Straw Man Arguments: How to Recognize, How to Counter, and When to Use Them Yourself

A straw man argument is a debate technique where a person pretends to refute his opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument that is only superficially similar to the original one. For example, if person A were to say “we should improve the public healthcare system”, person B might reply with “I find the fact that you want to give a lot of money to large pharmaceutical corporations very suspicious”.

What happens is the following:

  1. First, person A states his position.
  2. Then, person B presents a distorted version of person A’s original position (while pretending that there’s no difference between the two versions).
  3. Finally, person B attacks the new position, and acts as if this invalidates person A’s original position.

Essentially, instead of arguing against the original stance, person B creates a “straw man”, which is easier to attack. This misrepresentation is a flaw in the premise of person B’s argument, which is why straw man arguments are a type of informal logical fallacy.

 

Straw man example

Senator A: “I think we should make medical marijuana more readily available for patients who need it.”

Senator B: “That’s a terrible idea. If we let everyone just do drugs whenever they want, crimes rates will increase drastically.”

Senator B uses a straw man argument, by misrepresenting Senator A’s stance on two key points:

  1. Senator B argues against everyone having access to marijuana, while Senator A argued in favor of patients having access to it.
  2. Senator B argues against drugs in general, while Senator discussed only marijuana.

Note that we’re not discussing whether Senator B’s claim is true overall; we’re focusing on his misrepresentation of Senator A’s stance. Just because person B is distorting person A’s claim, doesn’t mean that his response to distorted stance is wrong (though I’m not implying that this is the case here).

 

Image depicting a straw man (abstractly).

 

Using straw man arguments in practice

These arguments are very prevalent in debates, and can appear in various forms:

  • Oversimplifying, generalizing or exaggerating the opponent’s argument, and then attacking the new, weaker version.
  • Focusing on one specific part of the opponent’s argument and ignoring everything else.
  • Quoting parts of the original argument out of context in order to misrepresent them.
  • Arguing against fringe or extreme opinions which are sometimes used to support the opponent’s stance, but which the opponent didn’t use himself. For example. If the opponent is part of a group, it is possible to focus on the weakest supporters and refute their stance, while pretending that this is what the entire group believes.

Being able to recognize straw man arguments is valuable, because it allows you to tell when others are using this technique, whether in direct arguments against you, or in general discussion. Furthermore, understanding how this technique works means that you can use it yourself when necessary. You would admittedly be exploiting a logical fallacy to support your argument, but the choice whether or not to do so is up to you.

However, while the use of the straw man technique is widespread, research suggests that using this type of argument is not always a beneficial strategy. A study on the topic showed that as a rhetorical technique, straw man arguments are useful only when the listeners have a low level of motivation to scrutinize the argument (i.e. they don’t care much about what’s being said). Conversely, when listeners are invested in actually thinking about the argument, the technique is generally ineffective, and may even backfire by reducing the persuasiveness of the argument.

 

Countering the straw man

A good way to minimize your vulnerability to the straw man in the first place is to use clear and exact language, with as little room for misinterpretations as possible. However, while this reduces the risk of someone using a straw man against you, nothing can prevent someone from using this type of argument if they want to. Therefore, you should know how to counter it, using the following options:

  • Point out the straw man- call your opponent out on their use of a straw man. If they stick with it, focus on showing why their new argument is not relevant. Keep in mind that perception matters, especially if there is an audience: you want your opponent to be on the defensive for his actions, not the other way around. Make your opponent defend why your original stance and their distorted stance are the same. If there is truly a flaw in their premise, it will become evident under scrutiny.
  • Ignore the straw man- you can ignore the distorted argument, by refusing to engage anything that isn’t relevant to your original point (i.e. defend your original point, not the straw man that the opponent presents). If they insist, you will likely have to call them out on the straw man.
  • Go with it- in some cases it might be necessary (or easier) to adopt the straw man as your argument. However, the longer you go down this route, the more difficult it is to go back and point out the straw man fallacy, since by supporting the new argument you appear to take it as your stance.

 

Other important things to keep in mind:

  • The first step to countering a straw man is recognizing it.
  • The overall goal of the straw man is to distort your stance, in order to make it harder for you to defend.
  • Sometimes people use this technique by mistake, because they accidentally misinterpret what you’re saying.

 

Iron manning

An iron man argument is similar to a straw man argument, except that it’s used in order to strengthen your own claims. Essentially, you would use it the same way you would use a straw man (i.e. by misrepresenting an original stance), but this time it’s in order to make your own point easier to defend.

One of the most prominent ways to do this is by using vague statements that are easy to agree with, even if they don’t have much to do with your actual point. For example, let’s go back to Senator B, who’s arguing against legalizing medical marijuana for patients. Instead of talking about the issue at hand directly, Senator B can say the following: “I just want what everybody wants: to do the right thing, and make life better for the American people. Following our moral compass takes courage in hard times, but only if we remain steadfast in our beliefs will we be able to prosper and grow strong together”.

Senator B didn’t say anything that is directly related to the topic at hand. He didn’t discuss facts, and didn’t argue against anything his opponent said. Instead, he made abstract statements that almost anyone would agree with, and adopted this vague agenda as his stance. Now, instead of arguing against a specific topic like legalization of medical marijuana, he’s arguing in favor of “doing the right thing” and “following our moral compass”, which is much easier for him to defend.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • A straw man argument is when someone misrepresents their opponent’s view, in order to make it easier to attack.
  • This occurs through tactics such as overgeneralization, or quoting things out of context.
  • Once you recognize this technique, it’s possible to counter it.
  • You can use this technique yourself, or you can use a similar version (iron manning), to make your own arguments easier to defend.
  • This technique is relatively effective on uninterested listeners, but can be problematic if the audience is invested in the debate.

 


The Illusion of Transparency: Why You’re Not As Obvious As You Think You Are

“Individuals often believe their internal states are more apparent to others than is actually the case, a phenomenon known as the illusion of transparency. In the domain of public speaking, for example, individuals who are nervous about delivering a public speech believe their nervousness is more apparent to their audience than it actually is.”

The Illusion of Transparency and the Alleviation of Speech Anxiety

The illusion of transparency is our tendency to overestimate how well others can discern our emotional state. This cognitive bias is attributed to people’s inability to properly adjust from the anchor of their own point of view when attempting to take another person’s perspective.[1,2] Basically, since our own emotional state is clear to us, it’s difficult for us to assume that it isn’t as clear to others.

 

Graph showing difference between how much you think people know about you, and how much they actually know (illusion of transparency).

 

A set of studies on the topic shows several instances where the illusion of transparency affects people in everyday situations:

  • When faced with a stressful situation, people assume that their emotional distress is more obvious to others than it is in reality.
  • Liars significantly overestimate how well others are able to detect their lies.
  • People eating something that tastes bad assume that their disgust is more apparent to observers than it actually is.

 

What you can do about it

Now that you are familiar with the illusion of transparency, it’s time to take advantage of that familiarity. You can do that by understanding how this bias influences your own self-perception, and by understanding how it affects other people’s thought process. Below are a few examples for how your understanding of this phenomenon can be implemented.

  

Public speaking– simply being aware of the illusion of transparency can allow you to deliver better speeches.[2] The following text was used by researchers in an experiment which showed that speakers who were informed of the illusion of transparency before giving a talk, appeared more composed and gave a better talk than speakers who were not told about it:

“It might help you to know that research has found that audiences can’t pick up on your anxiety as well as you might expect. Psychologists have documented what is called an “illusion of transparency.” Those speaking feel that their nervousness is transparent, but in reality their feelings are not so apparent to observers. This happens because our own emotional experience can be so strong, we are sure our emotions “leak out.” In fact, observers aren’t as good at picking up on a speaker’s emotional state as we tend to expect. So, while you might be so nervous you’re convinced that everyone can tell how nervous you are, in reality that’s very rarely the case. What’s inside of you typically manifests itself too subtly to be detected by others. With this in mind, you should just relax and try to do your best. Know that if you become nervous, you’ll probably be the only one to know.”

The Illusion of Transparency and the Alleviation of Speech Anxiety

 

Identifying liars– as we saw earlier, liars will often assume that the person they are lying to can tell that they’re lying, even when they can’t.[3] If you suspect someone is lying to you, keep this in mind when questioning them, and use it as leverage and as a way to pressure them to say the truth. Conversely, if you’re the one doing the lying, keep in mind that the person that you’re lying to probably can’t read your emotional state as well as you think they can, and use this to alleviate some of your own pressure.

 

Negotiations– in negotiations, people tend to believe that their motives and intentions are more transparent to the other negotiators than they actually are.[4] Take advantage of this by realizing that you are probably overestimating how obvious your thoughts are to the person you are negotiating with, and by taking into account the fact that they are also probably worried about you being able to read them too easily

In addition, there is another important takeaway point here. In negotiations and negotiation-like situations, including informal conversations with your friends or romantic partners, it’s likely that the other person isn’t as aware of your preferences as you think they are. This means that they often can’t tell what you actually want unless you express it directly, even if you’re sure that they can. Because of this:

  1. Don’t always assume that other people can know what you want based on implicit hints. Express what you want directly when necessary, or use less subtle hints.
  2. Understand that other people may think that they are being obvious about what they want, when in fact they are using overly-subtle hints. Either ask them explicitly what they want, or account for this subtlety when interpreting their actions.
  3. When each person in a negotiation assumes that they are sharing more than the other people involved (because they think that everyone else can easily read their intentions), they may end up closing up if they feel that the situation isn’t fair. This can lead to a problematic downward spiral where everyone keeps holding back more and more. Recognize when this situation occurs, and do everything to avoid it by addressing the problem openly.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • People overestimate how obvious their emotional state is to others.
  • This is a cognitive bias known as the illusion of transparency.
  • Understanding how this phenomenon affects your own thought process and the thought process of others can be highly beneficial in many social situations.