Pathos: Hysterical Appeal to Emotion is Manipulation, Not Argument

Did you ever notice that people who can state no valid logical argument, or who have in fact already lost the debate, turn to emotion to try to gain or regain favor?  From tearjerking press conferences to Twitter meltdowns, it’s a trick and it happens all the time.

Argumentum ad passione and ad misericordiam

Appeal to emotion (“from passion”) is a logical fallacy characterized by the manipulation of the audience’s emotions in order to win the argument, especially in the absence of factual evidence or logic. An appeal to pity or sympathy (misericordiam) a.k.a. the sob story (or the Galileo argument) is a fallacy in which someone tries to win support for an argument or idea by exploiting feelings of pity or guilt.

Each is based on pathos, and people employ these because they are quite effective.

One common method centers around a plea for sympathy.

I am suffering, so you should believe me … and do as I ask. The implication is that no one would appear this sincere or this hurt if what they are claiming were not true.

Then there is, “support me because I am a caring sensitive human being.”

Using an appeal to emotion as a backup to rational and logical arguments is a tactical skill possessed by every great communicator. It makes the audience invested in the idea or argument on a gut level, not just a cerebral one.

It is also used, to lesser effect, by hapless hysterics. who cannot accept defeat. Those who are unable to deal with reality. See Twitter on any given day, or just watch the news.

I find this phenomenon fascinating; and it turns out there’s quite a lot of science behind it. According to writer Olivia Goldhill

Researchers have found that patients who cannot process emotions also struggle to make decisions, suggesting that emotions play a key role in our decision-making abilities.

[Psychologist Robert] Yeung says that deciding which emotion to deploy in any given argument depends on the situation.

Persuasion and belief

Appealing to emotions is a powerful, and even necessary technique in persuasion. We mammalian creatures who are afraid of the dark, and of death, are emotional by nature. And we take comfort in belief when knowledge seems unattainable or inconvenient. Thus we have religion, which Freud defined as an illusion, consisting of “certain dogmas, assertions about facts and conditions of external and internal reality which tells one something that one has not oneself discovered, and which claim that one should give them credence.”

Reliance upon belief is related to feelings of weakness in the face of the powers of nature and cold hard reality. Emotion leads us to develop a wish for protection.

And it is for this reason that we have con artists who prey upon our beliefs and emotionality. They weaponize our fears and turn our most humane sympathies against us.

The face of Pathos

We pitiful creatures often make decisions and form beliefs erroneously based on emotions — and particularly in response to the emotional presentations of others — when reason and logic tell us otherwise.

This is why I am immediately skeptical of anyone who falls back on emotion and turns on the waterworks when they don’t get their way.

To quote Ash, the hero in the great “Army of Darkness“: “It’s a trick, get an axe.”

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