Red herring fallacy is the behavior of diverting the topic to create a distraction from the main point.
Try to recall your experience of a magic show. Before the moment of surprise, the showman employs different tactics to divert your attention from the trick. He might sway you with words, put on charming showbiz, or distract you with pretty women.
Such misdirection allows the magician to pull off an illusion by preventing you from looking at the right place. In theory, that’s exactly what red herring fallacy is.
Many thriller movies follow the same principle. If you have watched Fast and the furious or Now you see me, you’ll know what I mean. A certain event takes the spotlight to deceive the crowd, but the real action occurs elsewhere.
Such techniques aren’t restricted to theatrical shows alone. You exhibit such behavior in real life too. Sometimes you do so intentionally and sometimes without your knowledge.
Surprised? Don’t worry. In this article we will cover the red herring fallacy along with:
- Examples of intentional and unintentional use in real life
- The reason behind its usage
- Ways to avoid the fallacy
- What is the red herring fallacy?
- Examples of the red herring fallacy
- Intentional red herring:
- 3. Rejecting advice
- Unintentional red herring:
- The reasons behind the red herring fallacy
- How to avoid the red herring fallacy:
What is the red herring fallacy?
Red herring fallacy is a diversion tactic to distract others or yourself from the main point. Often, it drives the conversation or action in an entirely different direction causing an incorrect conclusion or outcome.
It is closely related to the straw man fallacy.
The term dates back to the 18th century when William Cobbett told a story about distracting hounds from chasing a rabbit using a fish called herring made extremely pungent by heavily smoking it or curing it in brine. No fish in itself is called red herring though so the actual origin of the term is uncertain.
Examples of the red herring fallacy
As mentioned earlier, the behavior of diverting the topic falls under two broad aspects:
Intentional red herring:
You usually resort to such behavior when you do not have a strong defense against the original point. Therefore, you try to sway the conversation or situation towards a direction that you can better handle.
Here are a few real life examples:
1. When you’re cornered
Jack has cheated on his partner and his friend David heard about it.
David: “Aren’t you ashamed of being faithful to your partner, Jack?”
Jack: “Wait, what exactly is faithfulness?”
David: “Faithfulness is being exclusive to your partner.”
Jack: “Who made that definition? For me, faithfulness is taking care of my wife and making sure she is happy.”
Jack has turned the conversation on its head. He prefers arguing about the open-ended definition of faithfulness instead of explaining his mistake.
2. Justifying a mistake
Kimberly works for an IT organization which is into providing high internet security for their clients. On one occasion, she fails to perform a routine check which leads to one of their business clients getting hacked and losing tons of money.
To explain her folly, she exclaims, “the workload in the company is bonkers these days. After such long hours, anyone is bound to miss an item from the checklist.”
By bringing in a different challenge into the picture, Kimberly attempts to point the blame elsewhere. She hopes the organization tries to reduce the workload instead of holding her accountable for the error.
3. Rejecting advice
Olivia is catching up with a group of friends. Among them is a person called Noah, who offers unsolicited advice.
Noah: “Have you considered eating healthy and working out, Olivia?”
Olivia: “Are you saying I’m fat?”
Noah: “Not at all, I was s with good intentions because you’re my friend.”
Olivia: “Maybe you should change your mindset and learn how to talk to women first.”
Whether Noah should have provided unsolicited advice is beside the point. But, Olivia used the red herring fallacy to dodge the conversation of unhealthy habits by questioning Noah’s mindset.
4. Mystery novels/TV shows
Try to recall any mystery novel or TV show that you have watched that involves a crime, for example, a murder. While the detective steps into the picture, no one knows who the culprit is.
Nevertheless, in every story, all evidence points to one primary suspect. But, after an entangling web of suspense and a surprising turn of events, the detective nabs the criminal. Never is the culprit the original suspect.
Such a pattern occurs so often in all mystery stories that you and I already know that the person who appears most likely to have committed the crime isn’t the murderer. Authors and story writers use the red herring to sway your attention and build the tension.
5. Avoiding argumentative conversations or disappointment
Henry had promised his son Owen to take him to the zoo. But, he forgot until it was too late in the evening. Here is how the father tries to mitigate the situation once he gets home.
Owen: “You told me we’d visit the zoo today.”
Henry: “Yes, but don’t you like to score goals against your dad at football? That’s what we’re doing today.”
Henry ensures his son goes to bed happy despite forgetting to take him to the zoo.
Politicians apply similar diplomacy while answering tricky questions by the media.
Unintentional red herring:
Often, you use the red herring fallacy to fool yourself. The reason why you exhibit such behavior depends on various factors and different reasons.
Here are some real-life examples:
1. I’m so busy. I work long hours every day
In the corporate world today, working long hours has turned into a fashion statement and a method to showcase hard work.
But, if you attribute the problem to long working hours alone, you’re missing the following factors that go into it:
- How productive are you during those hours?
- How many of your tasks add real value?
- How much of time goes on unnecessary meetings, smartphones, and social media?
By pinning the issue on long working hours, you avoid looking at the areas you could improve.
2. Relationship problems
“My partner does not understand me” is a common concern people have with their relationship. Maybe you have the same trouble yourself.
The underlying cause of such problems is often mutual. Disputes arise when both partners fail to understand one another. But each of them feels like the other person does not understand them.
Pointing the finger at your partner for a problem is a red herring to mask your failure to provide the right attention the relationship requires.
3. Vanity metrics
One of the entrepreneurs I was talking to spoke about his mistake with one of his startups. Before the launch, both the cofounders were positive about the idea and believed that the business would take off.
After a strong marketing campaign, the product did create a buzz. They were overjoyed to see a high influx of users flowing to their website to try it out.
Only a month later, something felt out of place. After digging deeper they realized that over 90% of the people who tried their product never returned. They had celebrated looking at the wrong metric.
I have noticed similar behavior in other businesses too. Recently after I wrote my first book, The Magic of 2 Seconds, I joined a group of indie authors to find ideas to promote the book. One method was to Amazon ads.
Different people have different results from those marketing campaigns. Many authors complained about Amazon ads burning their money by showing the ad to lots of people but not providing the revenue their book deserved.
But if you consider all possible angles, the ads alone don’t result in sales. They only help a book lover land on your book. Whether the customer chooses to buy it depends on other factors like the cover, the description, and also a sample from the first chapter.
Blaming Amazon ads for poor sales is a way to defend a book that has shortcomings of its own.
4. My boss is biased towards …
Every time a person earns a promotion, murmurs are heard in the background. You assume that the boss favored the person even though you deserved it more.
“I’ve been here for 5 years and I get nothing,” you complain among your closed circle of coworkers. But, have you considered your contribution? Are you turning a blind eye to all the good work the other person did? Do you have the humility to accept that you could have done more?
Blaming your boss for nepotism is an easy way to overlook your imperfections. Due to red herring fallacy, you convince yourself that you did all you could, but no one gave you the credit you deserved.
5. My situation does not allow me to …
People blame their circumstances for not having the time to do what they desire. For example, you might mention, “I wish I could work with focus, but people in my house keep distracting me.”
While your surroundings might contribute to your problems, have you attempted to create a distraction-free environment? You can lock yourself in the room, speak to your family to leave you alone during certain hours, or find many other alternatives.
Instead, blaming others for your challenges is the easy way out. You divert the problem from your failure to change yourself to things that you have control over.
The reasons behind the red herring fallacy
Now that you understand how the red herring fallacy manifests itself in your activities, you can spot the reasons why it occurs too.
1. Justifying from a better angle
The primary reason for such behavior is to shift your position from a weak spot to a place where you can launch a better defense. Whether you resort to the red herring consciously or unconsciously, the underlying cause remains the same. You try to pull yourself out of the corner and put up a better fight against others or your own conscience no matter how illogical your argument.
2. Emotional investment
If the topic in question delves deep into the neurons of your emotions, you find ways to justify your actions. For example:
- an entrepreneur who has spent sweat and blood on a failing business tries to find reasons to keep it running
- a person defending his loved one tries to explain the reason for the wrongdoing
3. Ego hit
Admitting a problem affects your ego in your own eyes or those of others. To keep your ego intact, you attempt to divert the attention elsewhere.
If discussing the actual point or admitting a mistake leads to negative consequences, you try to find a moral high ground to justify yourself. When a lot is at stake, red herring fallacy comes to your rescue.
5. Tired/lack of attention
Sometimes, your state of mind or body can influence the way you act or think.
If you’re tired after a long day, you prefer to avoid discussing a problem because you’re too famished to deal with it then.
In another scenario, your mind might be wandering around and you’re caught off-guard. To avoid admitting your lack of attention, you change the topic altogether.
For example, your spouse pitches a thought and asks, “what do you think?” You have no clue what the topic was, so you say, “Sure. You know, I wanted to ask your opinion on …”
How to avoid the red herring fallacy:
Like any other cognitive bias, you cannot combat the fallacy without awareness. If you’re using red herring intentionally, you already know the solution. Since you know you’re doing it, simply stop yourself.
When it comes to exhibiting such behavior without your knowledge, here are 3 tactics that can help:
1. Five whys:
Five whys serves an effective technique to get to the root cause of any problem. It’s like a kid who keeps asking you questions no matter what you say.
The concept is utterly simple but its ability to find the underlying problem is unparalleled. As per the technique, you have to keep asking “why?” until you have no further answer.
Let’s take an example where you fell flat on your face in the kitchen. The problem – you slipped. To find the actual cause, keep asking why.
- I slipped in the kitchen
- I slipped because of the oil spilled on the floor
- The cat knocked off the bottle on the counter
- The bottle was left open on the counter after cooking
- I do not have the habit of replacing the items in their place after use
As you can see, not always do you require 5 whys to get to the real reason. Sometimes, you might need more than 5 too. In any case, the deeper you go the harder you’ll find to avoid the real reason.
2. Use the two-second rule
The two second rule helps you become more mindful of the little actions you do.
To apply this rule, pause for a moment to gather your thoughts before taking any action. What you do during the pause depends on the situation and your personality. You can try 2 options during your pause:
- Ask yourself if you’re doing the right thing
- Think of the consequences of your actions
When you take a short pause, you’ll know if your reasons are genuine or fabricated.
3. Wait, what’s the problem here
When you find the discussion going nowhere, take a moment to ask yourself, “Wait, what was the actual problem in question?” The technique is similar to the corporate meeting version of, “Ok, let’s us take a step back and ..”
Reminding yourself of the problem statement helps you align yourself in the right direction.
Our brain is one marvelous piece of nature. On one end it does fascinating things you cannot fathom while on the other end, it makes silly errors to fool yourself and others.
That said, you do not have to avoid using the red herring every single time. On many occasions, red herring is a necessary diversion to avoid bigger conflicts. You can use it as a diplomacy tactic to avoid harming relationships or hurting other people. So, if you’re using it on purpose with all the good intentions, feel free to do so.
But, be wary of how you fool yourself with a red herring. A real reason and a fake justification are separated by only a thin line. Can you spot it in yourself and fix it?
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.