Red Herring Fallacy (29 Examples + Definition)

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Practical Psychology

You've stumbled across debates or discussions that seem to veer off-topic, haven't you? Well, there's a term for that: the Red Herring Fallacy.

A Red Herring Fallacy is an example of a deceptive tactic that diverts attention away from the real issue at hand, steering the conversation towards a different, often unrelated, topic.

In this article, you'll learn how it has been utilized and exploited throughout history, in politics, media, and everyday conversations. We'll break down the complex world of red herrings into manageable bites, offering a detailed list of examples to help you master the concept.

What is a Red Herring Fallacy?

red herring

Think of it as the magician's sleight of hand but in conversation. While a magician diverts your attention to perform a trick, a red herring pulls your focus away from the main issue to something else. In debates or discussions, this tactic muddles the waters and makes it harder to get to the truth.

The red herring logical fallacy often occurs when someone doesn't have a good argument or counter-point. Fallacies are logical errors, usually in arguments, that people make which lead to inconsistent reasoning.

In particular, this is an informal fallacy because the content of the premise(s) is what causes the misleading argument. Formal fallacies, on the other hand, are about the structure of the argument rather than the content.

Instead of admitting defeat or saying, "I don't know," they throw in a distraction. Imagine you're talking about the need for clean energy, and someone says, "Well, what about jobs?" The concern for jobs is real but it's a red herring if it's used to dodge the actual issue of clean energy.

Why should you care? Knowing how to spot a red herring gives you the upper hand in any discussion. You'll be able to stick to the main topic and avoid time-wasting detours. It's a skill that can elevate your communication prowess, whether in a classroom debate, a job interview, or even social conversations.

Other Names for this Fallacy:

  • Ignoratio elenchi
  • Missing the point
  • Irrelevant conclusion

Other Logical Fallacies:

  • Straw Man Fallacy: Misrepresenting someone's argument to make it easier to attack.
  • Ad Hominem: Attacking the person instead of their argument.
  • Slippery Slope: Arguing that one event will lead to a series of other events, without evidence.
  • False Dilemma: Presenting only two options when more exist.
  • Circular Reasoning: Using your conclusion as evidence for your argument.

The term "Red Herring" has an interesting origin. It dates back to the 1800s and was used to train hunting dogs. A smoked, cured herring, which is red and has a strong smell, was dragged across the trail to divert the dogs. If the dogs could ignore this potent distraction and stick to the original scent, they were considered well-trained.

Over time, the phrase evolved to symbolize any diversion or distraction from the real issue.

29 Examples Of A Red Herring Error

1) Diet Pills

diet pills

"These diet pills didn't work because you didn't exercise enough," even though the advertisement claimed no exercise was needed.

This is a red herring argument because the focus shifts from the inefficacy of the pills to your lack of exercise. The original advertisement claimed that no exercise was required, making exercise an irrelevant point. The argument distracts from the original issue, that the pills might not be effective on their own.

2) Celebrity Endorsement in Politics

"Vote for her; she's a great person!" even though the discussion is about her political qualifications.

This is a political red herring fallacy because the focus shifts from her political qualifications to her character. It deflects from the real question of whether she's fit for public office based on her political stance and experience. It appeals to most people's desire to combat corruption by suggesting she won't give in to it, but it doesn't speak to her actual qualifications.

3) Homework Deadline

"You give us too much homework," when questioned about missing a specific deadline.

While a common explanation, this is a red herring fallacy because it shifts the focus from the missed deadline to the amount of homework given. It's used to avoid discussing the issue of why this specific homework assignment was not submitted on time.

4) Poor Grades

"But I'm the star player on the basketball team," when asked about receiving a 'C' in a class.

This is a red herring fallacy because the athletic achievement distracts from the academic performance. The issue of being a star player on the team is irrelevant to the grade received in class.

5) Traffic Fine

police car

"There are criminals out there, and you're wasting time on me?" when given a speeding ticket.

This is a red herring fallacy because it diverts the issue from your speeding to crime in general. It attempts to trivialize your own wrongdoing by highlighting other unrelated problems.

6) Climate Change

"We should focus on poverty instead," during a discussion on climate change.

This is a red herring fallacy because it shifts the focus from climate change to poverty. While poverty is an important issue, it doesn't negate the importance of discussing climate change.

7) Job Interview

"I have excellent communication skills," when asked about experience in project management.

This is a red herring fallacy because it moves the focus from your experience in project management to your communication skills. The question was specifically about managing projects, not about how well you communicate.

8) Parent-Teacher Meeting

"But he gets good grades," when discussing disruptive behavior in class.

This is a red herring fallacy because it sidesteps the issue of disruptive behavior by highlighting good grades. Academic performance does not excuse poor behavior in class.

9) Budget Overruns

"Another department also had budget overruns last year," when questioned about your own project going over budget.

This is a red herring because it deflects from your project's financial issues by pointing to another department's budget overruns. It doesn't address or excuse your project's budgetary issues.

10) Veganism

"Plants have feelings too," during a discussion about the ethics of eating meat.

This is a red herring fallacy because it shifts the topic from the ethics of eating meat to the feelings of plants. The issue of plant feelings is irrelevant to the discussion of eating meat.

11) Vaccination

vaccine needle

"What about medical malpractice suits?" during a conversation about the effectiveness of vaccines.

This is a red herring fallacy because it distracts from the issue of vaccine effectiveness to discuss medical malpractice. The two are unrelated and should not be conflated.

12) Movie Ratings

film projector

"It made a lot of money," when debating if a movie is good or not.

This is a red herring fallacy because it changes the focus from the movie's quality to its financial success. How much money it made doesn't necessarily reflect its quality.

13) Workplace Equality

"Men work more dangerous jobs," during a discussion on gender pay gaps.

This is a red herring fallacy because it shifts the focus from equal pay for equal work to the type of jobs men do. It avoids addressing the real issue of gender pay inequality.

14) Cheating in Sports

"Everyone else is doing it," when caught using performance-enhancing drugs.

This is a red herring fallacy because it moves the focus from your cheating to others' actions. The actions of others don't justify your own wrongdoing.

15) Rising Crime Rates

"The real problem is the lack of family values," during a conversation about rising crime rates.

This is a red herring fallacy because it shifts from the topic of rising crime rates to family values. While family values might be important, they don't directly relate to the issue at hand.

16) Air Pollution

"What about water pollution?" during a discussion about air pollution.

This is a red herring fallacy because it moves from air pollution to water pollution. Both are important but discussing one does not negate the other.

17) Pet Care

"Animal cruelty in meat industries," during a conversation about proper pet care.

This is a red herring fallacy because it switches from the original topic of proper pet care to animal cruelty in the meat industry. Although both are related to animals, they are separate issues.

18) Organic Foods

"Non-organic farming practices are more efficient," during a discussion on the health benefits of eating organic.

This is a red herring fallacy because it shifts from the health benefits of organic foods to the efficiency of non-organic farming. Efficiency is not relevant to the discussion of health benefits.

19) Healthcare System

"We should focus on education reform," during a debate on healthcare.

This is a red herring fallacy because it shifts from healthcare to education reform. Both are significant, but the presence of one issue doesn't invalidate the other.

20) Tobacco Companies

"Tobacco companies fund cancer research," during a discussion about the harms of smoking.

This is a red herring fallacy because it switches from the harms of smoking to the funding of cancer research. Funding research doesn't make smoking any less harmful.

21) Relationships

"But I buy you gifts," during a fight about not spending enough quality time together.

This is a red herring fallacy because it diverts from the issue of spending time together to material gifts. Gifts don't replace the need for spending quality time.

22) Professional Development

"I've been focused on my current projects," when asked why professional development courses were not completed.

This is a red herring fallacy because it shifts from the need for professional development to current projects. Focusing on current projects doesn't negate the need for development.

23) Space Exploration

"We have enough problems here on Earth," during a debate on the value of space exploration.

This is a red herring fallacy because it shifts from the potential benefits of space exploration to earthly problems. One does not invalidate the other.

24) Academic Dishonesty

"The education system is flawed," when caught plagiarizing.

This is a red herring fallacy because it shifts from your own academic dishonesty to a flawed education system. Your actions aren't justified by a flawed system.

25) Historical Debates

"The technological advancements it led to," during a discussion about the impact of colonialism.

This is a red herring fallacy because it shifts from the negative impacts of colonialism to its technological benefits. The latter doesn't excuse the former.

26) Local Elections

"Lack of family values," during a local election focusing on policies and qualifications.

This is a red herring fallacy because it diverts from the candidates' qualifications and policies to their family values. Family values are not the issue at hand.

27) Gun Control

"What about knife crimes?" during a debate on gun control.

This is a red herring fallacy because it switches from gun control to knife crimes. Knife crimes are a separate issue and don't negate the need for gun control discussions.

28) Software Piracy

"The high cost of software," during a discussion on software piracy.

This is a red herring fallacy because it shifts from the illegality of software piracy to the cost of software. High costs don't make piracy acceptable.

29) Diet Trends

"Body-shaming," during a conversation on the effectiveness of a new diet trend.

This is a red herring fallacy because it diverts from the effectiveness of a diet trend to the issue of body-shaming. One does not invalidate the other.

The Psychological Mechanisms Behind It

Understanding the red herring fallacy means diving into the brain's shortcuts, called heuristics. Humans are wired to conserve energy, and that includes mental energy. When someone throws a red herring into a conversation, your brain might latch onto it because it's simpler or more emotionally charged. You've essentially been handed a 'mental detour' that seems easier to travel.

In psychology, this relates to cognitive biases. These biases act like filters for our brain, helping us quickly sort through irrelevant information. A red herring appeals to these biases, offering a shortcut that feels satisfying but leads away from logical reasoning. By tapping into emotional or straightforward ideas, a red herring bypasses your critical thinking, nudging you off the path of rational debate.

The Impact of the Red Herring Fallacy

The red herring fallacy doesn't just disrupt a single argument; it has ripple effects.

In personal relationships, it can lead to unresolved issues and miscommunication. Instead of focusing on the core problem, you end up arguing about irrelevant details, and nothing gets solved. Instead of having a friendly conversation, the other party will use this to avoid answering or provide misleading information.

Similarly, in public debates or discussions, red herrings divert collective attention from critical issues, often causing misplaced priorities or uninformed decisions.

In educational settings, students exposed to red herring fallacies might not develop strong critical thinking skills. When a line of reasoning gets derailed, the opportunity for thorough examination and understanding also gets lost. This can inhibit the ability to dissect arguments, a skill vital in both academic and real-world scenarios.

How to Identify and Counter It

The first step in dealing with a red herring fallacy is recognition. Listen closely to the conversation and ask yourself if the current topic aligns with the original point. If you find yourself straying, that's a red flag.

Another sign is feeling an emotional pull away from the core issue. Emotions are often the bait used to lure you into the red herring's trap. This is the reason it's often used as a literary device - to keep the reader's attention! Especially true in a mystery novel.

Countering a red herring involves steering the conversation back to the main issue. In other words, you want to re-divert attention away from the irrelevant thesis back to the relevant information. Politely point out that the current topic, while interesting, is not relevant to the matter at hand. Use evidence and logic to refocus the discussion.

Remember, your goal isn't to win the argument but to arrive at a well-reasoned conclusion. By staying vigilant and keeping the conversation on track, you protect the integrity of the dialogue.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2023, October). Red Herring Fallacy (29 Examples + Definition). Retrieved from

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