A high-ranking official asked a Chinese king, "Your Majesty, if someone were to tell you that there was a tiger roaming the markets of our capital city, would you believe it?"
"No," the king answered.
"What if two people told you there was a tiger in the market?" the official added.
The king responded, "I might be suspicious of it, but I wouldn't believe it.”
"What about three people?"
After contemplating on this for a bit, the king admitted that, yes, he would believe there was a tiger in the market if three people said it.
That is how three men make a tiger.
This is a powerful fallacy is similar to argumentum ad populum, meaning “appeal to the people” in Latin, and the bandwagon fallacy. Both of these state, simply, that a theory must be true simply because a lot of people believe it. The idea for three men make a tiger comes from a Chinese proverb that suggests that individuals will generally accept an illogical idea as long as enough people have repeated it.
The aforementioned conversation came from Pang Cong, an official of the state of Wei and one of the king's most trusted advisors. Cong was escorting a captured prince from another state and he was worried that in his absence, those resentful of his status would bad mouth him. This could undermine his credibility with the king.
Pang Cong explained to the king, "It is obvious that there is no tiger in the marketplace, yet three men saying so can make a tiger. And the number of men wanting to slander me is far more than three. I hope your majesty can see my circumstances."
"I understand," the king replied.
But the king did not understand the lesson and just as Cong had feared those jealous of him had ruined his reputation. When Pang Cong returned from his journey, the king refused to see him because he had fallen pray to the fallacy.
The main problem with this fallacy is the lack of logic behind it, yet many people will still go with the majority even if the answer they get is different. The king knew there was no tiger in the market but because enough people had said that there was one there, he changed his response to Cong and believed them.
Just because a lot of people in class say we won’t have a pop quiz in our next lecture doesn’t mean that there won’t be. A lot of people used to say the Earth was flat, their beliefs and what they said made no difference other than creating other flat Earth believers. Today, a lot of people believe that vaccines cause autism in children. Even though this has been disproven, there are still a wide number of people saying it so more people begin to believe it everyday.
We see this online more than ever, a couple of people will make a claim about something and those that read it don’t necessarily believe it right away. But if those readers do a little research and find a few more people saying the same thing, they’ll start to think it’s true. One tweet won’t "kill" a celebrity, but if enough people retweet that Ryan Reynolds died, others will instantly believe it without trying to Google it. Even without trying to make a tiger, it sometimes happens. The Onion will post a satirical piece and someone who only read the headline will believe it to be true. The Internet has created a place where tigers are not only made, but thrive. We live in a time when it’s easier than ever before to check the authenticity of a claim or theory, but people can be lazy and just believe what a few people post.
Humans look to others for guidance, if a large number of people say something to be true we generally trust them because we believe they know something we don’t. It can come back to psychological ideas about conformity, but at the end of the day we don’t have to believe everything we’re told and everything we read. In fact, we should question it, research it and find out as much as possible before we believe it, rather than just relying on others.