The Appeal to Emotion: Persuasion Through Feelings Rather than Facts

Appeal to Emotion


The appeal to emotion is a logical fallacy that occurs when a misleading argument, and particularly one that is unsound or missing factual evidence, is used with the goal of manipulating people’s emotions. For example, a person using an appeal to emotion in a debate might encourage the audience to ignore facts that their opponent brought up, by attempting to elicit anger, resentment, and distrust against their source.

The appeal to emotion can be highly effective as a rhetoric technique, due to the nature of human cognition. This is because, when people process information and make decisions, they often rely primarily on their intuitive, emotional response to things, rather than on a logical, fact-based reasoning process. Furthermore, in many cases, people might utilize a reasoning process when making a decision, but will do so in a flawed way, in an attempt to confirm their emotional intuition, without being aware that they are doing so.

Because appeals to emotion are so effective, and because they play a critical role in various discussions, it’s important to understand them. As such, in the following article you will see examples of appeals to emotion, understand how they work, and learn what you can do in order to respond to people who use them.


Examples of appeals to emotion

One example of the appeal to emotion is the following:

Alex: our research shows that the proposed plan is unlikely to help improve the job market, so it would be better to come up with a different, more effective plan before moving forward.

Bob: I don’t think we should care too much about what the so called “research” says. What matters is pushing this plan through, so we know that we did everything we could to help people win their jobs back, no matter the cost.

Here, Bob appeals to the audience’s sense of compassion, and encourages them to ignore not only the relevant fact on the topic which his opponent presented (i.e. the fact that the current plan is unlikely to work), but to also ignore his opponent’s proposed solution.

Another example of the appeal to emotional involves one of its common subtypes, which is referred to as the think of the children fallacy, and which involves trying to support your argument by framing it as supporting the rights of children in some way. For instance:

How can you say that the government shouldn’t censor the internet? Think of the poor children who might be exposed to inappropriate content.”

This type of argument attempts to elicit a strong emotional response, since people will generally want to protect children, and since no one wants to adopt a stance that will purportedly harm them.

In addition, it’s important to keep in mind that appeals to emotions are often used in conjunction with other fallacies, in order to achieve a synergistic rhetorical effect. For instance, consider the following example:

“Vaccines are so unnatural; it’s disgusting that people are willing to put something like that in their body.”

Here, the appeal to emotion, which in this case appeals to people’s sense of disgust, is combined with an appeal to nature, in an attempt to promote a strong negative reaction against something that is framed as “unnatural”.

Another example of this is the following:

Journalist: how do you feel regarding the allegations toward the leader of your party?

Politician: oh great, another wannabe journalist being paid by the large media corporations in order to push this nonsense agenda.

Here, the appeal to emotion is combined with an ad hominem attack, since it’s meant to elicit a strong emotional reaction against the person which it targets. In addition, in this case, the appeal to emotion is also used as a red herring, since the person using it is trying to distract their opponent and the audience from the question which they were asked.


Types of appeals to emotion

Arguments that appeal to different emotions can be viewed as different subtypes of the appeal to emotion. This means, for example, that the appeal to fear, appeal to hope, and appeal to vanity can all be categorized as separate logical fallacies, though they all share a similar structure and purpose, and differ only in the type of emotion that they appeal to.

There are no official guidelines regarding whether an argument that appeals to a certain emotion should be called an ‘appeal to emotion’ or referred to by the specific emotion that it involves (e.g. ‘appeal to love’). Nevertheless, in general, the more common this type of argument is, the more likely it is to be categorized with a distinct name.

Appeals to emotion can involve any type of emotion that people experience, of which are two main types:

  • Positive emotions, such as joy, hope, courage, kindness, compassion, empathy, trust, respect, gratitude, affection, and love.
  • Negative emotions, such as anger, hate, resentment, envy, jealousy, vanity, distrust, pity, disgust, guilt, anxiety, fear, despair, apathy, frustration, sadness, and shame.

Keep in mind that some emotions, such as pride and confidence, can potentially be viewed as either positive or negative, depending on the context and way in which they are used. For example, pride can be viewed as a positive emotion when it’s centered around feelings of accomplishment that lead to the desire to help others achieve the same, but it can also be viewed as a negative emotion when it’s centered around feelings of superiority that lead to contempt toward others.

However, the distinction between positive and negative emotions, and the terminology used to refer to different types of appeals to emotion, isn’t crucial from a practical perspective. Rather, what matters most is the ability to recognize these arguments, and to understand how they work and why they are fallacious.

Note: in some cases, the appeal to emotion is also referred to as the appeal to the heart or argument from passion (argumentum ad passiones).


How to respond to an appeal to emotion

There are several approaches that you can choose from if your opponent uses an appeal to emotion:

  • Point out the logical flaw in their argument. This involves explaining why your opponent’s argument was fallacious, and pointing out their lack of evidence or their use of unsound reasoning.
  • Point out the attempted manipulation. This involves pointing out the fact that your opponent is attempting to manipulate the audience’s emotions, and explaining how exactly your opponent is trying to do it.
  • Address their emotional argument with facts. This involves using facts in order to try and negate the emotional effect that your opponent is attempting to create, for example by proving that the basis of their argument is wrong.
  • Present an emotional argument of your own. This involves trying to negate your opponent’s manipulation by appealing to people’s emotions yourself, either by eliciting the same emotion as your opponent or by eliciting a different emotion.
  • Stick to the original line of reasoning. Sometimes, depending on the context and the audience involved, the best course of action is to simply ignore your opponent’s appeal to emotion, and stick to the original facts that you were presenting.

Note that in many situations, if your goal is to convince the audience to support your stance, you will need to have an emotional component as part of your argument when countering an appeal to emotion, since this is often the primary factor that people will respond to.

This doesn’t mean that you should use fallacious reasoning or avoid mentioning facts entirely. Rather, it means, that if necessary, you can incorporate an emotional component into your argument, as long as the original argument is based on sound reasoning, and as long as the use of emotion doesn’t invalidate this reasoning.


The use of appeals to emotion together with other fallacies

In many cases, an appeal to emotion will be combined with another logical fallacy or rhetorical technique. When this happens, you will have to take into account the other fallacies which are being used, when deciding on the best way to respond to the appeal to emotion.

For example, the appeal to emotion might be combined with a strawman argument, whose goal is to present a misleading version of an opposing argument, in order to make it easier to attack. In this case, you will likely have to address not only the appeal to emotion, but also the strawman which your opponent used, by showing why the distorted stance that your opponent presented doesn’t accurately reflect the stance that you originally proposed.


A caveat about the use of emotions in debates

It’s important to keep in mind that it’s wrong to assume that any argument which elicits an emotional reaction is fallacious. Rather, an emotional argument is categorized as a fallacious appeal to emotion only in cases where it’s flawed or misleading in some way.

At the same time, however, it’s also important to remember that while appeals to emotion can sometimes contain some valid logic and facts, these fragments of sound argumentation do not mean that the argument as a whole is not fallacious.


Summary and conclusions

  • The appeal to emotion is a logical fallacy that occurs when a misleading argument, and particularly one that is unsound or missing factual evidence, is used with the goal of manipulating people’s emotions.
  • For example, someone using an appeal to emotion in a debate might encourage the audience to ignore facts that their opponent presented, by trying to elicit feelings of anger and resentment against their opponent.
  • Appeals to emotion can be highly effective, since people often rely primarily on emotional intuitions when they process information and make decisions, rather than on a logical, fact-based reasoning process.
  • It’s possible to appeal to a variety of different emotions, including negative emotions, such as hate, envy, and distrust, as well as positive emotions, such as courage, hope, and compassion.
  •  To counter the use of an appeal to emotion, you can point out the logical flaw that it contains, point out the attempted emotional manipulation, address the emotional argument with facts, respond with an emotional argument of your own, or simply choose to reiterate the facts and stick to your original line of reasoning.