Have You Ever?

You’re hanging out with your friend Iggy and idly chatting about a new video game. Her brother Mark is familiar with the franchise and joins in the conversation. A debate breaks out over which character is the best.

“It’s Alois – hands down. He’s the best knight and the best character,” Mark claims.

“Edie has a much more interesting backstory though. Besides, it makes more narrative sense for her to be so involved in the main plot of the game. Alois is just there,” Iggy says.

“But Alois is the best knight, so he’s the best character,” Mark replies.

“Is he? He’s only unlockable halfway through the game, at which point you have at least one, if not two, better knight units. His stats aren’t much higher than the starting warrior’s.”

“He’s the best character,” Mark insists.

Iggy rolls her eyes before heading to the kitchen to get some refreshments. Mark leans over to you. “Sorry about that. Iggy gets all huffy when she loses an argument.”

The Explanation

Mark’s argument is an argument from repetition. He repeats the same claims over and over again until Iggy no longer wants to debate with him. Her silence is then taken as a signal of his victory. 

Definition of Argument from Repetition

Argument from repetition is a logical fallacy in which an argument or premise is stated and restated until no opposition cares to discuss it anymore. Since no one is speaking out against this claim, it appears as if everyone agrees with it.

How It Works

Argument from repetition is also called argumentum ad nauseam or argumentum ad infinitum. Ad nauseam translates from Latin as “to sickness.” Thus, to argue a point ad nauseam is to argue it until everyone “grows sick” of it. Similarly, the name argumentum ad infinitum means to argue something “to infinity.” The defining feature of this fallacy is that opposition either gives up or gives in, not because they have been swayed but because they see no point in arguing the same tired point.

This almost always occurs through bombardment of the same claims. Sometimes the wording is changed with each new repetition, but that is not equivalent to making a new claim or providing new evidence. It is the same claim with only superficial variations.

Applying It

Argumentum ad nauseam is used everywhere – in politics, in advertising, and in everyday debates. This is because it seems incredibly effective, at least on the surface. After all, it looks like everyone agrees with you since no one from any contradicting side is trying to argue with you. It’s easy to mistake silence for approval, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the issue or debate.

Just because someone won’t argue with you doesn’t mean they agree with you, though. Even if the other side agrees when you employ an argument from repetition, they’re likely just doing so in order to get you to stop talking. This strategy can be extremely detrimental in the long run, significantly damaging your relationship with those you debate with. It can cause others to avoid you or lash out in frustration. Also, they’re not strongly committed to the cause you’re advocating for, which means you may have a large record of supporters but very few people willing to help enact anything. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean repeating a claim is always bad. Sometimes it’s necessary. If an opponent is trying to misdirect an argument, your best course of action is to repeat the argument in order to stay on topic. A little repetition for the sake of emphasis is also perfectly reasonable. There’s a difference between a legitimate argument correctly using repetition and an argument from repetition. The former is conducive of a rational debate while the latter is more akin to a child nagging an adult for a toy –  after a while, the adult may give in, but that doesn’t mean the child was right to insistently beg nonstop. If one thing bears repeating, it’s the fact that wearing down an argument and wearing down an opponent’s patience are two completely different things.

    Learn More

    1. Cacioppo, John T.  Richard E. Petty. “Effects of message Repetition on Argument Processing, Recall, and Persuasion.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology, vol 10, issue 1, 1989, pp. 3-12. Doi: 10.1207/s15324834basp1001_2.
    2. Kolb, Leigh. “Argument by Repetition.” Bad Arguments: 100 of the Most Important Fallacies in Western Philosophy, Robert Arp, Steven Barbone, & Michael Bruce, May 2018. Doi: 10.1002/9781119165811.ch45.
    3. Ronis, David L. “Repetition and agreement with opposing arguments: A delayed action effect.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol 16, issue 4, July 1980, pp. 376-387. Doi: 10.1016/0022-1031(80)90029-3.
    4. Tyler, Andrea. “The role of repetition in perceptions of discourse coherence.” Journal of Pragmatics, vol 21, issue 6, June 1994, pp. 671-688. Doi: 10.1016/0378-2166(94)90103-1.

    Think Further

    1. When was the last time you witnessed an argument from repetition? How did you feel about the situation?
    2. How do you view a speaker who uses an argument from repetition? Why?
    3. What reasons might someone have for using an argument from repetition? Do you think those reasons are justifiable?

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