Appeal to emotion is a type of logical fallacy, meaning a flaw in reasoning that weakens an argument or a trick of thought used as a debate tactic.
It’s extremely common and occurs frequently in situations such as political debates and advertising. As such, it is important to understand it: you’ll be better able to spot it, counter it, and avoid committing it yourself.
In this article, we’ll explain in detail how emotional appeals work, when exactly it’s (and isn’t) fallacious to use them, and show a number of examples of them.
Appeal to emotion is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone uses emotional appeals, such as pity, fear, and joy, instead of relevant facts and logic to support a claim.
In other words, the arguer intends to get an emotional reaction from the listeners to help convince them that the claim being made is valid.
For example, in a debate, someone may encourage the audience to dismiss the opposing argument and the evidence supporting it by arousing feelings of fear, hate, envy, or disgust towards the opponent.
Appeal to emotion is a highly effective rhetorical technique in persuading and manipulating the recipient’s opinions, beliefs, and actions. It often utilizes loaded language — meaning language that is intended to raise emotions and directly affect the listener’s views — as well as concepts such as religion, country, and crime in order to appeal to various prejudices.
Emotional appeals are particularly persuasive because, due to the nature of human cognition, people typically rely on their emotional responses to things when making decisions, instead of facts and logical reasoning.
Moreover, since they tend to bypass people’s logic and skepticism, they are commonly used in situations where one lacks factual evidence for their argument.
Although this fallacy can involve any emotion that we humans may experience, there are a number of appeals that are categorized as individual logical fallacies due to their widespread use. They all work similarly, however, the only difference being that they plea for different feelings.
The common variations include:
- Appeal to pride
- Appeal to popularity
- Appeal to nature
- Appeal to pity
- Appeal to fear
- Appeal to envy
- Appeal to hatred
Here are a few examples of how appeals to emotion may be used, both fallaciously and legitimately.
Mother and Daughter
One example of appeal to emotion would be:
- Daughter: “Mom, I’m too full, I can’t eat anymore.”
- Mother: “You have to eat everything on your plate; think of all the children in Africa who are starving every day.”
In this example, the mother may be on point by advising the daughter to always clean her plate, however, it doesn’t logically have any effect on children in another part of the world whether she finisher her meal or not.
Also, emotional appeals are the meat and potatoes of advertising campaigns: Almost every commercial uses them, in one way or another, to attract potential customers to buy their products or services.
For instance, a grocery store commercial displays a happy family sitting around the table at Thanksgiving dinner; a cereal commercial shows children enjoying a bowl of cereal for breakfast with their parents observing joyously in the background.
Martin Luther King
A famous example of a speech that uses emotional appeals with great success is Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream“. The speech utilizes rhetorical techniques skillfully to convince people of the idea of equal opportunity.
This is an example of a case where the use may be legitimate.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.Martin Luther King Jr. 1963
Use of Emotional Appeals
The appeal to emotion is considered to be dishonest as a logical argument since it doesn’t rely on logic and fact-based reasoning. Put differently, no mathematician who values their own credibility would try to prove a mathematical theorem by appealing to the listener’s sympathy or any other feeling.
The reality is that arguments are either valid or invalid; the fact that we desire it to be something doesn’t make it so.
Generally, the use of emotional appeals can be acceptable, or legitimate, when it’s intended to motivate people into taking action.
An instance of this could be when someone makes a plea for children’s rights to encourage positive behavior, such as a charity poster that shows a picture of hungry children. This is a well-known rhetorical tactic, also referred to as “think of the children“.