False Dilemma: Why It's Important to Know How to Identify It

The false dilemma is a fallacy that appears when an argument is manipulated. It fulfills the role of putting the other person between a rock and a hard place, when in reality there are more options. Let's find out more.
False Dilemma: Why It's Important to Know How to Identify It

Last update: 12 December, 2021

The false dilemma or false dichotomy is a form of fallacy based on a premise that erroneously limits what options are available. In other words, it’s a kind of incorrect reasoning that reduces the available alternatives to just two. This, of course, leads to perception and decision errors.

There are several types of fallacies and the false dilemma belongs to a category called informal fallacies. These are incorrect arguments, not only in form but also in content and context. In natural language, it’s often not possible to detect these errors easily. Consequently, we often don’t notice them.

The fallacy of the false dilemma can appear in a myriad of situations. Indeed, they range from everyday discussions to huge decisions in life, business, and politics, etc. The risk of this type of erroneous reasoning is that they’re usually extremely well camouflaged and appear to be logical. Therefore, how can we identify them?

There is no courage without dilemma or character that is not forged with elections, but with victories.”

-Muriel Barbery-

Angry couple

You’re prone to false dilemmas

It’s often easier to think in black or white instead of taking the various shades of grey into account when deciding between two alternatives. In fact, you may even feel better with only two options, as it simplifies the problem.

As a matter of fact, as humans, we’re all prone to falling victim to false dilemmas. For example, you’re either a friend or an enemy. You’re either a liar or you never tell a falsehood. You either love your partner the way they want you to love them, or you just don’t. Indeed, reality in these terms is more digestible.

However, reality isn’t really like that. In fact, as well as there being an infinity of nuances in each specific situation, there’s often ambiguity. For instance, a kind person may be rude at times, but that doesn’t mean they’re always rude.

There are also situations where there’s no middle ground. This is either because it’s not possible or because an ethical inconsistency is incurred. For example, you’re either naked or you’re clothed. You either tolerate abuse, or you don’t. In fact, in these kinds of cases, other considerations also come into play.

Woman thinking

Identifying the false dilemma

The etymological roots of the word dilemma help to clarify the picture. This word comes from the Latin dilemma.  This is comprised of the roots ‘di’, or ‘two’, and lemma, or ‘premise’. Therefore, it becomes something like ‘two premises’. The false dilemma is configured when there aren’t only two premises, but many more, although they’re not known.

Types of false dilemma

There are several types of false dilemmas. However, in essence, they correspond to the same thing:

  • Counterfeit dilemma. This is the typical false dilemma. It takes place when, in reality, a dilemma doesn’t even exist. For example, you either believe in the god ‘X’ or you’re an atheist. However, between one alternative and the other, there are multiple options.
  • The fallacy of the excluded third. It occurs when there are three options, but they’re artificially reduced to two. For example, you’re either on the side of the owners of the company or you’re on the side of the workers. However, in reality, you might be on one side at one point and the other side at another.
  • False opposition. This occurs when two options are contrasted that aren’t really exclusive. For instance, you bring more police to the streets, or you allow crime to win. The first isn’t the only option to avoid the second.
  • False duality. In this case, there’s no major difference between two concepts that want to be taken as divergent. For example, if you really loved your job, you’d never complain. However, love of work and complaint aren’t mutually exclusive.
  • Correlative false. When two concepts are put together that aren’t actually objectively related to each other. For instance, either you repair the mirror you broke, or you’ll have seven years of bad luck.
  • Fork. It occurs when, in an artificial way, the same concept or the same reality is divided in two. For example, an individual who believes in one religion can’t accept the existence of others. This is a false dilemma because one individual’s belief has the same status as another’s belief. Indeed, they’re both simply that: beliefs. Therefore, neither predominates.

The false dilemma is a fallacy that’s particularly common in the context of religious or political debates. However, they also appear in everyday life. The best way of eradicating the false dilemma is to always ask yourself: is there another option?

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  • Peces-Barba Martínez, G. (2001). Un falso dilema.
  • Realpe, Sandra. (2001). DILEMAS MORALES. Estudios Gerenciales , 17 (80), 83-113. Obtenido el 12 de noviembre de 2021 de http://www.scielo.org.co/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0123-59232001000300004&lng=en&tlng=es.