The false compromise fallacy: why the middle ground is not always the best

Picture this: you are having a debate with a colleague regarding the best next steps for a complex project. You both have been presenting your arguments, the tone is friendly, but you cannot seem to agree on the best way forward. So you decide to find a middle ground. Sounds reasonable enough, right? Well, it’s often a very bad idea, and it has a name: the false compromise fallacy.

When it’s hard to find a resolution, it can be tempting to search for the middle ground to resolve the conflict. By making us abandon the search for the most suitable resolution, the false compromise fallacy can lead to misleading conclusions and poor decision making at work and in your personal life.

The birth of a false compromise

Our tendency to seek compromises is not new. We can find some documented instances of compromises in ancient Rome’s public speaking, supported by a codified “art of speaking in public” (Ars Oratoria). At the time, it was known as the “argument to moderation” (Argumentum ad Temperantiam).

But not all compromises make sense. A false compromise occurs when a resolution cannot be found between two opposing views, and so the middle ground is accepted as the “best of both worlds” instead.

Here is a famous example of false compromise. If you know that the sky is blue, but someone else argues that it is yellow, a compromise might see you meeting in the middle to conclude that the sky is green. Of course, this agreement settles the difference of opinion in a wholly unsatisfactory way, as there is no truth in the sky being green. Furthermore, both parties will likely remain convinced that the sky is the colour they believe it to be. A false compromise only provides the illusion of a resolution.

The false compromise fallacy is sometimes referred to as “bothsiderism”. Researchers Scott Aikin and John Casey reported that the functional problem with finding the middle ground is the belief that one view must be balanced with an opposing belief, regardless of how contrived the resulting view-point might be. Aikin and Casey explain that the issue represented by the false compromise fallacy is the belief “that there are two (or more sides) and one must presumably give both sides their due.”

However, the evidence on one side may be in bad faith, incomplete, or incompetently understood. Just because someone presents an argument, it does not mean that it is as valid as another point of view. Trying to meet in the middle with a false compromise could lead you further from the truth or away from the correct conclusion.

There may be specific times when you are more likely to acquiesce to a false compromise. Jan Albert van Laar and Erik C W Krabbe found that compromises are more likely to be fashioned when two parties conflict in both their preferences and their opinions on the correct course of action. Depending on your individual circumstances, you may be more likely to experience a difference of opinion when you are with work colleagues, family members, or in social situations.

The danger of false compromises

False compromises may seem innocent, especially when getting to the correct answer does not particularly seem to matter in everyday life. However, when the topic being discussed and the potential outcome are of great importance, a false compromise could cause harm.

In their paper No Place for Compromise: Resisting the Shift to Negotiation, David Godden and John Casey state that leaning towards compromise may cause you to abandon your rational beliefs. They argue that although it might be tempting to yield when faced with a contrasting view, if both sides will be left dissatisfied by a compromise then it is better to resist the temptation of a false compromise.

As well as both parties feeling dissatisfied with the outcome, false compromises can also prevent a discussion from moving forward. Had the exploration of the difference in opinion continued for longer, more evidence could have been presented and analysed. By persevering, an objectively better outcome might have been reached.

A false compromise can also dangerously speed up decision making. This is particularly true if the compromise brings an abrupt end to a debate: hurriedly agreeing to a decision may prevent you from considering second-order consequences. Luckily, there are ways you can avoid falling into the worst pitfalls of the false compromise fallacy.

How to manage false compromises

We will likely all have had experience of false compromises, with various resulting outcomes. Learning to manage this fallacy may help you to avoid unnecessarily meeting in the middle.

  1. Consider if consensus is needed. You may try to please as many people as possible, especially when your relationship with others is important, such as in work settings. However, to avoid making a false compromise, you need to question whether reaching a collective agreement is necessary. In some situations, the decision that is objectively right may not meet everyone’s approval, but it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong.
  2. Evaluate the strength of evidence. Both parties in a debate will bring their own evidence to the table. However, it doesn’t mean the evidence should be given the same weight. Strong evidence may include peer-reviewed literature, up-to-date research, information from reliable sources, or expert opinions. Weaker evidence could be based on hearsay or personal preferences.
  3. Be open to extreme decisions. Sometimes, the best decision will be the most extreme one. If you are sure of the evidence and likely outcome, trying to meet in the middle doesn’t make sense. As uncomfortable as it may feel, you should instead be prepared to hold fast to your point of view.

The false compromise fallacy can lead to misleading conclusions, poor decision-making, and dissatisfaction for all parties involved in the process. Rather than searching for a compromise, make sure to evaluate whether consensus is truly needed and how strong the evidence is for all arguments. With this in mind, you may find that the right decision is one of the more extreme options, rather than the middle ground.

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