Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Ve Have Vays of Making You Talk, Part VIII: Countering Logical Fallacies

In Part I of this post, I discussed why family members hate to discuss their chronic repetitive ongoing interpersonal difficulties with each other (metacommunication), and the problems that usually ensue whenever they try. 

I discussed the most common avoidance strategy - merely changing the subject (#1) - and suggested effective countermoves to keep a constructive conversation on track. In Part II, I discussed strategies #2 and #3, nitpicking and accusations of overgeneralizing respectively. In Part III, I discussed strategy #4, blame shifting. In Part IV, strategy #5, fatalism.

This post is the fourth in a series about strategy #6, the use of irrational arguments (previously: non sequiturs; post hoc reasoning; begging the question). Descriptions of this strategy have been subdivided into several posts because, in order to counter irrational arguments, one first has to recognize them.  Until this post, I have held off describing the basic strategy to counter irrational arguments until after I finished describing some of the most common types.  Today’s post will be the last concerning these irrational arguments, and will also describe the basic countermeasure.

Irrational arguments are used in metacommunication to throw other people. Listeners either become confused about, or unsure of the validity of, any point they are trying to make or question they are trying to ask.  Fallacious arguments are also frequently used to avoid divulging an individual's real motives for taking or having taken certain actions. 

Today’s post will describe arguing from worst case scenarios, and ad hominem or personal attacks.

An argument is often made that a particular course of action is ill-advised because of difficulties that might arise in a worst-case scenario. In other words, one asks the question, "If I did so and so, what would be the conse­quences if everything possible went wrong?"

Posing a worst-case scenario does not always mean that the poser is engaged in an illogical maneuver. Indeed, for certain questions, such as whether to build a nuclear reactor near an earthquake fault, looking at worst-case scenarios can be a matter of life and death. Residents of Fukushima, Japan, will know exactly what I am talking about.

The worst-case argument becomes logically suspect if it is being used as an excuse to avoid some action when either of two con­ditions is present. The first is when the worst case is so unlikely to occur as to be almost meaningless. The second is when the worst case is preventable.

The most common usage of the maneuver in psychother­apy cases occurs when patients attempt to suppress some ­aspect of themselves by frightening themselves with the thought of dreadful consequences should the characteristic of self ever be expressed. One of the most often seen examples of this involves the ques­tion of whether or not to express anger.  

I once was the therapist for a group where every single member was in complete agreement that anger should be kept to oneself. They all painted a most shocking picture of the dire results that might ensue if their anger were ever unleashed. The anger would be destructive to the nth degree.

Everyone present said they had so much anger inside that if some of it got out, a dam would burst and a flood of violent fury would come pouring out. They might murder all of their loved ones and bomb government buildings. They would all suddenly become completely crazed, and each might end up in a mental institution or worse. They might tear the objects of their rage limb from limb and end up on death row. 

If thoughts like that did not scare them into keeping their anger quiet, nothing would.

The worst-case scenario that was proposed by the group members is illogical for several reasons. First, it is based on the non sequitur "If I let out some of my anger, I'll let it all out." Forgetting for the moment the unlikelihood that the rage they fear is as extensive as they believe it to be, how did they come to the conclusion that they would have more difficulty restrain­ing themselves once some of the anger had emerged than before the process started? They were each masters at self-restraint.

While it is often true that people who have been stuffing their anger may suddenly explode when there is a "last straw," this usually occurs in the heat of the moment, not when one is planning how to bring up for discussion anger-provoking behavior.  For this reason, 
the situation is not really analogous to the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. One can always catch oneself. 

Indeed, the extra guilt these people probably would feel for having exhib­ited angry feelings might make it even easier for them to re­strain themselves in the future. This worst case, in which all of a limitless amount of anger would come out in a deluge is a highly unlikely worst case. Furthermore, this worse case is preventable.

Acting out the anger is hardly the only way to express it. One can talk to the anger-provoking person in a constructive attempt to get them to knock off the provocations. 

The use of terrifying imagery to scare oneself out of a course of action  is a very clear example of what I mean by mortification. In this case, an aspect of self, the emotion of anger, is suppressed by frightening oneself with worries about horrific conse­quences.

One last fallacy that I would like to briefly mention is ad hominem. This translates from the Latin as "to the man." This fallacy is based on the non sequitur "if a person is reprehensible in some respect, then everything that person has to say is incor­rect." This fallacy is frequently encountered outside the metacommunicative realm in the area of politics. 

Politicians can have repulsive views on certain issues or may be self-serving liars. Nonetheless, any single assertion that they make might still be true or correct. One cannot reason logically that because their views are unpopular or because they have lied in the past, then any current assertion they make is false. 

From the standpoint of in­ductive reasoning, one can be highly suspicious of their state­ments because of their past behavior and motivation, but in order to actually disprove their thesis, one needs corroborating evidence. Just because Castro is a Communist autocrat, for example, one could not con­clude that he is always lying whenever he made accusations against the United States government.

In metacommunication, family members will frequently discount an idea because of the alleged motivation of the person making it, without addressing the actual merits of the idea.  The metacommunicator might be accused of being insincere or having some sort of ulterior motive for making an observation while the target completely ignores the merits of the observation itself.  

Invalidation is a form of an ad hominem attack.  The person bringing up a past event is accused of distorting it, or even making it up.  This situation usually leads to a fight or flight response on the part of the metacommunicator, which stops the effort to solve interpersonal problems in its tracks.

And now at long last, what does the metacommunicator do when faced with a person who uses illogical arguments to avoid dealing with an uncomfortable interpersonal issue.

The basic response is what many therapists refer to as the Columbo style of response. Columbo was a TV detective played by the actor Peter Falk who often got suspects to incriminate themselves by, in a sense, playing stupid.  He would point out discrepancies in the suspect’s story and kind of scratch his head, acting if he were the one who was not bright enough to figure out the explanation. 

Peter Falk as Columbo

He would never act as if he believed that the suspect were purposely misleading him, although he obviously knew that was really the case.  The suspect would then try to “help out” the hapless cop by clarifying the apparent discrepancy, much to his own detriment.

In metacommunication, the object of this strategy is of course not to make the other person incriminate himself or herself, but to get past the block to appropriate, metacommunicative problem solving.

In response to a logical fallacy, the metacommunicator tactfully expresses confusion about what the target is saying, or points out seeming contradictions. This is done in an almost apologetic fashion.  Rather than accusing the other of purposely being misleading or confusing, metacommuncators try to indicate that they themselves are taking responsibility for any lack of interpersonal understanding.

In addition to decreasing the target’s need to become defensive, with this strategy the target often feels obliged to clear up the patients’ confusion.  In order to do so, he or she must drop the logical fallacy.  When this happens, it is important that the metacommunicator seem grateful for the new clarity, and not have a kind of “I told you you were irrational” attitude.

Now maintaining this bemused, self-effacing sort of style is often particularly difficult to do if there is an ad hominem component to the target’s irrational argument.  

In that case, as mentioned above, it is the metacommunicator who usually becomes defensive, and who derails the effort for problem solving.  In this case, learning and practicing many of the strategies described in my series of posts on how to disarm a patient with borderline personality disorder, such as giving the other person the benefit of the doubt and acknowledging one’s own contribution to the problematic past interactions, come in very handy.


  1. Hi, thank you another great post.
    I am a mild mannered person surrounded by self centered people. I avoid conflict and confrontation reflexively. I've started a serious change and SEE what is happening around me much clearer. As it's to be expected the rest is unaware of the dynamic and tries to ignore it, make me doubt myself or placate me - insincerely. I broke contact with one of them and she has absolutely no idea why. (I suspect she is BPD, NPD, HPD mix). Another one - my mother - talks at me (on the phone) and out of desperation I play games when she does it to keep sanity. How do I tell a 80-ty year old woman it makes me angry.( I was taught not only not to express anger, even feeling it was impossible.) If I stop calling her she will punish me indirectly. No matter what I do I lose. How can I be Colombo about it? Elizabeth

  2. Hi Elizabeth,

    Thanks for commenting.

    Unfortunately, I can only speak in generalities here on the blog, not give specific medical advice. I would have to know a whole lot more about you, your mother, your family dynamics, and family's history to come up with a complete strategy that would stand a good chance of success. Plus, since you say you were taught to stuff your anger, you might conceivably have a lot of trouble being persistent while stillstaying kind, which is essential.

    If you think this is affecting other areas of your life, finding a therapist who knows family systems ideas might be something to consider.

    1. You are right about finding a therapist. Unfortunately, I tried to experiment a bit myself and told my mother she doesn't listen to me. (I have been unwell for a month and 1. couldn't play the role she expects me to, 2. didn't want to, 3. thought I have a license to speak up.) First she started to ask me if she can "talk now?" and do exactly as before. Then she confided to my husband that she s afraid to answer the phone. She seems to not understand what I want. Thank you for your blog. Elizabeth

    2. I suspects she understands what you said. She may be afraid of what you think about her and/or worried about how to act around you, since she had a way of relating to you that was familiar.

      As reactions to family members speaking up for the first time go, that's not a bad one - so far at least.

    3. You were right. She did understand and is kind of trying. It was not however the first time. THe first one was about 15 years ago when she played a falsely accused victim and I had to retract and felt really stupid.(I told her she had had problems SHOWING her love - she heard it as me saying she doesn't love me, which was true). Then several others which never resolved anything - she just became covertly meaner. Last year out of desperation I pleaded with her to stop her mean comments and said I am not interested in blaming her. She stopped to my total surprise.( However, I just broke off my relationship with my sister who is very unstable and can be really vicious).

    4. Well, I have a very lovely relationship with my mother for the first time in my life. Still working on the rest of the family. Thank you for all you advice. Elizabeth

  3. good artickel,

  4. Spring is coming!!March 15, 2012 at 9:05 AM

    I am not sure if you've talked about birth order - I'm nearly the youngest in a large family, and I have little influence in my family as a result. My older siblings are all serious hoarders (almost as bad as on the TV shows, and one hoard may be just as bad, not sure).

    My mental health worker advises I just stay out of it.

    On the other hand, I don't want to be an 80 year old woman clearing out a 3000 square foot home full of a hoard. But wait! There are 2 more hoards to clear out besides at my Mom's house! I'm almost 50 now. I'll probably be the last family member left since I'm by far the healthiest(or my younger brother, who is also beside himself over the issue and has even less influence than I do).

    I think that's a widespread problem - the youngest member of a large family is summarily disregarded, because they're the baby of the family. Nobody overtly says "you're the youngest" as if that matters when everybody is middle aged, but the old patterns from childhood just stick around forever.

    I know you can't help me with my specific problem, but it seems like something worth discussing.

    1. Hi Spring,

      Thanks for bringing up this point.

      I did discuss a little about birth order - a very important factor as eluidated by psychotherapy theorists Alfred Adler and Murray Bowen - in two other posts.

      The first was in another context, under issue #5 in my post:

      The situation you describe in your family is common, but in some families the opposite takes place: all the responsibilities fall to a middle sibling or even the youngest sibling.

      I explain some of the reasons why one or more children get picked to be "it" in a family towards the end of another post,

  5. Spring is coming!!March 16, 2012 at 8:35 AM

    I re-read these posts, and they were helpful. I'd forgotten much. What's really helpful to me about your blog is thinking in terms of family dynamics, which the whole thing has destroyed our large family. I guess a good thing and a tragedy at the same time is that we were so utterly destroyed, no one had any children, so the dysfunction dies with me and my siblings. I do plan to get your book, but I have to do that in between depressions, but when the depression gets better, I have to frantically catch up on housework and repairs, LOL! I posted all this because I'm grateful for the information you post here. Thanks.