The Ad Hominem Fallacy: How People Use Personal Attacks to Win Arguments

Ad Hominem Fallacy


An ad hominem argument is an argument that attacks a person directly, rather than addressing the point that the person is trying to make.  This rhetoric technique appears frequently in discussions, so it’s important to understand it. In the following article, you will learn about the various types of ad hominem attacks, and about what you can do to counter them.


What are ad hominem arguments

Ad hominem arguments (argumentum ad hominem) are a type of an informal logical fallacy, meaning that there is an issue with their premise. Specifically, by attacking the person making an argument rather than the argument itself, the person using the ad hominem attack fails to address the stance that they are arguing against.

As such, ad hominem arguments are categorized as a subtype of the fallacy of irrelevance, since they contain information that is not directly relevant to the discussion at hand. More specifically, ad hominem arguments are a subtype of the genetic fallacy, since the person using them is arguing against a certain stance indirectly, by attacking its source.

Note that in some cases, arguments against the source of the information can be relevant to the discussion. As long as they are relevant, and as long as the person using them explains why they are relevant, the use of such arguments isn’t logically fallacious. As such, an argument directed at a person becomes a fallacious ad hominem attack only when it is not directly relevant to the discussion at hand.

In the next section, you will learn about the various types of ad hominem arguments. Then, you will learn the basic strategy for countering and defeating this sort of argument.


Types of ad hominem arguments

There are several different types of ad hominem arguments. What they all have in common is that the person using these arguments is attacking their opponent by focusing on something personal that is irrelevant to the discussion, instead of addressing the point that their opponent is trying to make.

As such, the difference between the different types of ad hominem arguments lies in the way in which the personal attack occurs, and each type of ad hominem argument attacks people in a different way.


Poisoning the well

Poisoning the well is a rhetoric technique where someone presents unrelated negative information about their opponent, with the goal of discrediting everything that their target says.

For example:

A: I think that we should increase the federal spending on education.

B: You’re a fascist, so clearly we shouldn’t listen to what you have to say about education.


Appeal to motive (circumstantial ad hominem)

An appeal to motive (the main type of circumstantial ad hominem) is an argument that dismisses an idea by questioning the motives of the person who proposed it.

For example:

A: I think that we should increase the federal spending on education.

B: You’re only saying that because you want to show support for the president that you voted for.


Appeal to hypocrisy (tu quoque)

An appeal to hypocrisy (also known as tu quoque), is an argument that attempts to discredit a person, by suggesting that their argument is inconsistent with their previous acts.

For example:

A: I think that we should increase the federal spending on education.

B: You clearly don’t even care about public education, since you sent your own kids to a private school.


Tone policing

Tone policing is an argument technique that focuses on the manner in which a person makes an argument, rather than on the argument itself.

For example:

A: I think that we should increase the federal spending on education. The current situation is unacceptable in many of the poorer areas of the country, and children are suffering because of it.

B: Okay, okay, no need to get so worked up over these things.

A: But what do you think about the situation?

B: I think that you shouldn’t be so emotional about it.


Traitorous critic fallacy (argumentum ergo decedo)

The traitorous critic fallacy (also known as argumentum ergo decedo), involves personally attacking a person for criticising something, and suggesting that they should stay away from whatever it is they are criticising if they don’t approve of the current situation.

For example:

A: I think that as a country, we’re not spending enough on universal healthcare.

B: Well if you don’t like it here, then you should just leave and go somewhere where they have the kind of healthcare that you want.


Association fallacy

The association fallacy occurs when someone is attacked based on their association with something that is unrelated to the discussion at hand.

For example:

A: I think that we should increase the federal spending on education.

B: Well, the Nazis also thought that, so you’re like the Nazis.


Abusive fallacy

The abusive fallacy occurs when an argument simply verbally abuses the opponent instead of attacking their proposed argument.

For example:

A: I think that we should increase the federal spending on education.

B: I think that you’re a moron and that nobody cares about your opinion.


How to counter ad hominem arguments

The basic logical flaw in ad hominem arguments is that they focus on information that is irrelevant to the discussion at hand. As such, you have several options when countering these arguments:

  • Point out the irrelevance of the argument- you do this by pointing out that the personal attack has nothing to do with the argument at hand, and by calling out your opponent on their use of this fallacy. Usually, it’s best to not become defensive when doing this, but to go on the offense and ask your opponent to justify why their personal attack on you is relevant to the discussion.
  • Ignore the personal attack- you can choose to keep the discussion going, while refusing to engage with the personal attack that your opponent made. This can work in some cases, and especially when ignoring the personal attacks makes you seem like you are not stooping down to your opponent’s level. However, in some cases this isn’t a viable option, and especially when you feel that not responding will imply that you agree with whatever is said against you, even if it’s not related to the discussion.
  • Go with it- this is similar to ignoring the attack, except that you first acknowledge it and show that you don’t care, before moving on with the discussion. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to agree with the attack; rather, it means that you have to show that you’re aware of it, which might look better than ignoring it entirely. To do this, you can use language such as “I get it that you think that I’m X, but that doesn’t have anything to do with what we’re discussing here”.

Keep in mind that in some cases, you can choose to counterattack with personal attacks of your own when your opponent uses an ad hominem attack against you. However, this means that you are resorting to logically fallacious arguments, so think carefully before you choose to do this.

The one way in which this can be relatively acceptable is if you use a similar form of the attack that was used against you, in order to show that such an attack presents information that is irrelevant to the discussion at hand. For example:

A: I think that we should increase the federal spending on education.

B: You’re only saying that because you want to support the president that you voted for.

A: Not really, just as I hope you’re not arguing against it only because you want to support the president that you voted for.

Most importantly, remember that ad hominem attacks are personal, but shouldn’t be taken as such. Whichever approach you choose to use in order to counter these arguments, make sure to remain calm, and to not let this type of attack get to you, since that’s one of the main reasons why people will use it against you in the first place.


Summary and conclusions

  • An ad hominem argument is an argument that attacks a person directly, instead of addressing the point that the person is trying to make.
  • These arguments are logically fallacious, since they consist of presenting irrelevant information in order to discredit a stance by attacking its source.
  • Questioning the source of information can be valid in some cases; this type of argument is fallacious only in cases where the attack has nothing to do with the discussion at hand.
  • There are various types of ad hominem arguments, and each of them attacks people in a different way, such as by calling them hypocrites, by questioning their motives, or by telling them to stay away from the issue if they disagree with the current state of things.
  • To counter ad hominem arguments, you can either point out the logical flaw in the argument, briefly acknowledge it and move on, or refuse to engage with it entirely. In some cases, you can also counterattack with a similar personal argument, in order to show that such an attack is irrelevant to the discussion.


The Benjamin Franklin Effect: How to Build Rapport by Asking for Favors

The Benjamin Franklin Effect


The Benjamin Franklin effect is a psychological phenomenon that causes people to like someone more after they do that person a favor. In the following article, you will learn more about this effect, and about how you can use it in order to build rapport with people.


The Ben Franklin Effect

Simply put, the Ben Franklin effect is a phenomenon where the act of doing a favor for someone, especially a person that you slightly dislike or feel neutral about, makes you like them more.

One study, for example, showed that when a researcher asked participants to return the money that they earned in an experiment, as a personal favor to him, they tended to rate him as more likable afterward. A different study on the topic found a similar effect, where asking someone for help with solving a puzzle made the helper feel closer to the person asking for help.

This phenomenon has generally been explained using cognitive dissonance theory. As one study says:

As long as a person likes the recipient of the favor, feels that he is deserving, or that he would probably return the favor, the person is able to offer himself ample justification for having performed the favor. There are instances, however, when an individual is ‘put on the spot’ and winds up performing a favor for someone he does not hold in high esteem, a complete stranger, or even someone he actively dislikes. In such instances, he has insufficient justification for performing the favor since he does not particularly like the person and has no reason to expect that the person would reciprocate the favor.

Accordingly, if an individual performs a favor for a person about whom he initially has neutral or negative feelings, he may come to like that person as a means of justifying his having performed the favor. This prediction is derived from the theory of cognitive dissonance… If one does a favor for a disliked person, the knowledge of that act is dissonant with the cognition that one does not like the recipient of the favor. That is, since one does not usually benefit persons whom one dislikes, the situation is dissonance arousing. One way in which a person might reduce this dissonance is to increase his liking for the recipient of his favor, i.e., come to feel that he was deserving of the favor.

– From “Liking a Person as a Function of Doing Him a Favour

Essentially, what this means is that when someone does you a favor, they need to justify it to themself. If they already like you, this isn’t a problem, but if they dislike you, they need to have a reason that can help them explain to themself why they are helping you.

The simplest explanation that someone can choose for why they would help you is that they must like you in some way. This justification works even if that wasn’t the case before they performed the favor, and its use is supported by other research on the topic, which shows that being kind to someone increases how much you like that person.

In addition, it’s important to remember that this effect isn’t limited just to people who dislike you:

Favors performed for persons about whom one has neutral or only moderately positive feelings might also create dissonance. This would be the case as long as the costs (in effort, time, etc.) involved in doing favors for such people lacked sufficient justification.

– From “Liking a Person as a Function of Doing Him a Favour

That is, as long as the favor is big enough in scope compared to how much the person performing it likes you, then the Ben Franklin effect should cause them to like you more if they perform that favor.


Historical origin

The name of this effect comes from a story in the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, who describes how he dealt with the animosity of a rival legislator.

Specifically, after hearing that his rival has a rare book in his library, Franklin wrote to his rival asking him if Franklin could borrow the book for a few days. The rival obliged, and a week later Franklin returned the book, with a letter expressing how much he liked it. The next time the two met, Franklin’s rival spoke to him with great civility and showed a willingness to help him in other regards, leading the two men to become good friends.

Franklin consequently referred to this effect as an old axiom, stating that:

He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.


How to take advantage of the Benjamin Franklin effect

At this stage, you already understand the basic premise of the Benjamin Franklin effect. Next, you will see a few tips, which are based on other research on the topic, that will help you take advantage of this effect as effectively as possible:

  • First, remember that the scope of the favor doesn’t matter as much as the favor itself. That is, in most cases the increase in rapport comes from the fact that the other person performs a favor for you, even if it’s relatively small. This is especially true if the other person dislikes you, rather than simply feels neutral or moderately positive towards you.
  • In addition, don’t be afraid to ask for help, since people often underestimate how likely other people are to help them. This bias occurs because when we seek help, we focus on the expected cost of helping us, while potential helpers focus on the perceived social cost of refusing a direct request for help (i.e. saying “no”), which most people want to avoid whenever possible.
  • You can take advantage of the effects of reciprocity, by performing a small favor for the other person, before asking them to perform a favor for you. Essentially, by performing a favor for the other person first, you make it less likely that they will refuse to help you later, even if they did not ask you for a favor in the first place. However, if you do this, make sure to perform the initial favor only a short amount of time before asking for a favor yourself, because the effects of reciprocity diminish over time.
  • Similarly, after asking them for a favor, you can perform a small favor in return, in order to increase the likelihood of them helping you if you ask for a favor again. Therefore, if you need to ask for a big favor, it’s sometimes better to start by asking for a small favor which you can reciprocate, before moving to the main request later on.

Most importantly, make sure to use common sense when taking advantage of this effect. This means that you should be realistic with regards to who you asking for favors, and with regards to what that favors you ask for.

In addition, don’t forget that how you ask for the favor is also important, and can have a significant effect on your success rates, though the best way to ask for a favor will vary in different scenarios. Overall though, in almost all cases, being kind and polite will get you the farthest, especially if your overall goal is to build rapport with the other person.


Summary and conclusions

  • The Benjamin Franklin effect is a psychological phenomenon that causes people to like someone more after they do that person a favor.
  • This happens because when you do someone a favor, your mind tries to justify it to itself by explaining that you must like that person, in order to avoid a state of cognitive dissonance.
  • As such, the Benjamin Franklin effect is most notable in cases where the person performing the favor either dislikes the person that they are helping, or feels neutral toward them.
  • When taking advantage of this effect, it’s important to remember that in general, the act of performing the favor is more important than the scope of the favor, so that even a small favor can lead to a significant increase in rapport.
  • You can increase the likelihood that someone will be willing to do you a favor by taking advantage of the effects of reciprocity, where performing a favor for the other person first makes them more likely to help you later.


The Difference between Knowledge-Telling and Knowledge-Building in Your Learning

Knowledge Telling versus Knowledge Building


When going over material that we’ve learned, most of us instinctively focus on knowledge-telling, which involves repeating the material in a rote manner, where we just go over it again and again until we feel that we remember it well enough. However, research shows that we can get better results by focusing on knowledge-building, which involves a more in-depth analysis of the material when we learn.

In the following article, you will learn about these two styles of learning, and about how understanding them can help you study more effectively.


Knowledge-telling vs. knowledge building

When going over material, either by yourself or when explaining it to others, there are two main learning styles that you can adopt:

  • Knowledge-telling: this involves going over the source material repeatedly, with only minor modifications each time.
  • Knowledge-building: this involves going beyond the rote repetition of the source material, and includes the use of techniques such as highlighting key points, restructuring various sections, and drawing connections between different parts of the material.

Research on the topic shows us two important facts about how people study, with regards to these two learning strategies. First of all, it shows that knowledge-building is more effective as a learning style, meaning that it leads to better learning outcomes. At the same time however, research also shows that most people have a knowledge-telling bias, where they instinctively tend to focus on knowledge-telling, even though it’s significantly less effective as a learning style.

Note: research on the topic looked primarily at how people focus on knowledge-telling and knowledge-building when they tutor others, which is an excellent way to learn yourself. In the present post, we will apply these findings to the field of self-study, under the assumption that if these techniques help you learn better when you’re teaching others, then they will also help you get better results when you’re learning by yourself.


How to focus on knowledge-building

When you study, you want to make sure that you focus on knowledge-building once you feel that you have a solid grasp of the material.

You can do this by using various strategies, including:

  • Highlighting key points in the material.
  • Reorganizing and the material in order to improve its structure.
  • Drawing connections between different parts of the material.

One of the best techniques that you can use is asking questions about the material, which force you to analyze it in-depth, and consider it from angles that you haven’t considered it before.

For example, if you’re learning about mitochondria (the cellular organelles responsible for energy production), a basic question on the topic might be:

  • What is the main function of mitochondria?

While this is an important question that you should know the answer to, if you just focus on repeatedly memorizing the answer to that question (i.e. focus on knowledge-telling), then you won’t develop a thorough understanding of what this information actually means.

However, you can improve your understanding of the topic by asking questions that prompt you to consider this information from different angles. For example, you could ask:

  • What would happen if all the mitochondria in a cell suddenly stopped working?
  • How would you explain the role of mitochondria to a 5-year-old, using only simple analogies?
  • What raw materials do mitochondria consume, and where do they get them from?
  • What materials do mitochondria create, where are they transported, and what are they used for?

In addition, if you’re teaching the material that you’re learning to someone else, you want to encourage interactions with that person as much as possible. This means letting them ask you questions, and especially ones that lead you to truly analyze the material before answering. The advantage to doing this is that other people will find ways to think about the material from new angles, that you haven’t considered yourself.


A note on reflective learning

Overall, focusing on knowledge-building by using the techniques that we saw so far ensures that you develop a strong understanding of the material.

However, another thing that you should do is actively monitor your knowledge throughout the learning process, and identify any misunderstandings that you have, as well as areas where you need to improve. This is referred to as reflective knowledge-building, and it essentially means that you should display self-awareness when you learn, in order to improve your learning outcomes.


Summary and conclusions

  • There are two main styles of learning that we use when we go over material that we’re familiar with: knowledge-telling and knowledge-building.
  • Knowledge-telling is used when we simply repeat the material in a rote manner, without modifying it or engaging with it on a significant level.
  • Knowledge-building involves a thorough analysis of the material, by using techniques such as highlighting key points, or asking questions that prompt you to consider the material from new angles.
  • Studies show that most people tend to focus on knowledge-telling, despite the fact that knowledge-building leads to better learning outcomes.
  • It’s important to remember that effective learning should be reflective, meaning that it should involve a constant appraisal of your understanding of the material, together with attempts to fix any misunderstandings or gaps in knowledge.