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Appeal to Emotion

Appealing to the audience’s emotions instead of presenting factual arguments that support a position.

For example:

Does the suffering of children mean nothing to you?

Drawing on the real or supposed suffering of children to provide an emotional underpinning to any political position has been so overused in recent years that the expression: “Think of the children!” is now mostly used ironically to make fun of politicians who do not provide any factual argumentation but try to appeal exclusively to emotions.

Unless the topic under discussion is specifically child welfare, and unless your position is also well supported by factual arguments, it is better to avoid such an appeal.

Other names

  • Appeal to pathos
  • Playing on emotions
  • Emotional appeal
  • “For the children!”
  • Argumentum ad passiones


It marks out good speakers that they are able to appeal to their audiences also on an emotional level and not just by stating dry factual arguments. However, being able to do so can be tempted to dispense with the facts altogether and instead rely primarily or even solely on the power of emotions – maybe even more so if this allows to distract from having only rather weak and defeasible arguments otherwise.

The appeal to emotions – if used skilfully – can have a strong effect on the audience, in extreme cases they can lead to them no longer being accessible to rational arguments at all. If this succeeds, the speaker has “won” the audience (Rabulism).

But reducing a serious question to emotional aspects can also turn against the speaker: Those who believe that they have sound counter-arguments will feel “taken for a ride” if the opponent does not participate in a factual discussion, which can lead to an equally emotional counter-reaction (Provocation).

Central to the question whether or not the use of emotions constitutes an unfair discussion tactic, or if it is a valid form of presenting one’s position is the aspect of whether the emotions is used in support of sound factual arguments, or instead of them.

Backfire effect

Finding the right level of emotionality is always a challenge for any speaker. What makes this so difficult is that it is highly dependent on the situation and the audience – and hitting the “wrong note” can damage the speaker’s credibility more than could be gained by adding more emotion.

For a European audience, one one should not make the mistake of taking too much example in successful speakers in the United States especially. The degree of emotionality that is practically expected there would be completely out of place in most situations here.


An emotional appeal can in principle be directed at any form of emotion – both positive and negative, as in the following examples:


An appeal to fear (Argumentum ad metum) is when fears are stirred up so that the discussion can no longer be continued on a rational level.

In this context, the term “fear” should be interpreted very broadly. This includes, for example, existential fears as used in politics:

  • Climate change will turn our planet into an uninhabitable wasteland!
  • The government is secretly planning to replace the population!!

So are fears stoked by advertising::

  • Use this shampoo if you want to keep your hair!
  • Always have this medicine in the house to be prepared if you ever get gas!

The fear of missing out can also be counted among them:

  • Other people have already made millions in cryptocurrencies. Buy Bitcoins now!
  • Everyone is using the latest generation of game consoles now. You can't do much with the old box anymore.

Last, but not least, also an appeal to consequences or an argu­mentum ad ba­culum (threats) can, under certain circumstances, aim to generate fear.


An argument from spite (Argumentum ad odium) invokes existing negative feelings towards a person or group and uses them as a (pseudo) argument.

  • Criminals deserve to be treated as badly as possible in prison.
  • Why do politicians also need an official car? They should just walk!
  • Let the refugees drown. Why do they also go out to sea in shipwrecked boats?


Invoking the feeling of having to take revenge for (real or perceived) injustices can also be a strong emotion that falls under this category:

  • We still have a score to settle with the French. This time we will humiliate them!
  • Someone from the neighbouring town has dishonoured one of our daughters! Are we just going to put up with that?
  • Men have discriminated against women for centuries. So it is appropriate that we [women] now discriminate against men!


Appealing to the pride in something can also be used in this way (argumentum ad superbiam). While most of us will find the following rather irritating, let's not forget it is not very long ago that this was considered a rather plausible way of reasoning:

  • For the glorious fatherland it is a sacred duty to fight and an honour to die in battle!


Closely related to pride (and also often called “argumentum ad superbiam”) is what can be called flattery or adulation:

  • Surely you are far too intelligent to believe in stories from an old book!
  • Surely someone like you is above such things and will not start a legal battle over such a trifle.


An appeal to pity (Argumentum ad misericordiam) may look like this, for example:

  • Donate to help poor starving children in Africa!
  • Please do not send me to prison for murdering my parents. Am I not suffering enough by being an orphan now?


The appeal to guilt is also often referred to as “guilt-tripping”:

  • European countries have exploited Africa for centuries – it's time to make amends.
  • After you already screwed up the last project, you might as well put in some extra hours to make sure it works out this time!


Even a generally positive feeling such as hope can be used in a manipulative way:

  • We are going through a hard time, but the future will be all the brighter.

… and so on.

FIXME This article is still under development and thus incomplete.


As with other fallacies, there are situations in which an appeal to emotion may be appropriate.

First of all, there is little to be said against supporting factual arguments with appealing to the audience’s emotions. This only becomes fallacious when emotions clearly take precedence over factual arguments.

For the same reason, the mere fact that a speech is conducted emotionally is not an indication of fallacious argumentation. One can have good arguments and for that very reason also a strong emotional connection to the topic. There is no reason to withhold anger or joy if a situation indeed makes you angry or joyful. Again: as long as the emotions don’t take precedence over factual arguments (see also: Tone Policing).

Conversely, of course, the fact that someone takes a position very emotionally is no reason to conclude that the arguments must be particularly good.

See also

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