An association fallacy is an inductive informal fallacy of the type hasty generalization or red herring which asserts that qualities of one thing are inherently qualities of another, merely by an irrelevant association. The two types are sometimes referred to as guilt by association and honor by association. Association fallacies are a special case of red herring, and can be based on an appeal to emotion.
I do believe that to some extent, you are defined — or at least shaped — by the company you keep. But while there may be some truth to this basic premise, putting too much weight in it can lead to problems when looking at others and making judgments based on their associations.
Issue #1: Leaders are an exception
It may be reasonable to make some kind of evaluation of a typical person based on the company they keep, but you really can’t apply that same logic to leaders.
First of all, leaders don’t really get to choose who follows them. Politicians don’t get to choose who endorses them. Celebrities can’t be held responsible for what one crazed fan does. It’s irrational and unfair to make judgments about a leader based on the actions of individual fans or followers.
Issue #2: False association
Two people standing side-by-side doesn’t mean they’re “associating”. Two people being in an association together doesn’t even really mean they’re associating. Let’s do a little exercise:
Quite a rogue’s gallery, eh? Do you recognize all of them? Most of them? Any of them?
Now here’s the test: Which one of these do you think is actually not a dictator or a crook, but a Nobel Peace Prize winner?
Take a minute…
Did you guess #7?
Of course, if you guessed #4 or #8, you’d also be right.
If you guessed #5, well that’s mega-swindler Bernie Madoff. Unless you recognized him, that’s the likely choice — he’s the old white guy in a suit with a smile on his face.
Our minds look for patterns, so when we see these familiar negative images, we tend to think that what follows sticks to the pattern. We literally alter our perception to make it fit the pattern. We have to be directly confronted with irrefutable facts that contradict the pattern before we’re even willing to reassess our thinking.
So how are LIFE’s critics using this propaganda technique to muddle the truth?
Let’s take a look specifically at Amthrax, perhaps the most prolific critic…
Amthrax’s “About” page says:
This site presents another point of view on the Amway/MonaVie/TEAM/Orrin Woodward scam or opportunity. It is designed to inform people of what they might expect to see when building an Amway, MonaVie or LIFE business.
So why, then do they keep bringing up…
- MonaVie distributors who have nothing to do with LIFE or TEAM
- Herbalife (which, by the way, has stood up very well against Bill Ackman’s misplaced allegations)
- Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing
- Zeek Rewards
- Robert Kiyosaki
- Jim Donnan Ponzi scheme (by the way, not an MLM, but a true Ponzi scheme based on short-term investments)
Amthrax knows that by highlighting these incidents and asserting that they’re somehow related to the LIFE business, simply due to the fact that they’re associated with network marketing, or a “pyramid scheme”, or… a cult (Scientology? Really?), many people will simply accept that association and thereby judge LIFE based on that (false) association.
Do all search engines or web portals have privacy issues because Google was fined the largest penalty in FTC history for violating users’ privacy in the Safari browser? Are all telecommunications companies ripoffs because pissed consumers have claimed over $10M in losses with AT&T? It’s a ridiculous leap of logic.
Another variation on this — a little harder to spot — is the idea of association because of some commonality of behavior.
One example of this is Amthrax’s accusation that Orrin Woodward and Oliver DeMille bought their way onto the bestseller lists for their book Leadershift. He then points to a couple of articles that expose the tactics used by book marketing firm ResultSource, which involves hiring the firm to go buy the books at various outlets, and then the authors buying those books back. I have to agree that that’s ethically questionable, but that is NOT what Orrin and Oliver did — not even close. In fact, when you look at their actions closely, you see that some of their actions may have even been counter-productive to getting them on the bestseller lists. It’s apples and oranges.
Another example is the anti-cult site that accuses LIFE of “behavior control” and “thought control” based on perfectly normal behaviors that many organizations engage in, and a very large number of personal development organizations. It simply comes with the territory. People joining personal development organizations want to control their thoughts and their behaviors. The fact that some of the practices are also practices that cults use… well, that’s because they’re effective.
But the idea that an organization is “cult-like” because of some of these practices is ludicrous. It would be like saying that a large church is cult-like because they have a big building, where lots of people gather and hear speakers talk about “doctrine”, and people donate lots of money, and there are “consequences” for not actively participating, etc., etc. Now some atheist is going to agree with me and say, “You’re right — all churches are cults.” But they’re not. And the fact that they have some common traits and practices with cults doesn’t make them cults.
Bottom line: simply because someone says — or worse, just implies — that there is an association doesn’t mean there is one. Before trying to infer anything from an alleged association, make sure the association is even real and meaningful to begin with.