Appeal to Emotion Fallacy | Examples & Definition

Reasoning updated on  January 30, 2024 5 min read

An appeal to emotion fallacy occurs when an argument circumvents logic by attempting to manipulate an audience’s feelings.

Fallacious appeals to emotion can be remarkably compelling, so they play a significant role in persuasive communication, ranging from everyday advertisements to political propaganda. They can target various feelings, both positive and negative.

Appeal to emotion fallacy example
A politician is asked about how their policies will help combat inflation. In response, they promise that their economic plan will lead to unparalleled prosperity and job creation, focusing on a bright future and hope for improvement. They describe a future of economic growth without answering the question about their inflation-related policies.

The appeal to emotion in this case targets voters’ hopes for a better life. By focusing on pleasant imagery, the politician bypasses critical evaluation of their specific plan and its feasibility.

The appeal to emotion fallacy is also known by the Latin name argumentum ad passiones, as well as emotional appeal and appeal to feeling.

What is appeal to emotion fallacy?

An appeal to emotion fallacy occurs when an audience is pressured to accept a poorly supported conclusion based on evocative imagery or emotionally charged language.

The problem with an appeal to emotion fallacy isn’t the presence of content that evokes strong feelings. Rather, the issue is that emotionally charged content is used in place of a sound argument.

Appeals to emotion are fallacies of relevance (or red herrings), a category of informal logical fallacies that shift attention away from the main subject of debate.

Fallacious emotional appeals can be broken down into subcategories based on the primary emotion they evoke. The most widely recognized categories of appeal to emotion are the appeal to pity fallacy, the appeal to fear fallacy, and the appeal to flattery fallacy.

Are emotional appeals always fallacious?

Appeals to emotion are one of the three modes of persuasion (also known as Aristotelian appeals) described in Aristotle’s Rhetoric. The trio of ethos, pathos, and logos are the essential elements of persuasive communication, according to Aristotle.

  • Ethos appeals to the speaker’s credibility or character.
  • Pathos (or emotional appeal) appeals to the audience’s feelings.
  • Logos appeals to logic and reason.

Fallacious appeals to emotion rely too heavily on pathos at the expense of logos. However, emotionally evocative content plays an essential role in many contexts and can be valid, for example, when having a personal discussion.

Why do emotional appeals work?

An appeal to emotion fallacy can be highly effective at overriding critical analysis. Several psychological and social factors contribute to their effectiveness.

  • Rapid emotional response: Emotional responses are processed quickly by the brain’s limbic system and can preempt rational thought, making fallacies that appeal to our feelings especially persuasive.
  • Logic and cognitive load: Logical reasoning demands significant cognitive resources. In situations of stress or cognitive overload, our capacity for analytical thought is reduced, making us more susceptible to emotional appeals, which require less cognitive effort to process and accept.
  • Social and cultural conditioning: Fallacious appeals to emotion often resonate with deeply ingrained social and cultural values that play a crucial role in social interactions and adherence to cultural norms.
  • Personal identity and emotional investment: People tend to be emotionally invested in their identities and values. Emotional appeal fallacies that touch on core values can threaten a person’s sense of identity.
  • Motivating power of emotions: Positive emotions linked to social approval, success, or the promise of reward can be powerful motivators. Likewise, negative emotions such as fear and anger also tend to spur people to action.

Emotional appeals are popular in persuasive communication because they tend to be quite effective.

What are different ways to appeal to emotions?

Understanding how to appeal to an audience’s emotions is an important skill to have as a writer, orator, or content creator. It can be a useful tool for marketers, journalists, and politicians, among others.

The following strategies can add emotional impact to a message:

  • Storytelling and personal testimonials: Sharing compelling stories or anecdotes that create a sense of personal connection can make a viewpoint seem more relatable and abstract concepts more accessible.
  • Language and tone: Choosing words and phrases that carry emotional weight can elicit feelings such as warmth, urgency, excitement, or fear.
  • Rhetorical questions: Posing questions that provoke thought or self-reflection can encourage an audience to engage with the topic on a personal and emotional level.
  • Contrasts and comparisons: Highlighting contrasts between negative and positive scenarios or comparing past and future possibilities can be used to evoke fear, hope, or other emotions related to change or stability.
  • Figurative language: Using language (e.g., metaphors and similes) that vividly describes situations can make abstract arguments more emotionally resonant.
  • Social identity and values: Appealing to the audience’s sense of identity, community, and shared values can reinforce a sense of group cohesion and invoke emotions related to belonging, pride, or morality.

These emotional appeals are fallacious only if they serve as the primary basis of an argument while excluding evidence or logical reasoning.

Appeal to emotion fallacy examples

Examples of the appeal to emotion fallacy can be found in many real-life scenarios, especially in marketing materials. Emotions such as desire, fear, and pity are often used to motivate people to spend or donate money.

Appeal to emotion fallacy example in real life
A charity depicts malnourished children in its ad campaign with the slogan: “For the price of a cup of coffee, you can feed a child for a day. How can you refuse to help?”

This appeal to pity pressures the audience to donate by making them feel guilty for not donating to this specific organization, without addressing the charity’s overall impact or efficiency.

Likewise, politicians often appeal to emotions to motivate people to take action (e.g., voting for a certain candidate or donating to a campaign).

In political discourse, messaging frequently targets negative emotions such as disgust and fear when vilifying a perceived “other” (e.g., the opposing party or a foreign nation). Nationalist movements often combine this fear of outsiders with an appeal to pride, hoping to unite their supporters.

Appeals to guilt or pity are sometimes used to sway public opinion on economic policies. Hope and excitement might be the focus when rallying support for a candidate who promises significant change to the status quo.

Appeal to emotion example in politics
Despite their significant differences, both Barack Obama and Donald Trump successfully used appeals to hope in their presidential campaigns. Both Obama and Trump were perceived as “outsiders” to the established Washington political scene when elected and relied on the vague appeal of hope.

Obama’s 2008 campaign used the slogans “Hope and change” and “Yes we can” to promise positive transformation and progress.

Trump’s 2016 campaign promised to return America to a perceived former glory, appealing to hope with the slogan “Make America great again.”

Campaign slogans that appeal to emotions are commonplace across the political spectrum. They constitute appeal to emotion fallacies only if they are used to replace substantive arguments.


Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Idioms

Parts of speech

Fallacies

Diamond in the rough

Irregular verb

Slippery slope fallacy

Idioms

Gerund

Sunk cost fallacy

Piece of cake

Infinitive phrase

Red herring fallacy

Better late than never

Infinitive

Appeal to authority fallacy

Salt of the earth

Adverb

Circular reasoning fallacy


Frequently asked questions about appeal to emotion

What are some other common fallacies related to the appeal to emotion fallacy?

A number of fallacies are directly related to the appeal to emotion fallacy.

Specific categories of emotional appeals include the following:

  • Appeal to pity fallacy (argumentum ad misericordiam): Elicits sympathy to sway opinions or decisions
  • Appeal to fear fallacy (argumentum ad baculum): Uses fear as the primary motivator to influence opinions or actions
  • Appeal to flattery: Wins favor through compliments that bolster the recipient’s pride

Other related fallacies include the following:

  • Red herring fallacy: Relies on distraction to mask an argument’s weakness; includes other fallacies of relevance such as the appeal to emotion fallacy
  • Appeal to popularity (argumentum ad populum): Focuses on a position’s popularity but may also appeal to the comfort of belonging or the fear of exclusion
  • Appeal to tradition (argumentum ad antiquitatem): Argues that a position should be accepted solely out of reverence for the past; may evoke nostalgia
  • Appeal to ridicule: Discredits an argument through derisive humor; may appeal to the audience’s pride and sense of superiority

Why is the appeal to emotion fallacy problematic?

The appeal to emotion fallacy is problematic because it replaces logic and evidence with emotionally charged content.

Including evocative language and imagery in an argument is an acceptable rhetorical strategy. However, an argument is rendered unsound when an emotional appeal is used to distract from the main points of the argument.

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Magedah Shabo

Magedah is an author, editor, and educator who has empowered thousands of students to become better writers.

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