How straw men rely on the brain's tendency to take cognitive "shortcuts" and why they are so durable.

By Jahnavi Akella
11/19/2021 • 08:26 PM EST

Politicians and other rhetorical actors routinely stand straw mensee definition - misrepresenting an opponent's position or argument to make it easier to attack, usually by exaggerating, distorting, or just completely fabricating it.
to make their opponents’ ideas easier to attack, or “knock down.” They do this by making their opponents' policy proposals or positions seem more extreme than they actually are or just by mischaracterizing them all together, so an unsuspecting opponent might end up defending a position that isn't even his own. But a vigilant opponent, ready to call out a straw man, can also find the fallacy tricky to defend against, and one that is not easily disarmed by clarifying a position or correcting a misrepresentation. Even when the fallacy is exposed, it can still be highly effective.

This perplexing characteristic is the result of the straw man’s particular reliance on cognitive heuristicssee definition - any approach to problem solving or self-discovery that employs mental shortcuts to ease the cognitive load of decision making, often relying on intuition or gut feeling. Not guaranteed to be optimal or rational, this method is nevertheless sufficient for reaching an immediate decision.
or habitual processing patterns, which are useful for skipping critical evaluation in ordinary situations. In other words, straw men rely on the brain’s tendency to take cognitive “shortcuts” in order to avoid being overwhelmed by excessive critical thought, every time it encounters new information. As such, an effective straw man exploits our tendency champion conquest over reason and associate dominance with credibility.[1]

In a debate, the audience doesn't interpret the straw man as an error on the part of the author of the fallacy. Rather, the author is more often perceived as having a particularly profound understanding of the opponent’s position.[1]  Successful straw men are therefore constructed not from what the opponent has said, but what he has supposedly left unsaid. It is therefore important that the straw man being delivered be a leap of assumption, but not go so far as  sounding illogical.[2] A successful straw man makes the opponent seem both malicious, as if he is hiding a “true” meaning from the audience, and incompetent, as if he failed in his supposed attempt to manipulate the audience.

Even if the opponent, who is perceived as having made the mistake of failing to guard against misinterpretation, points out the false nature of the straw man and explicitly clarifies his point, the author doesn't lose the credibility gained from the original assertion of the straw man. By placing the burden of rectifying the distorted claim on the opponent, rather than the author of the straw man, audiences are cognitively predisposed to preferring the author of the straw man over the individual trying to clarify his argument and correct the misrepresentation.[1] To make things worse, because the audience’s return on cognitive rewards is keyed towards new information, rather than the clarification of previous facts, the opponent doesn't garner as much credibility in clarifying his own point as the author does in standing the straw man.[1]

The straw man fallacy's durability in a rhetorical setting reveals the perilous nature of the technique. Rather than the author of the fallacy losing credibility with an audience by standing the straw man, he makes himself out to be more pragmatically competent and trustworthy. And even when identified and refuted, a straw man can still effectively sway an audience.

2. Marcin Lewinski and Steve Oswald, When and how do we deal with straw men? A normative and cognitive pragmatic account. Journal of Pragmatics. Published: 2013.