Misleading Vividness





Misleading Vividness is a fallacy in which a very small number of dramatic events are taken to outweigh significant statistical evidence. Somewhat more formally, this fallacy is committed when an estimation of the probability of an occurrence is based on the vividness of the occurrence and not on statistical evidence of how often it occurs.  It has the following form:


Premise 1: A small number of dramatic/vivid events of type X occur (and the vividness is taken to outweigh significant statistical evidence).

Conclusion: Therefore, events of type X are likely to occur.


This is fallacious because vividness or drama does not make an event more likely to occur, especially in the face of significant statistical evidence.

This fallacy gets its psychological force from the fact that dramatic or vivid cases tend to make a strong impression on the mind. For example, if a person survives a dramatic plane crash, he might believe that air travel is dangerous. After all, an explosion and people dying will have a much stronger psychological impact than the dull statistics that a person is more likely to be struck by lightning than killed in a plane crash.

This fallacy is often self-inflicted, even if you know better. For example, reading Jaws as a kid contributed to my fear of being killed by a shark, so I must struggle with this fallacy when I swim in the ocean. I know that I am much more likely to be killed in a crash on the way to the beach than be attacked by a shark, but I fear the shark more. The fallacy can also be inflicted on others, intentionally or not. For example, the odds of an American being killed by someone in the country illegally is incredibly low. But someone might use Misleading Vividness to try to scare people into believing this is something they should fear.

It should be kept in mind that considering that something dramatic or vivid might occur is not always fallacious. Assessing risk is not just a matter of statistics, but also a matter of values. For example, a person might decide to never go sky diving because an accident could kill them. If they know that, statistically, the chances of dying are very low, but they consider even that small risk unacceptable, they would not be committing this fallacy. The mistake in this fallacy is that the vividness or drama of an event is substituted for evidence that the event is likely to occur.

Defense: When statistical data is available, it can be used to defend against this fallacy. For example, if a politician is trying to scare people with rare but dramatic occurrences, then checking the statistics from a reliable source can help protect you from falling for this fallacy.

If statistical data is not readily available, then the defense would be to consider how often the vivid events have occurred based on the examples presented by the person who seems to be committing the fallacy. This puts a reasonable burden of proof on them to show that these occurrences are as likely to happen as they claim.

Addressing the psychological factors of this fallacy can be much more challenging. For example, while I know that flying is the safest way to travel, I am terrified of traveling this way. So, I force myself to fly and switch between feeling that I will surely die any second and knowing that I almost certainly will not. But I show no fear, because showing fear attracts gremlins at 20,000 feet.


Example #1:

Jane: “I’ve been thinking about getting a computer. I’m tired of having to wait in the library to write my papers.”

Bill: ‘What sort of computer do you want to get?”

Jane: “Well, it must be easy to use, have a low price and have decent processing power. I’ve been thinking about getting a Kiwi Fruit 2200. I read in that consumer magazine that they have been found to be very reliable in six independent industry studies.”

Bill: “I wouldn’t get the Kiwi Fruit. A friend of mine bought one a month ago to finish his master’s thesis. He was halfway through it when smoke started pouring out of the CPU. He didn’t get his thesis done on time and he lost his financial aid. Now he’s working over at the Biggest Boy Burger Warehouse.”

Jane: “I guess I won’t go with the Kiwi!”


Example #2:

Joe: “When I was flying back to school, the pilot came on the intercom and told us that the plane was having engine trouble. I looked out the window and I saw smoke billowing out of the engine nearest me. We had to make an emergency landing and there were fire trucks everywhere. I had to spend the next six hours sitting in the airport waiting for a flight. I was lucky I didn’t die! I’m never flying again.”

Drew: “So how are you going to get home over Christmas break?”

Joe: “I’m going to drive. That will be a lot safer than flying.”

Drew: “I don’t think so. You are much more likely to get injured or killed driving than flying.”

Joe: “I don’t buy that! You should have seen the smoke pouring out of that engine! I’m never getting on one of those death traps again!”


Example #3:

Jane: “Did you hear about that woman who was attacked in Tuttle Park?”

Sarah: “Yes. It was terrible.”

Jane: “Don’t you run there every day?”

Sarah: “Yes.”

Jane: ‘How can you do that? I’d never be able to run there!”

Sarah: “Well, as callous as this might sound, that attack was out of the ordinary. I’ve been running there for three years, and this has been the only attack. Sure, I worry about being attacked, but I’m not going give up my running just because there is some slight chance I’ll be attacked.”

Sarah: “That is stupid! I’d stay away from that park if I was you! That woman was badly hurt, so you know it is going to happen again. If you don’t stay out of that park, it will happen to you!”

Originally appeared on A Philosopher’s Blog Read More