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False Dichotomy

A false dichotomy is a choice between two options that’s delivered as though they are the only two possible options.

A false dichotomy occurs when two things are presented as the only alternatives when there are others available. These two “things” could be anything from good and evil, happiness and sadness, to religion and no religion. While it might seem like the alternatives are black and white, with no grey area, that isn’t actually the case.  Often, false dichotomies occur during an argument for or against something. For example, when someone argues against one point of view, for example, Christianity. If that person is then called or assumed to be an atheist, a false dichotomy has been created. They might prescribe to another religion altogether. False dichotomies are also known as false dilemmas.

False Dichotomy pronunciation: FAHl-ss die-CAHT-oh-me

False Dichotomy definition and examples


Definition and Explanation of False Dichotomy 

A false dichotomy or false dilemma occurs when two options or alternatives are presented as the only ones. Someone might choose to present only two sides in order to control the conversation or the decision-making process. For example, if a character in a story says “You’re either with me or against me.” This often sets up a false dilemma or false dichotomy because there are numerous other points of view to be had. That person might be “with” the character on some things and against them on others. 


Examples of False Dichotomies 

The following are some of the many possible false dichotomies that one might encounter. These could appear in advertisements, as a company tries to convince you that you have no choice but to buy their product. Advertisements, no matter what they’re for, attempt to use techniques like emotional appeals and false dilemmas to convince someone that they’re never going to be as good as they could be without a specific product. 

Other false dichotomies appear in political advertisements, suggesting that one candidate is going to do something they aren’t. These are types of political propaganda. 

In contrast to these, there are others that appear naturally in speech and might be seen in novels, short stories, and plays. They can also appear in television shows and films. It’s easy to work a false dilemma or false dichotomy into a conversation, especially if one person is trying to convince another of something. 

  • Vote for me or my opponent will take away all of your rights. 
  • You’ll never lose weight if you don’t start this diet plan. 
  • Immigrants only make this country more dangerous.
  • Women only like me who use this shampoo. 
  • I’m never going to go there again unless they lower their prices. 
  • If the country is ever going to be safe from terrorists we have to close the borders. 
  • Either go to this concert or spend the night alone and lonely. 
  • Purchase our product or no one is going to think you’re attractive. 

It should also be noted, especially within literature, that a false dichotomy might reveal something deeper about characters. For example, if a writer creates two people who are supposed to be different but the fallacy slowly reveals that they aren’t really that different after all. 

Some other popular dichotomies are those which present a “would you rather” alternative. Examples provide two options, one that’s more appealing than another, suggesting that it’s impossible to find common ground between the two. For example: 

  • Would you rather save money or spend money?
  • Would you rather have money for the future or money now? 
  • Would you rather do everything your family says or have them hate you?

These questions suggest that it’s impossible to find any way out of the dilemma when that is obviously not the case. 


How to Respond to a False Dichotomy

It’s easy to recognize a false dichotomy but how should they be responded to? The easiest way to address two options you’ve been presented with is to take the time to really consider if they’re the only possible options. Will you really be alone forever if you don’t use a dating site? Will you live a boring life if you don’t go on a cruise? It takes positive self-talk and a clear mind to ensure that false dichotomies, which are present in everyone’s everyday life, don’t control your decision making. It’s also important to consider who is offering the choice. It should help break these options down if you remember that the dating site is making money off its users, as is the cruise ship company. 


Why Do Writers Use False Dichotomy? 

Writers use false dichotomies for the same reasons that anyone might in conversations and advertisements. They’re used to suggest that the world is one way when it is in reality far more complicated. It is easy to imagine how successful a false dichotomy would be when used in the dialogue of a, particularly manipulative character. This person would try to convince another that there’s truly only one choice they can make. Depending on the writer, it might be part of their job description to come up with false dichotomies for some of the possible ads discussed above. 


What is Dichotomy? 

A dichotomy is a literary technique that separates two things into contrasting and contradictory parts. These two opposing sides or groups complement one another while at the same time drawing attention to one another’s differences. Some other common examples of dichotomies in literature are heaven and hell, male and female, real and imaginary, and optimistic and pessimistic. The most common type of dichotomy in literature is good and evil. One character or group will exhibit opposite character traits to the other character or group. This is how heroes and villains are formed. It contrasts with a false dichotomy because the author is suggesting that the two things are truly different from one another. 


False Dichotomy Synonyms 

  • False dilemma
  • “Either-or” fallacy
  • Informal logical fallacy
  • Logical fallacy.


Related Literary Terms 

  • Allusion: an indirect reference to, including but not limited to, an idea, event, or person. It is used within both prose and verse writing.
  • Analogy: an extensive comparison between one thing and another that is very different from it.
  • Point of View: what the speaker, narrator, or character can see from their perspective.
  • Symbolism: the use of symbols to represent ideas or meanings. They are imbued with certain qualities often only interpretable through context.
  • Tone: how the writer feels about the text, at least to an extent. All forms of writing, aside from the academic have a tone of some sort.


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