The appeal to emotion is a logical fallacy that involves manipulating people’s emotions to strengthen their support for the conclusion of an unsound argument (e.g., one that’s misleading or baseless). For example, a person using an appeal to emotion in a debate might encourage the audience to ignore certain, by trying to make the audience angry at their source.
The appeal to emotion is sometimes referred to by other names, such as the argument from emotion, argument from passion, argumentum ad passiones, and appeal to the heart. It’s closely associated with Aristotle’s concept of pathos, which involves persuading people (especially listeners of an oration) by appealing to their emotions. This is contrasted with logos (persuasion through logic) and ethos (persuasion based on the character and credibility of the speaker).
Appeals to emotion can be highly effective, and are frequently used in many contexts, so it’s important to understand them. Accordingly, in the following article you will learn more about appeals to emotion, and see what you can do about them in practice.
Examples of appeals to emotion
An example of the appeal to emotion is the following argument: “They’re saying that what I did was a crime, but I’m not guilty, because if I am then I’ll have to spend many horrible years in jail”. Here, the speaker appeals to the audience’s compassion (or their related emotions, like pity and sympathy), by saying that if he’s guilty then he’ll have to suffer unpleasant consequences, even though these consequences have no bearing on whether he’s guilty or not.
The speaker in this example might then use another appeal to emotion to support the first, by saying “Besides, those people think they’re better than us, so we shouldn’t listen to what they have to say about my guilt.” Here, the speaker appeals to the audience’s anger (or their related emotions, like resentment and spite), by attacking his accusers, while also appealing to the audience’s sense of camaraderie, by describing himself as one of them, and encouraging an us vs. them mentality. This too is meant to change the audience’s perception of his guilt, though again none of this logically has to do with whether he’s guilty or not.
Additional examples of appeals to emotions appear in many other contexts, such as advertising, marketing, design, philanthropy, journalism, law, ethics, public policy, politics, and propaganda. For instance, the following is another example of an appeal to emotion:
Alex: Our research shows that the proposed plan is unlikely to improve the job market, so it would be better to come up with a more effective plan before proceeding.
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 can know that we did everything possible to help people win their jobs back, no matter the cost.
Here, Bob appeals to the audience’s sense of compassion, while encouraging them to ignore the relevant facts that Alex presented.
Appeals to emotion can also try to support an argument by framing it as supporting the rights of children in some way, a technique known as the think of the children fallacy. The goal of such arguments is to elicit a strong emotional response, since people generally want to protect children from harm. An example of such an argument is the following:
“How can you say that the government shouldn’t censor the internet? Think of the poor children who might be exposed to inappropriate content.”
In addition, appeals to emotions are often used together with other logical fallacies and rhetorical techniques. For example:
“Vaccines are so unnatural; it’s disgusting that people are willing to put something like that in their body.”
Here, the argument appeals to people’s disgust, and is combined with a fallacious appeal to nature, in an attempt to promote a negative emotional reaction toward something that’s framed as unnatural.
Another example of this is the following:
Journalist: How do you feel about the allegations toward the leader of your party?
Politician: Oh great, another wannabe journalist being paid by the large media corporations to push this nonsense agenda.
Here, the appeal to emotion is combined with an ad hominem attack, to promote a negative emotional reaction against the journalist. It’s also used as a red herring, that’s meant to distract the journalist and the audience from the original question that the politician was asked.
Types of appeals to emotion
There are two main types of emotions that arguments can appeal to:
- Negative emotions, like annoyance, anger, hate, spite, loathing, contempt, bitterness, resentment, indignation, envy, jealousy, vanity, pride, distrust, pity, disgust, frustration, anxiety, fear, sadness, disappointment, pessimism, cynicism, apathy, despair, helplessness, embarrassment, guilt, and shame.
- Positive emotions, like joy, happiness, pleasure, amusement, excitement, relief, optimism, hope, courage, humility, kindness, compassion, sympathy, trust, respect, gratitude, admiration, affection, and love.
There’s no consensus regarding the classification of these emotions. For example, some, like cynicism, aren’t always considered emotions. Others, like pride, aren’t categorized with a consistent valence, meaning that they’re sometimes categorized as positive and sometimes as negative.
This also applies to other emotions and related states that arguments can appeal to, like surprise, passion, doubt, empathy, friendliness, camaraderie, solidarity, nostalgia, and confidence. Furthermore, this applies to related concepts that such arguments can involve, like flattery, nationalism (and patriotism), popularity (in the argumentum ad populum), force (in the argumentum ad baculum), and consequences (in the argumentum ad consequentiam).
The specific categorization of emotions isn’t crucial from a practical perspective in the present context. Rather, the important thing is generally to identify the appeal to emotion itself, and potentially also the emotion (or associated state) that it appeals to. When doing this, it’s important to remember that even positive emotions can be appealed to in a manipulative and fallacious way, which leads to negative consequences.
In addition, arguments that appeal to different emotions can be viewed as different subtypes of the appeal to emotion. For example, the appeal to fear and appeal to hope can both be categorized as separate fallacies, though they share a similar structure and purpose, and differ primarily in the type of emotion that they appeal to. There is no consensus 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 pity”, “argument from pity”, or “argumentum ad misericordiam”). However, the more common this type of argument is, the more likely it is to be called by a distinct name.
Ways to appeal to emotions
It’s possible to elicit emotions in many ways, depending on factors such as what emotion is being elicited, why it’s being elicited, and who’s the target audience. Common techniques for doing this include the following:
- Presenting relevant quotes or anecdotes.
- Using stories or metaphors.
- Making misleading comparisons.
- Using charged and potentially misleading language (e.g., language that dehumanizes someone perceived as an opponent).
- Delivering statements in a passionate and emotional way.
- Using additional logical fallacies and rhetorical techniques (e.g., Gish gallop and circumlocution).
Why appeals to emotion can be effective
Appeals to emotion can work well as a rhetorical technique despite being fallacious, due to people’s natural irrationality; especially the tendency to process information in a biased way, which prioritizes intuitive emotional reasoning over fact-based and logical analytical reasoning.
Furthermore, emotions can often be relevant to arguments, and can be considered in a logically sound manner, which can cause people to consider them even when doing so is logically unsound. For example, it can sometimes be logically sound to consider whether a certain course of action will make someone feel good or bad, which can cause people to consider this factor even when it’s irrelevant to the argument being made.
In addition, appeals to emotion often combine sound reasoning with the fallacious use of emotion, which can make it harder to identify the issue with these arguments, and can make the arguments more persuasive.
How to respond to appeals to emotion
There are several things that you can do to respond to and counter an appeal to emotion:
- Point out the logical flaw. For example, you can explain how the argument in question relies on emotion in a fallacious way (e.g., by saying “whether or not we like this person shouldn’t matter to deciding if what he did was wrong”).
- Point out the attempted manipulation. For example, you can point out what emotion the argument in question is appealing to, and explain what it’s trying to get the audience to think (e.g., by saying “you’re trying to get everyone to angry to see that your argument isn’t based on any concrete evidence”). However, when doing this, you should assess whether the person who used the argument likely did it with the goal of intentionally manipulating listeners or not, since the phrasing of your response should take their intent—and your certainty about it—into account.
- Present an emotional argument of your own. For example, you can try to elicit an opposing emotion that will negate the one that was originally appealed to, while using logically sound reasoning (e.g., by saying “if you think that empathy toward the accused is important, what about empathy toward their victim too?”).
- Stick to the original line of reasoning. For example, rather than responding to the appeal to emotion directly, you can ignore it and simply reiterate the original point that you made.
When an appeal to emotion is combined with other fallacies or rhetorical techniques, you may also need to account for them in your response. For example, if an appeal to emotion is combined with a strawman argument, whose goal is to present a misleading version of an original stance in order to make it easier to attack, you may need to address this too while addressing the problematic use of emotion.
In addition, when deciding how to respond, remember that not every argument that elicits or mentions emotion is necessarily a fallacious appeal to emotion. In addition, even if an argument is a fallacious appeal to emotion, that doesn’t mean that its conclusion is necessarily wrong.
How to avoid using appeals to emotion
To avoid using fallacious appeals to emotion, you should consider whether trying to elicit emotions or discuss them is appropriate in the context of a specific argument, before you do it. If you think that it is appropriate to do so, then you should do it in a way that’s logically sound, for example by not using emotions just to distract the audience and evade your burden of proof.
Summary and conclusions
- The appeal to emotion is a logical fallacy that involves manipulating people’s emotions to strengthen their support for the conclusion of an unsound argument (e.g., one that’s misleading or baseless).
- For example, a person using an appeal to emotion in a debate might encourage the audience to ignore certain, by trying to make the audience angry at their source.
- These arguments can appeal to various emotions (like hate, fear, and compassion), and can be effective due to people’s tendency to often rely on emotional—rather than analytical—reasoning.
- To respond to appeals to emotion, you can point out their logical flaw and the attempted manipulation, present an emotional argument of your own, or stick to the original line of reasoning.
- To avoid using these arguments fallaciously yourself, you should consider whether it’s appropriate to include an emotional component in any given argument, and if so, then whether you can do it in a way that’s logically sound.