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Have you ever discredited something that someone said simply because you don’t particularly like them? Or maybe your negative opinion of that person led you to mistrust them, no matter what they’re talking about.
Or, you might decide that you’re not even going to listen to the speaker before they even start to talk.
We’ve talked about ad hominem logical fallacies before, and this is exactly what this thought process falls under. An ad hominem fallacy is a type of argument that attacks someone’s character rather than their claim. These personal attacks are done in an attempt to create an irrelevant diversion that may make others question the validity of the speaker’s motives.
In this article, we are going to look at what it means to “poison the well” and why this fallacious argument can be harmful. Then, we will look at seven examples you may come across throughout your life.
Let’s get started.
What Does It Mean to “Poison the Well”?
Let’s say you were about to drink water from a well and someone told you that it had been poisoned. Would you drink from that well anyway? Or would you take the person’s word for it and find something else to drink?
I know I definitely wouldn’t want to take my chances with that water if someone told me that it had been poisoned, even if they weren’t entirely sure it was true. Consuming the water wouldn’t be worth the risk of getting sick to me–and in my mind, the water would be tainted no matter what.
When you take this idea and apply it to how you consume information from people, you can probably see how it translates. If you see a person’s character as being tainted, you may also figure that their ideas and arguments are corrupt as well.
“Poisoning the well” is a logical fallacy that occurs when negative facts or suggestions about a speaker are given to an audience as a deterrent in an attempt to discredit what that person is about to say. It commonly takes the following form:
Negative information about person A is presented.
Therefore, person A’s claims are not credible.
How Can Poisoning the Well Be Harmful?
While poisoning the well can be an effective tactic, doing so doesn’t offer any real evidence that someone or something is inferior. Onlookers are just supposed to infer this from the negative information that’s being provided.
This strategy of attacking someone’s character with the goal of having that character flaw contaminate the person’s argument can be harmful because it can lead to retaliation from the source. Further, it could damage your own credibility if listeners notice your tactic. If you’re saying someone is “bad” in order to put yourself into a “good” light, you will ultimately need to have something to back up your superiority once people start to believe you.
Let’s take a look at some examples.
7 Poisoning the Well Examples Throughout Your Life
1. In Advertising
Poisoning the well frequently happens in advertisements for products that have strong competition. This tactic is used to damage the other company’s reputation to make the offending company look better.
This is especially common in the tech business because rivalries between companies typically run deep. Poisoning the well as a smear tactic is tempting for companies who are second or third to being the top competitor in an effort to damage people’s perception of the market leader.
For example, in early 2013, Microsoft poisoned the well of Google through its advertising campaign suggesting that Google employees have access to all emails that are sent through Gmail. After spending most of the ad time bashing Google's product, Microsoft finally mentions its own product, Outlook.
2. In Court
Consider a lawyer who is making their initial statements against someone who is being convicted of a crime. The statements that they make to the judge and jury are put together in a way that attempts to paint a negative picture of the defendant–or, to poison the well.
This is often done in an attempt to appeal to the emotions of jurors in order to make them have a negative emotional response toward the defendant. Prosecutors are generally given great liberty in what they choose to say in trial, which leaves a lot of room for them to poison the well and sway people’s judgements.
Consider the following statement about a defendant who is being convicted of assault: “You haven’t been employed in 8 years and we couldn’t find a single person willing to reference your character.”
Even though this statement has little to do with the charge, the jury’s opinion of the defendant has been tainted.
3. The Rumor Mill
Turnover rates in employment settings are an issue of concern, and you may experience a turnover that results in a change of leadership for you at your job. And if you have a new leader, their working style and character will have a strong impact on your everyday life.
What if you heard from someone that this person is on the sex offender registry? Would you be nervous that your new leader may steer you in the wrong direction with your work, which could ultimately lead to your dismissal? Chances are, after the well has been poisoned, you’d be cautious when trusting this person moving forward, even if the allegation has nothing to do with the tasks at hand.
4. Irrelevant Arguments
During an online exchange on Velo News, one commenter attempted to poison the well in response to another who was speaking praises of Lance Armstrong and his career, stating people should be proud of his cycling accomplishments and happy for him in his retirement.
The commenter responded by saying that Armstrong isn’t a great athlete–the truth is, he is a cheater, liar, and a fraud. He went on to say that because of this, people shouldn’t be happy for Armstrong.
While these negative attributes about Armstrong may be true, they don’t take away from the athlete’s cycling abilities. These are irrelevant characteristics that don’t logically support the argument that people shouldn’t admire Armstrong for his athleticism. Instead, his approach attacks Armstrong’s character in an attempt to sway anyone who reads the comments in the future into disregarding any positive attributes of the cyclist.
5. Judging People in Your Personal Life
Let’s say your best friend just got a new boyfriend or girlfriend whom you have yet to meet. You’re excited to meet this person, as they’re obviously making your best friend happy.
However, another friend pulls you aside before meeting him and lets you know that this new partner of your mutual friend is suspected of stealing a bottle of wine from a cocktail party that you were unable to attend.
Because stealing is a disgraceful act, your excitement for meeting this person starts to waver, and when you do finally meet him, you can’t help but question everything he says because all you can think about is how he slipped this bottle of wine into his coat pocket.
Did he actually do it? Who knows. But in your mind, he is a thief and his character has been ruined.
6. In the Media
An example of poisoning the well can be seen in the well-known movie, Mean Girls. In this clip, Regina is talking to Aaron about Cady, a girl whom Aaron was beginning to see outside of school on a regular basis.
In an attempt to deter Aaron from liking Cady, Regina tells him that Cady is obsessed with him and exhibits stalker-like tendencies. This makes Aaron look at Cady in a whole new light, going from liking her to wanting to keep his distance from her.
Regina poisoned the well for Aaron by attacking Cady’s character so he wouldn’t want to spend time with her moving forward.
7. In Politics
Poisoning the well attacks are common in political advertising. Often, one candidate's ads will not focus on the candidate at all–rather, it will make negative claims against the opponent.
Check out this political ad from 1964 that was used in President Johnson's victorious reelection campaign. This ad went on to become one of the best-known attack ads, and it didn’t even have to mention the opponent’s name for people to know it was sending a negative message against Barry Goldwater.
This type of ad is an obvious endeavor to poison the well. It makes people associate fear with the opponent, which is an effective way to turn people away.
Final Thoughts on Poisoning the Well
By discrediting another person’s character, you also reduce their authority and make others question everything they say. If the person is present, they may become distracted from their original point and turn their own attention to defending themselves by responding to the attack, which means their main point won’t be relayed as they wanted it to be. And, if they’re not there, they may respond with a counter attack.
Either way, being able to spot this bias tactic and noticing when someone is using it to sway your opinion can help you maintain your logical thinking without letting others muddy the waters for you.
Learn More About Logical Fallacies
If you want to expand your knowledge about the different logical fallacies and learn how to avoid them, check out our other posts:
- 15 Cognitive Biases: A List of Common Biases Many People Have
- 5 Appeal to Nature Fallacy Examples in Media and Life
- 6 Outcome Bias Examples That Can Negatively Impact Your Decisions
- 7 Self-Serving Bias Examples You See Throughout Life
- 7 Omission Bias Examples That Negatively Impact Your Life
- 6 Authority Bias Examples That Might Impact Your Decisions
- 5 Burden of Proof Fallacy Examples
- 5 Appeal to Tradition Fallacy Examples in Life
- 5 Appeal to Authority Logical Fallacy Examples
- 7 False Cause Fallacy Examples
- 7 Appeal to Ignorance Fallacy Examples
- 7 Appeal to Common Sense Logical Fallacy Examples
- 5 Post Hoc Fallacy Examples (and How to Respond to This Argument)
- Gambler’s Fallacy: 5 Examples and How to Avoid It
- 5 Appeal to Anger Fallacy Examples Throughout Life
- 7 Halo Effect Bias Examples in Your Daily Life
- 7 Survivorship Bias Examples You See in the Real World
- 7 Dunning Kruger Effect Examples in Your Life
- 7 Either Or (“False Dilemma”) Fallacy Examples in Real Life
- 5 Cui Bono Fallacy Examples to Find Out “Who Will Benefit”
- 6 Anchoring Bias Examples That Impact Your Decisions
- 7 Virtue Signaling Examples in Everyday Life
- 7 Cherry Picking Fallacy Examples for When People Ignore Evidence
- 9 Circular Reasoning Examples (or “Begging the Question”) in Everyday Life
- 9 Appeal to Emotion Logical Fallacy Examples
- 9 Appeal to Pity Fallacy (“Ad Misericordiam”) Examples in Everyday Life
- 9 Loaded Question Fallacy Examples in Life and Media
- 9 Confirmation Bias Fallacy Examples In Everyday Life
- 9 Bandwagon Fallacy Examples to Prevent Poor Decisions
- 5 Red Herring Fallacy Examples to Fight Irrelevant Information
- 9 Middle Ground Fallacy Examples to Spot During an Argument
- 5 False Equivalence Examples to Know Before Your Next Argument
- 7 Hasty Generalization Fallacy Examples & How to Respond to Them
- 6 Straw Man Fallacy Examples & How You Can Respond
- 6 False Dichotomy Examples & How to Counter Them
- 7 Slippery Slope Fallacy Examples (And How to Counter Them)
- What is the Planning Fallacy?
- How to Overcome the “Sunk Cost Fallacy” Mindset
Finally, if you want a simple process to counter the logical fallacies and cognitive biases you encounter in life, then follow this 7-step process to develop the critical thinking skills habit.
Connie Mathers is a professional editor and freelance writer. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her daughter and two dogs, running, or working at her full-time job as a social worker in Richmond, VA.