to the debunking attempt, even if you initially think that it’s incorrect, since doing so will allow you to assess it in a more rational manner in the long run.

You can also use the techniques that we saw above, in order to improve the way that the corrective information is being conveyed to you. However, this is only a realistic option in some cases, and not something that you can do in all situations.

Overall, the best way to reduce the likelihood that you will experience the familiarity backfire effect is to use general debiasing techniques, such as slowing down your reasoning process or improving your decision-making environment. These techniques are often relatively simple to implement, and can allow you to process new information in a way that enables you to make more rational decisions.

 

The familiarity backfire effect isn’t always there

As in the case of the general backfire effect, which only affects people’s thought process some of the time, there are also situations where the familiarity backfire effect doesn’t affect people’s thinking on a significant scale.

One study, for example, found that although refutation attempts that repeated the myth that they were debunking were less effective than those which focused on affirming the corrective facts, these attempts still worked overall, when it came to reducing people’s belief in misinformation.

This suggests that even though you should be wary of the familiarity backfire effect when it comes to devising refutation attempts, you should also be realistic when it comes to estimating its scope, and when trying to assess how much it affects people.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The familiarity backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people to remember a myth better, and to remember it as being true, after they are shown information which is meant to debunk it.
  • This means that if someone is shown information that disproves a certain myth, their exposure to that myth could cause them to remember it better in the long run, and to believe that it is true.
  • For example, one study found that showing people false health-related claims and identifying them as such does help them understand that those claims are false in the short term, but ends up increasing the likelihood that they will remember those claims as true after a few days pass.
  • People experience the familiarity backfire effect because increased familiarity with a statement increases its perceived credibility and makes it easier for people to process it.
  • To reduce the likelihood that people will experience the familiarity backfire effect as a result of a debunking attempt, you should start with the facts and focus on them, offer an alternative explanation to the myth, identify misinformation as such and avoid repeating it unless necessary, and always follow up misinformation with corrective information.

 


Red Herring: How People Use Irrelevant Information as a Distraction

Red Herring

 

A red herring is something that distracts people from an important issue or from an issue that is currently being discussed.

Accordingly, the red herring fallacy is a logical fallacy where someone presents an irrelevant piece of information in an attempt to distract their opponent and the audience from the topic which is being discussed, or to shift the discussion in a new direction.

Because the use of red herrings is so prevalent, it’s important to understand how a red herring works. In the following article, you will learn more about the concept of the red herring, and about the use of the red herring fallacy in debates. Then, you will then see some examples of the use of red herrings in practice, and learn how you can counter such uses effectively.

 

What is a red herring

A red herring is something that distracts people from an important issue or from an issue that is currently being discussed. A red herring usually appears either as a literary device, where it is used in order to intentionally mislead readers, or as a rhetoric technique, where it is used, either intentionally or unintentionally, in order to mislead listeners.

An example of a red herring in literature can be found in the Sherlock Holmes novel titled The Hound of Baskerville (by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), where the storyline of the escaped convict Barrymore, who in the end turns out to be innocent, is used as a red herring in order to distract readers from the real culprit in the story

The use of a red herring in this context demonstrates how, as a literary device, the red herring can be used in order to create suspense, and make it more difficult for readers to predict the conclusion of the story.

 

What is the red herring fallacy

The red herring fallacy is a logical fallacy where someone presents an irrelevant piece of information in an attempt to distract their opponent and the audience from the topic which is being discussed, or to shift the discussion in a new direction.

This fallacy is frequently used in arguments and debates, and is generally a sign that the person who is using it doesn’t want to continue the current line of discussion, especially if they use the red herring in response to a question.

For example, the following exchange demonstrates how a red herring might be used in a conversation:

Reporter: There have been accusations of corruption made against your campaign office. What do you have to say about that?

Politician: I’d like to assure the public that my staff and I are always hard at work, and that we are always looking out for their best interests.

Here, the reporter raises a concern about political corruption, and asks the politician to comment on it. Instead of doing that, the politician replies using an empty statement, that shifts the topic away from the discussion of corruption in their campaign.

As such, the red herring fallacy is an informal logical fallacy, since it involves premises and conclusions which are irrelevant to the discussion at hand. More specifically, the red herring fallacy is categorized as a fallacy of relevance in general, and as an irrelevant conclusion fallacy or an irrelevant argument fallacy in particular.

This type of fallacy is often referred to as ignoratio elenchi, a term that stands for “ignorance of refutation”, since these arguments fail to address the issue in question. Colloquially, this fallacy is sometimes referred to simply as missing the point.

Note: there are a number of other fallacies of relevance that are related to the red herring fallacy, all of which rely on flawed premises, since the content of the argument in which they appear is irrelevant to the discussion. The most notable fallacies of this type are the strawman fallacy, which occurs when someone distorts their opponent’s argument in order to make it easier to attack, and the ad hominem fallacy, which occurs when someone attacks their opponent directly, instead of addressing the argument that they are trying to make.

 

Examples of red herrings

Red herrings appear in various contexts, and we encounter them often in our everyday life. For instance, the following is an example of the use of a red herring in a simple workplace conversation:

Alice: You promised me yesterday that you were going to take care of this task.

Bob: Oh yeah, that. Actually, I’m working on a really cool project now, want to see some screenshots?

Here, Alice raises a valid concern, which Bob ignores by using an unrelated red herring in order to change the subject.

Next, the following is an example of a red herring in a political discussion:

Interviewer: It’s been two years since your policies were implemented, and so far they have failed to reduce unemployment rates.

Politician: I have been working hard ever since I came into office, and I’m happy to say that I met with many business leaders throughout the country, who all say that they are glad to see that our hard work is paying off.

Here, the interviewer asks a valid question, which the politician ignores by using a red herring, and replying with a vague and unrelated statement, which doesn’t answer the original question.

In addition, the following is an example of a red herring in the media:

Reporter: Students are organizing a march because they want their opinions to be heard when it comes to determining how schools should be run. But what about the teachers? They are the ones who really need to be heard.

Here, the reporter brings up the teachers in order to distract viewers from the fact that the students are asking to provide input into decisions that will affect them. This red herring is more subtle than the ones in the previous examples, and its phrasing implicitly suggests that any discussion of the students’ plight should be dropped, since the teachers’ plight is more important, though the two are not mutually exclusive.

Finally, the following is an example of a red herring in an advertisement:

Manufacturer: Lately, there has been a lot of criticism regarding the quality of our product. We’ve decided to have a new sale in reponse, so you can buy more at a lower cost!

Here, the manufacturer is being criticized for one aspect of their product (its quality), and decides to distract people from the issue by running a sale, and focusing on the new, reduced price of the product instead of addressing the issue for which they were criticized.

Overall, there are many examples of situations where people use red herring arguments. This type of argument is best summarized using the following saying:

“If you can’t convince them, confuse them.”

 

How to counter the red herring fallacy

In order to successfully counter an argument which contains a fallacious red herring, you must first recognize that a red herring has been used.

We saw the formal definition of a red herring argument above, together with a number of examples, but the basic thing to remember is that a red herring argument is an argument that contains information which is irrelevant to the discussion at hand, and which has the goal of serving either as a distraction, or as a way to change the topic.

Once you recognize that a red herring argument was used, you can counter it by pointing out the red herring, and explaining why its use is fallacious. Specifically, you should show that what your opponent said has nothing to do with the original line of discussion, and that the information that they mentioned was used with the goal of changing the topic.

Then, you can redirect the conversation back to the topic that was originally being discussed, either by adding more comments of your own on the topic, or by giving your opponent a chance to reply in a proper way, if they used the red herring in response to a question.

While this approach can sometimes work, you might encounter situations where the person you are talking to refuses to return to the original line of discussion, even after you point out their fallacious use of a red herring.

When this happens, there are several factors that you should take into account as you decide how to proceed. These include, most notably:

  • The topic which is being discussed.
  • The reason why the other person wishes to avoid this topic.
  • The context in which the conversation is taking place.
  • The relationship that you have with the person that you are talking to.
  • The nature of the audience which is watching the conversation (if there is one).

Once you take these factors into account, you can pick one of the following strategies, with regards to how you should respond to the red herring:

  • Continue with the original line of discussion. This tactic makes sense only if you are absolutely unwilling to change the topic, which can be a reasonable decision in some cases, such as when you want to highlight your opponent’s attempts to avoid the topic. If you use this approach, eventually one of you will agree to discuss the topic being proposed by the other, or the two of you might end up talking at each other about different topics, in a form of highly unproductive dialogue.
  • Accept the new line of conversation. This entails simply accepting that the topic of the discussion has changed, either with or without pointing out the fallacious use of the red herring. Even though doing this means accepting the use of the red herring, it can sometimes be the only way to ensure that the discussion continues in a reasonable and productive manner. Note that in some cases, this might the best course of action, simply because it’s the only way to keep the conversation going.
  • Disengage from the discussion. Sometimes, you might realize that there is simply no point to the discussion, since your opponent keeps shifting the topic instead of saying anything of value. If you decide that this is the case, and that you want to disengage from the discussion, make sure to explain that you’re doing it because of your opponent’s use of the red herring fallacy, and not because you’re unwilling to discuss the topic in general.

Overall, in theory, the main way to counter the use of a red herring in an argument is to point out its use, explain why it’s fallacious, and then return to the original line of discussion. In practice, however, the situation is more complex, and this method doesn’t always work.

Therefore, as long as it’s reasonable to do so, you should accept the fact that it’s not always possible to successfully counter the use of red herring arguments, and that in many cases, it can be more productive to simply accept the use of the red herring, in order to keep the conversation going.

 

Intentional and unintentional use of red herring arguments

When countering the use of red herring arguments by others, it’s important to keep in mind that not every use of a red herring is intentional, and to act accordingly. This is because attacking your opponent too forcefully for using a red herring might lead to a backfire effect, where they are not willing to change their mind on a topic, even after you show them that their reasoning is flawed.

Therefore, as long as it’s reasonable to do so, try to apply the principle of charity, and assume that the person you are talking to is using the red herring unintentionally. Then, try to help them internalize the error in their reasoning, by pointing it out in a non-confrontational manner.

However, even in cases where it’s clear that the person you are talking to is using a red herring argument intentionally, you should consider the fact that it might be reasonable to do so.

For example, if you’re having a friendly conversation with someone and they reply to a question that you ask them with an intentionally unrelated answer, it’s possible that they used a red herring because you brought up a sensitive topic that they don’t want to discuss, in which case you should accept their use of a red herring.

Finally, keep in mind that you might also be using red herrings in your arguments, without being aware that you are doing so. The time when we are most likely to use red herrings unintentionally is when we feel uncomfortable with a certain line of discussion, so you should be mindful of your arguments under such circumstances.

For example, many people tend to use red herrings in everyday conversations unnecessarily, as soon as they realize that they were wrong about something. In such cases, it’s important to recognize what you are doing and why, so you can avoid using fallacious reasoning, and so you can improve your ability to engage in proper discourse with others.

 

Origin of the term ‘red herring’

Though learning about the history of the term ‘red herring’ is unnecessary when it comes to knowing how to recognize and counter red herring arguments, it’s still a topic that some people might find interesting.

‘Red herring’ is a fish (usually a herring, but not necessarily) which has been heavily cured in a process that gives it a strong, pungent smell, and turns its flesh a reddish color.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, references to red herring as a type of fish can be found in writing as early as the beginning of the 14th century, with the first listed use of the term being a 1333 reference to “heryng red” in the “Glossary of W. de Bibbesworth”.

The idiomatic use of the term ‘red herring’ in order to refer to something that misleads others came much later, and is generally attributed to the apocryphal belief that red herring could be used to distract hounds who were tracking a person or an animal, due to its strong scent.

Specifically, the use of the term ‘red herring’ as we know it today appears to have originated in 1807, in the writing of journalist William Cobbett, who told a tale of using red herring to distract hounds, and compared that practice to the deceptive practices of various politicians:

“Alas! it was a mere transitory effect of the political red-herring; for, оn the Saturday, the scent became as cold as a stone.”

– Cobbett’s Weekly Political Registry, February 1807

However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, this widespread myth appears to be incorrect, since red herring was originally used in order to draw hounds to the scent of an animal being hunted, or to train animals to follow the trail of a hunting party, rather than to distract them. This is evident, for example, in the following quotes:

“Next, to draw on hounds to a sent, to a redde herring skinne there is nothing comparable.”

Nashe in Lenten Stuff, 1599

And:

“The trailing or dragging of a dead Cat, or Fox, (and in case of necessity a Red-Herring) three or four Miles..and then laying the Dogs on the scent.”

Cox in Gentleman’s Recreation, 1697

Overall, it appears that red herring was originally used in order to attract the attention of hounds during hunts. Eventually however, the term ‘red herring’ was used metaphorically in order to signify something that serves as a distraction, by someone who misunderstood its original function. This meaning of the term stuck, and remains in widespread use today.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • A red herring is something that distracts people from an important issue, or from an issue that is currently being discussed.
  • A red herring usually appears either as a literary device, where it’s used in order to intentionally mislead readers, or as a rhetoric technique, where it’s used, either intentionally or unintentionally, in order to mislead listeners.
  • Accordingly, the red herring fallacy occurs when an argument relies on irrelevant information (i.e. a red herring), in order to distract or mislead listeners.
  • To counter the use of red herring arguments in a debate, you should point out that your opponent’s reasoning was fallacious, and that what they said has nothing to do with the original line of discussion. If this fails, you can choose to either stick with the original line of discussion, accept the new topic, or withdraw from the discussion entirely.
  • When deciding how to respond to the use of a red herring, it’s important to remember that people don’t always use it intentionally, and that in some cases, the use of a red herring might represent a reasonable attempt to shift the topic.