Slippery slope fallacy is the error of making a series of small claims without enough proof thereby ending up with a significant outcome(usually a bad one).
If we allow our country to increase exports, manufacturers will aim to increase profits. Once they see higher revenue, they’ll want to send away everything they produce. Eventually, we won’t have any goods left for the country.
Have you heard people making drastic conclusions based on a series of statements? Such claims occur in big and small ways all around you. When you listen to the argument, you feel like the person is making a valid point. But how accurate are such claims?
The major outcome predicted due to a series of little events is in most cases highly unlikely and sometimes even downright impossible. Yet, the progression from one statement to another makes the sequence believable.
Such an error in judgment is called the slippery slope fallacy. This article will cover:
- The details of the slippery slope fallacy with types and examples
- How to avoid making such incorrect claims
- How to spot such erroneous claims
- What is the slippery slope fallacy?
- Examples of the slippery slope fallacy:
- Types of slippery slope fallacy:
- The right usage
- How to fix the slippery slope fallacy:
- Avoiding making a claim based on a slippery slope:
- How to counter as a listener
What is the slippery slope fallacy?
Slippery slope fallacy is an error in critical thinking where one person starts with a minor statement which builds on to a chain of related events finally ending with a significant consequence, usually a negative one.
The logical fallacy of such a statement looks like follows:
The example below is not fictitious but a real argument used against gay marriage.
The flow starts with a simple fact or a statement. Often, it involves a current occurrence or the possible first step of executing a decision.
- An example: The Government allowing the legalization of same-sex marriage
The next step advances into a related action or a possibility. In most cases, the sequence is based on assumption than evidence or statistics.
- For example: If the Government allows people of the same sex to get married, they’ll soon allow minors to get married too.
A series of such statements follow, leading to an outcome that seems alarming.
- For example: Once minors are permitted, the Government will allow marriage with animals and non-living things too. Eventually, marriage will no longer make any sense.
People use the final deduction to challenge the first statement or the decision itself. In this example, the person making the claim uses the conclusion of marriage turning into a joke to oppose the decision of legalizing marriage between people of the same sex.
The longer the sequence, the more unlikely the final statement is. That’s because it only takes one incorrect assumption in between to break the entire chain. Besides, each statement does not guarantee the next course of action. Various factors determine what can follow and the stated action is only one of the many possibilities. The flow creates an illusion of one step following the other seamlessly.
The slippery slope fallacy is used to support or contradict the first step in the sequence. The arguments used can not only convince others but also fool yourself into believing that you’re making a logical conclusion.
Examples of the slippery slope fallacy:
You and I are victims of the slippery slope fallacy in real life. You have not only been on the receiving end but also made such erroneous conclusions ourselves, intentionally or unintentionally.
Couples tend to blow a minor mistake out of proportion causing worthless fights or needless arguments. For example, when the husband arrives home without stopping at the grocery store to pick supplies, the nagging wife complains:
“Today, you forgot to buy the grocery. Tomorrow, you’ll ignore the other needs of your children. Soon enough, you’ll forget to come home. Over time, you’ll no longer remember that you had a family.”
Sure, the husband might want to break off the relationship, but will he ever forget to come home or that he had a family? Not under normal circumstances for sure.
People use such statements to exaggerate a little mistake.
Media ads use the slippery slope to make a lasting impression using a series of naturally flowing steps. Take, for example, a commercial for a men’s beauty cream.
The TV ad begins with a person with an acne filled face. He applies the cream and voila, the magic happens. The sequence flows as follows:
“If your face is filled with acne, try XYZ cream. You’ll have glowing skin in a few weeks. Soon, you’ll turn into a chic magnet. In no time, you’ll date the most gorgeous women around you.”
Well, we all know that a skin cream alone isn’t gonna help anyone woo the ladies. But what’s interesting is, despite such far fletched conclusions, viewers fall for such commercials.
3. Scaring children
Parents resort to the slippery slope fallacy to scare or persuade their children. If they find their kid playing video games all the time, they exclaim:
“Playing shooting games makes you enjoy the experience. If you keep doing that, you become cold-blooded. When you grow older, you’ll resort to violence in real-life. Eventually, you turn into a criminal yourself. So, stop playing those games.”
Other children who have played such games haven’t murdered anyone. But, when one person commits such a crime, people link the cause to gaming and use the story as evidence.
4. Opposing laws
When the Government considers passing a new law, the people against the decision make up a slippery slope fallacy to strengthen their protest. For example:
“Allowing the purchase of marijuana using a doctor’s prescription would create a belief that it is an acceptable drug. Soon enough, other drugs will be allowed too. Once all drugs are available in the market, the whole city will turn into a playground for drug addicts.”
The usage of medicinal marijuana turning into full-fledged legalization of drugs is as unlikely as a doomsday prediction resulting in a real apocalypse.
The same behaviour is used in politics too where a politician uses a slippery slope to make a minor decision look like a massive benefit for the public.
When you overthink a decision you tend to foresee the worst possible scenario. The fear of such extreme consequences prevents you from taking the first step itself.
For example, if you’re stuck in a job that you hate, you dream of switching your career to a different profession. But, your mind wanders into the realm of fear as follows:
“If I switch my career, I’ll have to start from scratch. I won’t get paid as much as I am right now and I might struggle to cope up with the new responsibilities. If I fail to perform as expected, I’ll no longer be respected. I’d get fired and not have any money to manage my expenses. I must stick to my current role itself.”
The slippery slope fallacy can invoke fear and make you stick to your comfort zone at the cost of better future returns.
Types of slippery slope fallacy:
The slippery slope fallacy can be further divided into two categories:
The logic of the casual type follows the usual sequence of if A, then B, then C, and so on. Compared to the other counterpart, the casual one is more commonly used. For example:
“If you don’t study, you’ll get bad grades. Without an excellent score, you cannot get into a good college. Therefore, you’ll not have any job and you’ll end up homeless.”
The other usage of the slippery slope occurs less often where a sequence of minor differences makes a large variation appear insignificant. Such an argument is very similar to a sorites paradox.
The concept starts with a heap of sand. If you take one grain off it, you still have a heap. Take another one out, the heap remains as is. But what if you keep removing one grain at a time until you only have one left? Does it mean that grain is equal to a heap? If yes, a grain is equal to a heap. If not, at what point did the heap no longer remain a heap?
Using the assumption that removing one single grain does not change a heap into a non-heap, larger differences are considered insignificant.
The right usage
Assuming one action leads to another isn’t always an error. If you apply careful analysis, such thinking helps you avoid massive negative consequences.
Here is an example: “If I don’t call the plumber now, I’ll have to apply a temporary solution to fix the leaking tank. The water flow will stop for now, but the problem won’t go away. When it occurs again, the situation could get worse and destroy the entire tank altogether.”
Because each of these steps has a realistic chance of occurrence, using the sequence helps you think ahead and take the right action upfront.
How to fix the slippery slope fallacy:
You’re vulnerable to this fallacy both as the person making the claim and as the listener.
Avoiding making a claim based on a slippery slope:
1. Avoid long sequences
As much as possible, avoid using a long series of connected events to reach a logical conclusion. The strength of any chain depends on its weakest link. So, even if one of your statements isn’t factually true, you risk breaking the entire loop.
Therefore, the longer your sequence, the higher the chances of misinterpreting one or more steps in between, and thereby reaching an incorrect conclusion.
2. Compare the first and the last statement
Look at the first step and the outcome. If the conclusion seems way off from the point you started, it most likely is. Don’t jump from a simple fact to an entirely different inference.
Check if each step in your sequence of events leads to the next with enough evidence. Even if one of your links seems like an outside chance, reconsider your entire claim.
If you’re making a far fledged conclusion from a seemingly simple first step, as mentioned in the previous tip, cross-check each link with extra care.
4. Consider probabilities
Even if one step can lead to another, consider how likely is it. For example, can legalizing marriage between people of the same sex lead to allowing weddings between minors? Yes, a crazy monarch might allow that, but the chances are close to none. Do not use such extremely unlikely scenarios to make a claim.
5. Check your bias towards the final claim
Check if you have a liking or hatred towards the conclusion you’ve made or the first step you’ve used. The reason for making up the false claim could stem from your confirmation bias, where you want to stick to your beliefs by fabricating evidence.
How to counter as a listener
Whenever you hear a sequence of events, identify the step which doesn’t make sense. Consider the example “If you don’t study, you’ll get bad grades. Without an excellent score, you cannot get into a good college. Therefore, you’ll not have any job and you’ll end up homeless.”
The weakest statement here is assuming you’ll not have a job if you fail to get into a good college. Not every employee today had the privilege to learn at a prestigious institution.
2. Highlight how far the original fact and conclusion are
The person might not realize how far off the outcome and first step are. In such cases, call out how distant the original statement is from the conclusion.
When the claimant rejects your point about the weakest link, try to mention how rare the event is. For example, if a person uses the possibility of a flight crash to avoid stepping into an airplane, you can use statistics. The chances of a person dying due to a flight crash are 1 in 5 million. You face a far more likely threat(1 out of 103) when you drive to the airport.
When neither of the above tips work, use an alternate path to highlight how you can reach a different outcome using similar logic.
Consider the example where an employee fears making a career change.
“If I switch my career, I’ll have to start from scratch. I won’t get paid as much as I am right now and I might struggle to cope up with the new responsibilities. If I fail to perform as expected, I’ll no longer be respected. I’d get fired and not have any money to manage my expenses. I must stick to my current role.”
You can turn this conclusion on its head by using a different path.
“If I switch my career, I’ll have to start from scratch. I might shine with my new responsibilities and perform much better than I presently do. Therefore, I’ll gain the respect of those around me. I’d get promoted sooner and grow into a senior VP in a short span. I must change my career.”
Sure, the above sequence of events is unlikely too, but you’re making them up for a reason. You’re only using them to prove a point that a sequence of events isn’t a confirmation for the final statement to occur.
5. Calculate probabilities as they pile up
When you use a sequence of events, the outcome becomes more and more unlikely based on simple mathematical probabilities. With each step, the chances reduce by a multiplicative factor.
For example, the chance of landing heads when you toss a coin is 0.5. When you add a sequence of landing another tail you have to multiple 0.5 x 0.5 to calculate the probability. So the chances of landing two tails in a row are 25%. Add another tail and the probability reduces to 12.5%.
Similarly, the probability of a chain of events leading to the stated outcome is quite low.
Consider the example:
“Today, you forgot to buy the grocery. Tomorrow, you’ll ignore the other needs of the family. Soon enough, you’ll forget to come home. Over time, you’ll no longer remember that you had a family.”
I’m assigning rough probabilities to each step.
- You forgot to buy the grocery = 50%
- You’ll ignore the other needs of the family= 10%
- You’ll forget to come home = 1%
- You’ll no longer remember that you had a family=0.1%
If you multiply them all, you arrive at .00005%. Those numbers are quite close to the chances that you’ll turn into a billionaire.
The slippery slope fallacy works as the name suggests. Once you enter the tilting landscape, you slide down the path without control. Your assumptions transition from one step to another giving an impression that the final statement is indeed possible.
Without the awareness of this logical thinking flaw, you slip often. But, once you know how it works, the slippery slope fallacy is one of the easiest cognitive biases to spot and fix.
Next time you make or hear a strange inference based on a simple action or fact, watch out. You wouldn’t want to slip, would you?
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.