Logical Fallacies

This link on logical fallacies (http://www.broadsheet.ie/2012/04/24/your-argument-is-invalid/) hit home today because I recognized the Straw Man (Straw Person) fallacy in a conversation with a friend about my book Transformational Leadership and High-Intensity Interval Training. Logical fallacies draw attention away from an argument, and whether intentional or not, can manipulate and persuade the thinking of both sender and receiver. Owen M. Williamson, lecturer at the University of Texas at El Paso, says:

Fallacies are fake or deceptive arguments, arguments that prove nothing. Fallacies often seem superficially sound, and far too often have immense persuasive power, even after being clearly exposed as false. Fallacies are not always deliberate, but a good scholar’s purpose is always to identify and unmask fallacies in arguments” (http://utminers.utep.edu/omwilliamson/ENGL1311/fallacies.htm. para 1).

I suspect people resort to fallacious reasoning to reduce discomfort caused by cognitive dissonance. Leon Festinger’s (1957)[i] cognitive dissonance theory suggests there is a drive in people to maintain harmony between their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. There is a motive to prevent disharmony, or dissonance, because it is uncomfortable. For example, cognitive dissonance is created when one believes that drug abuse is harmful, yet one uses drugs anyway. Dissonance is resolved by either changing one’s attitude, obtaining new information that alters the attitude, or reducing the importance one places on the particular attitude.

My friend does not exercise, and says she says she does not understand the passion that I and others have for it. She told me also that she stopped reading my book at page seven because she could not support the premise. I asked her what issue she took with the premise. This is when I recognized the Strawperson fallacy. She said she did not agree that one needs to be fit to be a good leader. There are many brilliant, highly-accomplished people who do not exercise, she argued, adding that they relate well with others. She also cited the example of Stephen Hawking, the famous theoretical physicist, as a person with a brilliant mind who does not exercise.

The crux of her fallacious assertion was claiming I said only avid athletes can be transformational leaders. That was not my premise at all. I did, however, find that the HIIT athletes are likely to be transformational leaders. There are many transformational leaders who are not HIIT athletes; I never argued that to be a transformational leader one needs to be an avid athlete. Moreover, my qualitative research does not explain causation, which I explain clearly in my book.

I believe her reasoning was also an effort to reduce cognitive dissonance. She attempted to reconcile competing forces. One force was her respect for me and desire to read my book as a supportive friend. A competing factor was her negative feelings about exercise. Her use of the Strawperson fallacy could have been a tool to alter her attitude toward my book, which would reduce her cognitive dissonance. Discrediting the argument in my book maintained her comfort level, and held her views in an equilibrium. By stopping at page seven, she no longer had to contend with the discomfort associated with my premise:. HIIT athletes tend to perceive their leadership style as transformational.

No doubt many of us encounter fallacies regularly, either as receivers or senders of messages. Yet critical thinking is the mark of an effective leader. In a complex and dynamic environment, leaders need to question assumptions and learn from mistakes. Remaining open to new points of view may lead to novel insights for problem solving, opportunity creation, and coping effectively with ambiguity (John Baldoni’s HBR Network Blog). Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable. Those willing to step outside their comfort zones, like the leaders interviewed for my book, enjoy great accomplishments athletically and in their leadership roles.

[i] Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved.