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Misleading Graphs: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Are Misleading Graphs?
  • 0:59 Axis And Scaling Manipulation
  • 2:06 Misleading Information
  • 2:27 Sizing
  • 3:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

In this lesson, you'll learn the definition of misleading graphs and explore some examples to see how and why they are produced. Following the lesson, you'll have a chance to test your own understanding of misleading graphs.

What Are Misleading Graphs?

A graph is a diagram showing the relationship between or among variables. Usually a graph shows the relationship between two variables: the independent variable and the dependent variable. And usually a graph is depicted on an x-axis and a y-axis, but this is not always the case. For example, the pie chart is considered a graph that does not have an x-axis and a y-axis.

Graphs are great tools for visually representing complex data. But they can also be misleading if the source uses them incorrectly.

Misleading graphs are graphs that distort data to make it look better or worse than it actually is, which can lead to incorrect conclusions. Sometimes, unintentional errors can lead to misleading graphs. But, unfortunately, misleading graphs are usually created to intentionally skew data. There are three different ways that graphs can be misleading: axis and scaling manipulation, missing information, and sizing.

Axis and Scaling Manipulation

Axis and scaling manipulation is a sneaky way of producing misleading graphs. Here, when people compare two graphs, they may not notice that the scales are different. They may just see the bars or line on the graph and make a quick determination about the data. Let's take a look at a hypothetical example.

Magic Dust is a company that has created an extraordinary substance that can make people fly. They're a multi-billion dollar company that has been in business for 20 years. By comparison, Flying Powder is a relatively new company that has only been in business for five years. For advertising purposes, they've conducted a survey to see how many people prefer Flying Powder to Magic Dust and used the following graphs to promote their results:

Downward Slope of the Line Indicates Preference for Magic Dust is Decreasing
Preference for Magic Dust

Upward Slope of the Line Indicates Preference for Flying Powder is Increasing
Graph- Preference for Flying Powder

In these graphs, Flying Powder looks like it's becoming more popular. But the graphs are misleading. Look at the percentage scales on the left-hand side! Flying Powder's scale does not incorporate anything above 20%. As a result, the slope of the line is greatly exaggerated. In reality, 85% of people still prefer Magic Dust, while only 15% prefer Flying Powder.

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