We, as humans, make many errors when trying to articulate our reasoning in the best way possible, both in our personal and professional lives. These errors are often called logical fallacies – flaws in reasoning that weaken your argument.
Poisoning the well is one type of logical fallacy that occurs when negative information about a person is presented to an audience in an attempt to discredit the following arguments made by that person. It’s a variation of the ad hominem fallacy; it attacks directly the source of an argument, instead of addressing the argument itself.
In this article, we will explain in more detail how this common offender works, as well as look at several examples of it.
What Is Poisoning the Well?
Poisoning the well fallacy arises when adverse information about a target is presented preemptively in order to discredit or ridicule the target’s subsequent claims. As such, it’s mostly used to weaken or refute an opponent’s argument before they make them.
It is also known as a smear tactic; rather than having to counter a claim in legitimate ways, one resorts to smearing their opponent’s reputation to take off from their credibility.
The name comes after the analogy of a well that’s water is poisoned. Imagine that you were thirsty and came across a well. As you reach out for the water to quench your thirst, your friend tells you that the well’s water is poisoned. As a result, that particular water doesn’t seem so appealing to you anymore and you make an easy decision not to drink it – even though you can’t know for sure whether your friend is correct or not.
The same effect translates to argumentation: if someone has a tainted image (i.e. their “well is poisoned”), their words don’t seem so compelling and are more likely to get dismissed or ridiculed.
Poisoning the well is a commonplace fallacy in certain situations and domains. As such, every now and then we come across examples of it in our everyday lives, perhaps when watching a political debate or arguing with classmates.
Here are several examples to further illustrate it and help you identify it the next time you encounter it.
In business, companies always strive to get ahead of their competitors. One strategy to achieve this is to taint the image of the competing companies.
For instance, one company may bring up another company’s past shortcoming in their advertisement campaign, which can make the claim that their products are superior in comparison to the other’s more believable. In other words, presenting the competitor in a bad light makes it easier for you to appear desirable.
As a real-life example, this is also the tactic that Microsoft used to gain an advantage over Google while introducing its email app, Outlook. Microsoft’s strategy was to taint Google’s image by raising the issue of privacy; Google’s employees were claimed to have access to all emails people send through Gmail.
This tactic is a long-standing favorite among politicians. It is employed in almost every political debate where the candidates aim to discredit their opponent and present themselves in a better light. In fact, it is often the core of political campaigns along with the ad hominem abusive.
More often than not, rumors are clear cases of poisoning the well.
For example, if you know that a new manager is starting soon at your workplace and you happen to hear a negative rumor about her, you are more likely to judge her words and actions – at least until this view is changed – more negatively than you would have without hearing the rumor. Due to her smeared reputation, you may suspect her skills and question her motives even when she something good and positive.
It may also occur in the courtroom. Imagine the scenario whereby a lawyer, who has the first opportunity to speak, deliberately constructs their statements in a way that evokes negative feelings towards the opposing side among the audience, thus making them more inclined to believe the plaintiff.