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How Slippery Is that Slope?

Several years ago I asked an acquaintance if I could use the facility where he worked for a short video shoot. He said he would be fine with it but had to ask his boss first. However, when he presented the request to his boss via email, my acquaintance told her that he didn’t recommend letting me do it because it could be a “slippery slope.”

How do I know that was in the email? Because he accidentally included me as a recipient. Whoops! (Of course, he was mortified by his mistake.)

I responded that I would look elsewhere and that, by the way, it was not, in fact, a slippery slope because I would not have asked for additional favors, nor would I have spread the word to others.

The slippery slope argument is most often used to argue against a course of action. If event A happens, then event B will happen, then C and so on, with most or all of the resulting events being bad - perhaps even catastrophic.

Also known as the domino theory or wedge effect, when it is used illogically it is called the slippery slope FALLACY.

Kids often learn the slippery slope concept through Laura Numeroff’s classic and delightful book, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” First, the mouse will ask for a glass of milk to go with the cookie. Then a straw. Then a napkin. And on and on until you are exhausted. (Also, don’t give a moose a muffin or a pig a pancake either.)

The book shows not only how one thing can lead to another, but also how ridiculous those kinds of assumptions can be.

The cause of the argument

People make the slippery slope argument when:

1) they truly fear the worst case scenario of cascading calamities, or

2) they have a different reason for rejecting the course of action that may not be very compelling, so they use the slippery slope argument to gain support.

Either way, the argument may or may not have merit. It can certainly be difficult to refute because it is based on hypotheticals and no one can say for certain that an event will not occur.

How can you tell if it is valid? Assess the probabilities using a realistic imagination. First, transport yourself to a future where the first course of action was taken. Then look at the variables that would cause event B to happen and think about how likely each of those variables is to occur. Then multiply those probabilities together.

Then do the same for each event in your slippery slope argument and multiply each of those probabilities. Often the final probability turns out to be extremely remote.

Be sure to remember that humans have the ability to make reasonable situational judgments. Just because they act a certain way in one situation does not mean they will do the same thing in a more extreme scenario.

Another factor to consider is the potential impact of the final result. Even if the probability is smallish, it may be worth avoiding that path if the result could lead to a devastating result, such as major harm to a person or organization.

The slippery slope argument has more weight and validity when there is evidence that the sequence of events does, in fact, frequently occur. For example, does playing the lottery lead to other forms of gambling, addiction, and going broke? What percentage of people who play the lottery fall down that rabbit hole? What about those who gamble more but don’t become addicted? Or who become addicted but don’t go broke?

Other common examples include:

  • If you get botox, you’ll want to change other things as well, like getting a face lift, a boob job, and a tummy tuck.

  • A small tattoo on your ankle will lead you to get tattoos on your calf, then your arms, then your face.

  • If you try marijuana, you will advance to cocaine, then heroin, etc.

Which, if any, of those arguments has merit? Maybe all of them or none of them.

Tools for thought

Here are some strategies for knowing when and how to use - or not use - the slippery slope argument

  • Avoid long sequences of potential consequences. I often advocate “second order thinking” which requires considering consequences of consequences. It’s great advice as long as you recognize the increasing uncertainty. But with each successive step the uncertainty multiplies, so the longer the sequence, the less likely it is and the shakier the argument.

  • Check your biases. Assess yourself. Why are you against taking this particular course of action? Is it based on an emotional response? Also ask yourself if you really fear the final outcome of your slope and why. You may just be using it as an excuse to foment fear in other people you need to rally to your side.

  • Consider probabilities and weakest link. As I already mentioned, think in terms of the probabilities of each thing that needs to happen for an event to occur, and multiply those for all events. Start with the weakest link - the least likely event. The likelihood of that event may be so small that it dismantles the argument all by itself.

Slippery slope arguments can be valid, just be careful. It may just be a figment of your lizard brain’s imagination.

Think well and be well.

- Steve Haffner

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