Appeal to emotion

Appeal to emotion or argumentum ad passiones is a logical fallacy characterized by the manipulation of the recipient’s emotions in order to win an argument, especially in the absence of factual evidence.[1] This kind of appeal to emotion is a type of red herring and encompasses several logical fallacies, including appeal to consequences, appeal to fear, appeal to flattery, appeal to pity, appeal to ridicule, appeal to spite, and wishful thinking.

Instead of facts, persuasive language is used to develop the foundation of an appeal to emotion-based argument. Thus, the validity of the premises that establish such an argument does not prove to be verifiable.[2]

Appeals to emotion are intended to draw visceral feelings from the acquirer of the information. And in turn, the acquirer of the information is intended to be convinced that the statements that were presented in the fallacious argument are true; solely on the basis that the statements may induce emotional stimulation such as fear, pity and joy. Though these emotions may be provoked by an appeal to emotion fallacy, effectively winning the argument, substantial proof of the argument is not offered, and the argument’s premises remain invalid.

The power of emotions to influence judgment, including political attitudes, has been recognized since classical antiquity. Aristotle, in his treatise Rhetorica described emotional arousal as critical to persuasion: “The orator persuades by means of his hearers, when they are roused to emotion by his speech; for the judgments we deliver are not the same when we are influenced by joy or sorrow, love or hate”.[6][7] Aristotle accordingly warned that emotions may give rise to beliefs where none existed, or change existing beliefs, and may enhance or decrease the strength with which a belief is held.[8] Seneca similarly warned that “Reason herself, to whom the reins of power have been entrusted, remains mistress only so long as she is kept apart from the passions..[9]

Centuries later, French scientist and philosopher, Blaise Pascal (19 June 1623 – 19 August 1662) wrote that “People…arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof, but on the basis of what they find attractive.”.[10] Spinoza (1677) characterized emotions as having the power to “make the mind inclined to think one thing rather than another.” Disagreeing with Seneca that emotion was a corrupter of reason, the 18th century English philosopher George Campbell argued, instead, that emotions were allies of reason, and that they aid in the assimilation of knowledge. At the same time, Campbell warned of the malleability of emotion and the consequent risk in terms of suggestibility:

[Emotions] are not supplanters of reason, or even rivals in her sway; they are her handmaids, by whose ministry she is enabled to usher truth into the heart, and procure it to favorable reception. As handmaids, they are liable to be seduced by sophistry in the garb of reason, and sometimes are made ignorantly to lend their aid in the introduction of falsehood.[11]

Drawing on the social psychology of his day, propaganda theorist Edward Bernays confidently asserted that “in certain cases we can effect some change in public opinion with a fair degree of accuracy by operating a certain mechanism, just as a motorist can regulate the speed of his car by manipulating the flow of gasoline.” [12] Bernays advised that to change the attitudes of the masses, a propagandist should target its “impulses, habits and emotions” [13] and by making “emotional currents” work for him.[14]

Indeed, some contemporary writers have attributed the popularity of the most destructive political forces in modern history—from Hitlerism to Jihadism—to the ability of their leaders to enchant (rather than convince) publics and to oppose “the heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor” to the “naked self interest” and the icy, individualistic rationalism of modern liberalism.[15]

Similarly, Drew Westen, professor of psychology psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, drawing on current psychiatric and psychological research to demonstrate the power of emotions to affect political cognition and preferences, has written that, “when reason and emotion collide, emotion invariably wins.” [16] Westen, an advisor to Democratic political campaigns, believes that evolution has equipped us to process information via our emotions and that we respond to emotional cues more than to rational arguments. Accordingly, Westen believes that emotion lies at the center of effective persuasion and that appeals to emotion will always beat appeals to reason:

A central aspect of the art of political persuasion is creating, solidifying, and activating networks that create primarily positive feelings toward your candidate or party and negative feelings toward the opponent …
You can slog it for those few millimeters of cerebral turf that process facts, figures and policy statements. Or you can … target[] different emotional states with messages designed to maximize their appeal.[17]

Modern theories

A prominent theory in social psychology is that attitudes have three components: affect, cognition and behavior. The cognitive dimension refers “to beliefs that one holds about the attitude object, and behavior has been used to describe overt actions and responses to the attitude object.” Affect, meanwhile, describes “the positive and negative feelings that one holds toward an attitude object”, that is, the emotional dimension of an attitude.[18] Modern theorists have modified the tripartite theory to argue that an attitude “does not consist of these elements, but is instead a general evaluative summary of the information derived from these bases”.[19]

Political scientist George Marcus (writing with Russell Neuman and Michael Mackuen) identifies two mental systems through which reason and emotion interact to manage and process political stimuli:[20]

First, the disposition system “provides people with an understanding, an emotional report card, about actions that are already in their repertoire of habits”. That is, the first system is that which monitors the casual processing of political information through habit, through which most of our information processing is done.[21]

The second system, the surveillance system, “acts to scan the environment for novelty and sudden intrusion of threat”.[21] In other words, the second system monitors the environment for any sign of threat. If such a threat is found, that system takes us out of habitual, casual processing and puts us in a state of alertness and receptivity to new information:

“what is interesting about this second emotional system is that the onset of increased anxiety stops ongoing activity and orients attention to the threatening appearance so that learning can take place. … when the system detects unexpected of threatening stimuli, however, it evokes increased anxiety, it interrupts ongoing activity, and it shifts attention away from the previous focus and toward the intrusive stimuli.” [22]

Marcus further argues that “emotional engagement will motivate people toward making more deeply reasoned decisions about politics than those who remain dispassionate”.[23] Others have argued that “when an emotion is aroused and experienced, it can involve a number of psychological processes that can then be used as a platform for promoting and securing influence and compliance.”.[24]

Regardless, it would stand to reason, then, that affecting a subject’s emotional state, in conjunction with a political message, could affect that subject’s attitudes.


Accepted wisdom[who?] is that, “[w]hen it comes to issues of emotional importance, convincing someone to change his or her existing beliefs appears to be a virtually hopeless undertaking.” [25] And yet, manipulating emotions may hold the key to shaping attitudes:

“[t]he use of emotions to instill beliefs is prevalent in political propaganda. Depicting individuals, groups, or issues from an emotional perspective, or as actors in emotional events, evokes emotion. It thereby slips the belief that the emotion is about into the listener’s mind. Presumably, it slips the beliefs into the listener’s mind more easily, smoothly and unquestioned than would happen when the information alone was transmitted.” [26]

Though it is still a very undeveloped area of research, a number of scholars are demonstrating that manipulating emotions surrounding a persuasive message does have an impact on that message’s effectiveness. It has been shown, for example, that people tend to adjust their beliefs to fit their emotions, since feelings are treated by people as evidence, and when feelings match beliefs, that is seen as validation of the underlying beliefs.[27] Other research shows that “emotional stimuli can infuence judgment without a judge’s awareness of having seen or felt anything (e.g., Bargh, 1997; Murphy & Zajonc, 1993).[28]

Indeed, “recent studies have confirmed that affect does play a general role in attitude change, whether due to persuasive communication, or to cognitive dissonance processes (Petty et al., 2001)”.[29]

Psychologists Petty & Cacioppo found that there are two ways of processing persuasive messages: (1) to focus on the content and quality of the message (central processing), or (2) to focus instead on external cues (such as the source of the message) and to disregard its content (peripheral processing). “When participants use the central/systematic route of responding to message content, they tend to be persuaded more by strong arguments, and less by weak arguments. However, the strength of the argument matters less when the peripheral route is chosen. In that case, other “peripheral” factors, such as the credibility of the source of the message or the intention of the communicator become important in the persuasive process.” Petty and Cacioppo suggest that negative affect should lead to more central processing and positive affect to more peripheral processing. That is, “In happy moods, people tend to be persuaded equally by strong and weak arguments, whereas in sad moods, people are persuaded only by strong arguments and reject weak arguments.”[30] Said otherwise, positive moods increase the reliance on positive beliefs, whereas negative moods encourage the updating of beliefs in the light of new, significant data.[31]

Drawing on the work of Marcus, political scientist Tom Brader says that, “by appealing to specific emotions, [communicators] can change the way citizens respond to political messages”.

Influence of emotion on persuasion

Negative emotions

  • Fear and anxiety:

The only widely studied emotion, with respect to persuasion, is fear. Fear has been found to force individuals to “to break from routine and pay close attention to the external world,” including persuasive messages (marcus127). Moreover, fear has been found to encourage political engagement:

“people are demonstrably more likely to engage in the political realm when they are anxious about the candidates. Uneasiness about the available political choices leads people to pay closer attention to the political environment. … people learn more about the candidates (that is they acquire new and accurate knowledge) when they are anxious but not when they are enthusiastic about those candidates who dominate the political field.” [33]

More generally, “fear is associated with both attitude and behavior change.” [34] However, “four variables that may interact to influence processing depth of a fear-inducing message: (a) type of fear (chronic vs. acute), (b) expectation of a message containing reassuring information, (c) type of behavior advocated (e.g., disease detection vs. health promotion), and (d) issue familiarity.”[34]


Guilt is the emotion that arises when an individual breaks an internalized moral, ethical or religious rule. Guilt’s impact on persuasion has been only cursorily studied. Not unlike fear appeals, the literature suggests that guilt “can enhance attainment of persuasive goals if evoked at moderate levels”.[34] However, messages designed to evoke high levels of guilt may instead arouse high levels of anger that may impede persuasive success”.[34]


Anger’s impact on persuasion has also seldom been studied. A couple of studies, however, “suggest that a positive relationship exists between anger and attitude change.”[35] Specifically, researchers found that found that “anger evoked in response to issues of juvenile crime and domestic terrorism correlated with acceptance of legislative initiatives proposed to address those issues.”.[35] Not unlike fear, anger was associated with close (central) information processing including of persuasive messages.[35] At the same time, “unintentionally induced anger in response to supposed guilt and fear appeals has been shown to correlate negatively with attitudes.” [35]


Sadness arousal has been associated with attitude change in the context of AIDS, illicit drugs, and juvenile crime.[36]


Disgust arousal, in the context of messages opposing animal experimentation, is correlated negatively with attitude change. This is consistent with the view that disgust leads to a rejection of its source.[36]

*Empathy and compassion:

A number of recent studies support the role of compassion in skewing moral judgment. The researchers’ findings show there is a key relationship between moral judgment and empathic concern in particular, specifically feelings of warmth and compassion in response to someone in distress.[37]

Images of suffering children are the ideal triggers of this instinctive compassion.[38]

Once triggered, compassion leads individuals to favor the few they see suffering over the many who they know to be suffering but in the abstract: “People who feel similar to another person in need have been shown to experience more empathic compassion for that person than do those not manipulated to feel similar to another”.[39]

Dan Ariely notes that appeals that, through visual cues or otherwise, make us focus on specific, individual victims affect our attitudes and lead us to take action whereas, “when many people are involved, we don’t. A cold calculation does not increase our concern for large problems; instead, it suppresses our compassion. ”:[40]

“In many ways, it is very sad that the only effective way to get people to respond to suffering is through an emotional appeal, rather than through an objective reading of massive need. The upside is that when our emotions are awakened, we can be tremendously caring. Once we attach an individual face to suffering, we’re much more willing to help, and we go far beyond what economists would expect from rational, selfish, maximizing agents.” [41]

Positive emotions


“Little studied in the social influence context, the one clearly identifiable study of pride and persuasion considered the role of culture in response to advertising, finding that members of a collectivist culture (China) responded more favorably to a pride-based appeal, whereas members of an individualist culture (the United States) responded more favorably to an empathy-based appeal.” [42]


Some researchers have argued that anxiety which is followed by relief leads to greater compliance to a request than fear, because the relief causes a temporary state of disorientation, leaving individuals vulnerable to suggestion.[43] The suggestion is that relief-based persuasion is a function of less careful information processing.


Experiments have shown that hope appeals are successful mainly with subjects who self-report as being predisposed to experiencing fear [43]



About arnulfo

veterano del ciberespacio
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