Red Herring Fallacy – Definition, Meaning & Examples

14.02.24 Fallacies Time to read: 7min

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Fallacies play a significant role in the world of logical reasoning and critical thinking. Imagine having a conversation where someone throws you off track with a clever distraction, much like a magician’s sleight of hand. This is what the “red herring” does in the world of arguments and discussions. In this article, we’ll explore what the red herring fallacy is all about and why it matters.

Red herring fallacy in a nutshell

The red herring fallacy is like a sneaky trick people use in conversations or debates. It’s when someone tries to change the subject or distract from the main point by bringing up something unrelated. This diversion can be intentional or accidental, and it’s often used by politicians to avoid tough or uncomfortable questions. It’s also used for storytelling or plot twists, a bit like a surprise ending in a movie. Summarized, it’s a fancy way of saying “changing the subject” in a hasty manner.

Definition: Red herring fallacy

The red herring fallacy is a type of logical fallacy, where the error in reasoning renders the argument invalid or unsound. They can happen intentionally to confuse as in mystery fiction or as part of rhetorical strategies (e.g., political debates), or accidentally in an argumentation. In the red herring fallacy, the irrelevant information or argument is presented in such a way that it distracts the audience or readers from the original issue, making it difficult to address the central point effectively. The term “red herring” is derived from the practice of using a strong-smelling fish to distract hunting dogs from the scent of their prey, and was popularized in 1807 by the English polemicist William Cobbett. The red herring fallacy serves as a distraction from the main point, leading the discussion off track.

When used as a literary device, the red herring fallacy serves as a powerful tool for writers to create intrigue, suspense, and misdirection within their narratives. This diversion can maintain tension or add complexity.

This fallacy is a type of informal fallacy, and more specifically, it falls under the category of fallacies of relevance. This means that when someone commits it, they introduce information or arguments that may seem pertinent at first glance but are ultimately irrelevant to the central issue or argument being discussed.

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The red herring fallacy can be employed in various contexts where people engage in arguments, discussions, or debates. Here are some common areas where the red herring fallacy can be used:

Political discourse

Politicians sometimes use red herrings to attack their opponents with unrelated information or divert attention from sensitive issues.


Situation: Two political candidates are participating in a debate focused on healthcare policy.

Person A: “We need to address the raising costs of healthcare and ensure that every citizen has access to equality of medical care.”

Person B (using the red herring fallacy): “While my opponent talks about healthcare, let’s not forget that Candidate A has been involved in several financial scandals over the years. They can’t be trusted with our healthcare system when they can’t even manage their finances!”

In this example, Candidate B introduces an unrelated issue to distract from the central topic of healthcare policy. This diversion aims to cast doubt on Candidate’s A character and credibility, steering the discussion away from the core issue of healthcare policy.

Advertising and marketing

Advertisers may use distractions for their consumers from potential drawbacks or limitations of their products by highlighting irrelevant but appealing features.


Situation: An advertisement for a fast-food restaurant’s new burger focuses on its taste and affordability, but then mentions in small print, “Our CEO volunteers at a local animal shelter.”

In this case, the mention of the CEO’s volunteer work at an animal shelter is a red herring fallacy. It’s unrelated to the burger’s taste and price, meant to distract consumers with a positive but irrelevant detail about the CEO.

Legal arguments

In legal proceedings, lawyers may introduce red herrings to mislead judges or juries, shifting focus away from key evidence or facts.


Situation: In a criminal trial for robbery, the defense attorney brings up the defendant’s good grades in school and involvement in charity work, suggesting that these factors make it unlikely for the defendant to commit a crime.

In this case, the defense attorney is using the red herring fallacy by introducing the defendant’s academic performance and charity work, which are unrelated to the specific charges of robbery. The intention is to divert attention from the actual evidence and arguments relevant to the case.

Psychology behind the red herring fallacy

The psychology behind using the red herring fallacy can be multifaceted and may involve several underlying motives and cognitive processes, including:

Avoidance of accountability

People might use this fallacy to avoid taking responsibility for their actions or even to deflect blame onto others. By introducing irrelevant information, the focus gets lost, and the conversation gets off track.

Emotional manipulation

Sometimes, people might use the red herring fallacy in emotionally charged situations to manipulate the emotions of others. They may introduce unrelated details or personal attacks to provoke an emotional response and divert attention from the rational aspects of the argument.


This fallacy can serve as a tool for misdirection, much like a magician diverting attention away from the trick at hand. By introducing a distracting element, the user hopes to keep others from scrutinizing the core issue or argument closely.

Rhetorical strategy

Some individuals may use this tactic as a rhetorical strategy to create persuasive narratives or to win debates without addressing the initial argument or topic. They prioritize the appearance of winning over addressing the topic’s substance.

How to respond to the red herring fallacy

Oftentimes, it is difficult to spot a red herring fallacy, especially when it is skillfully used to distract from the main topic. However, here’s a step-by-step guide on how to respond to the red herring fallacy:

  1. Identify the diversion
    Look for irrelevant information or arguments introduced to distract from the main issue.
  2. Stay calm and focused
    Maintain your composure and stay firmly focused on the original topic. Avoid getting emotionally drawn into the diversion.
  3. Acknowledge the diversion
    Politely acknowledge the introduced information but be sure to clearly and assertively emphasize that it is entirely unrelated to the current discussion.
  4. Reiterate the central issue
    Restate the central question or the primary point of the argument. Make it abundantly clear that you expect the discussion to revolve around that central topic.
  5. Ask for clarification
    Lastly, ask the person using the red herring fallacy to clarify how the introduced information is relevant to the current discussion. Normally, they will struggle to establish a clear connection.
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Two colleagues are discussing the issue of safety in a manufacturing plant:

Colleague A: “We should really consider implementing additional safety measures in our manufacturing plant. We’ve had several near-miss accidents recently, and we need to protect our workers.”

Colleague B (using the red herring fallacy): “I can’t believe we’re here to discuss safety measures in our plant when the real issue is our outdated break room. We deserve comfortable furniture and more amenities.”

The red herring fallacy is oftentimes used in legal studies and exam problems to mislead or distract students from reaching the correct conclusion about a legal issue. It is used as a device that tests students’ comprehension of their ability to properly acknowledge discern and the underlying law.

The red herring fallacy functions as an informal fallacy and falls into a broad class of relevance fallacies. In contrast to the straw man fallacy, which entails misrepresenting the opposing party’s stance, the red herring is a tactic that appears reasonable at first but ultimately serves as an irrelevant diversion.

The “red herring” fallacy is named after a technique used in hunting, where a smoked fish with a strong smell was used to distract or mislead hounds from the trail of their target. This term now refers to the rhetorical tactic of introducing an irrelevant topic to divert attention from the main issue, mimicking how the hounds are led away from their intended path.

Besides the red herring fallacy, there are several other common fallacies that frequently appear in arguments and discussions. Below, you’ll find a list of other common ones:

  1. Straw man fallacy
  2. Hasty generalization fallacy
  3. False Cause Fallacy
  4. Appeal to pity fallacy
  5. Circular reasoning fallacy
  6. Anecdotal evidence fallacy
  7. Ad hominem fallacy
  8. Slippery Slope fallacy
  9. Sunk cost fallacy
  10. Equivocation fallacy