Emotional Appeals. Emotional appeals all have two things in common:

  1. They attempt to elicit an emotional response that will serve as the basis of any decision made, instead of presenting an argument and relying on its soundness.
  2. As a result, they are never acceptable in an argument, though they can be quite effective in arousing non-rational responses.
Fallacious appeals to emotions are effective because it's easier for most people not to think critically, but to rely on their gut reaction; and it's easier for the person making the appeal to excite his listeners' emotions than to construct a persuasive argument. As a result, those who try to persuade us most often--politicians and advertisers-- tend to rely on emotional appeals in order to motivate us to do things that we might not for purely rational reasons.

Fallacious appeals can target almost any emotion, but some are more common than others. In this section, we will be focusing on seven different ones: appeals to fear, loyalty, pity, prejudice, spite, and vanity, and the special case of sex appeal.




Appeal to Fear. Fear and love are two of the strongest emotions, and this sort of non-rational persuasion is usually designed to tap into both of them, by threatening the safety or happiness of ourselves or someone we love. As a result, it's often called scare tactics or appeal to force because the threats of force are intended to scare us into agreement or action. Consider the following appeals:
    "Gosh, officer, I know I made an illegal left turn, but if you give me a ticket, I'll have to call my friend the mayor and and have a long talk."
    "Gosh, officer, I know I made an illegal left turn, but if you give me a ticket, you better make sure your family is in a really safe place."
    "Gosh, officer, I know I made an illegal left turn, but if you even start to give me a ticket, I'm going to shoot you with this gun."
Notice that the first threat is the most veiled, carried in the implication that the speaker has a powerful friend that can adversely affect the officer's career. The second threat is also veiled--the speaker never says he or she will do anything, and in some situations the advice to ensure the safety of one's family might be considered downright neighborly. But the second appeal is, in other ways, more powerful than the first, because it threatens the officer's family with violence. The threat in the third example is so direct--the speaker has apparently pulled a gun on the officer--that it might not be considered a fallacy at all. Certainly caution would be the best response in each of these cases but, generally speaking, most of the threats encountered in critical thinking are less direct and less violent than these examples.

Remember that, while all appeals to fear involve negative outcomes, not all negative outcomes necessarily derive from fallacies. When the doctor tells you to change your diet or you'll die young, and when the dentist tells you to floss better or you will lose your teeth, they are probably not engaging in a fallacious appeal to fear. Instead, they are explaining to you the demonstrable consequences of your actions, not as a threat but as information upon which they hope you will act.




Appeal to Loyalty. Since humans are social beings, one of our strongest emotions involves attachment to a group, and there are several different ways to appeal to that emotion. One is the general appeal to loyalty, which operates on the notion that one should act in concert with (what is claimed to be) the group's best interests, regardless of the merits of the particular case being argued. Chauvinistic slogans, like "My country, right or wrong," are good examples of this sort of non-rational emotionalism, and such appeals are often known by the Latin name for this fallacy, ad populum, meaning that it is direct "to the people." But appeal to loyalty can utilize one's attachment to things other than a country, because we also feel loyalty to our friends and family, schools, cities and towns, teams, favorite authors and musicians, and so on.

A variant on the appeal to loyalty is the fallacious use of peer pressure. In this case, one's agreement is sought, not on the basis of what is good for the group as in appeal to loyalty, but on the basis of what others in that group would or do think. Peer pressure, then, usually requires a closer relationship with the group connection being exploited than does appeal to loyalty, though both involve the (often implicit) knowledge of what is expected by the group. Bandwagon, another variant of appeal to loyalty, is different because it doesn't involve that knowledge of what action is expected by the group. Instead, "getting on the bandwagon" is an expression which indicates that an individual has willingly begun to support a group's goals or arguments or beliefs, merely to be part of a large group, especially if its members are perceived as somehow successful or "winners." Thus, voting for someone because you've read or heard that candidate was by far the most popular, or supporting a ballot initiative because you've read or heard it was supposed to pass overwhelmingly, is an example of bandwagon.

Consider these three examples:

    "Gosh, officer, I know I made an illegal left turn, but we cops have to stick together."
    "Gosh, officer, I know I made an illegal left turn, but what would they say about you down at the stationhouse if they knew you were giving out tickets to other cops?"
    "Gosh, officer, I know I made an illegal left turn, but you've got to get with the program. Everyone else lets other cops off with just a warning."
"Sticking together," in the first example, rather than reaching a conclusion based on the merits of the case, shows how appeal to loyalty works. Wondering what others will think, especially those in a defined group who are in close contact with you, is an example of peer pressure. Finally, doing something because everyone else is doing it is an example of bandwagon. Notice, incidentally, that bandwagon differs from the misdirected appeal to common practice, in that common practice's "everyone is doing it" is given as the reason why the thought or action is proper, but in the bandwagon fallacy there is no necessity for the thought or action to be considered proper, only that the individual would think or do it in order to become part of that large group.


Appeal to Pity. A fallacious appeal to pity, also known as a sob story, is different from a simple (and perfectly legitimate) appeal to pity in one significant way: it is used to replace logic, rather than to support it. As far as critical thinking goes, it can be perfectly legitimate for someone to say, "Please give me some money to buy food. I haven't eaten in days." Certainly, this would be an appeal to pity, but as long as the appeal is made in such a way as not to preclude logical consideration of the situation (such as whether the request is appropriate for the problem, whether you can reasonably afford or provide whatever is requested, and so on), it need not be fallacious. When the fallacy does occur, it is usually exhibits either a greatly exaggerated problem or an inappropriate request. Most of all, however, a fallacious appeal to pity uses emotion in place of reason to persuade. Consider these examples:
    "Gosh, officer, I know I made an illegal left turn, but please don't give me a ticket. I've had a hard day, and I was just trying to get over to my aged mother's hospital room, and spend a few minutes with her before I report to my second full-time minimum-wage job, which I have to have as the sole support of the seventeen members of my family."
    "Gosh, officer, I know I made an illegal left turn, but please don't give me a ticket. If you do, they'll suspend my license, I'll lose my insurance, I won't be able to work, and my kids will go hungry."
In neither case are there any reasons given as to why the individual should escape punishment, or why the "pitiful" condition caused the illegal left turn. In the first example, if the description is accurate (often a question in a fallacious appeal to pity), the individual certainly has a difficult life, but none of that means that normal traffic laws should be suspended. The second example seems to mix an appeal to pity with an appeal to indirect consequences, making this a "slippery slope sob story" in which receiving the ticket will be the first step in a terrible decline of fortunes. In fact, the first step was the illegal left turn, and there's no reason to expect the consequences solely of getting the ticket to be as dire as suggested.

One oddity about an appeal to pity--fallacious or otherwise--is that it often fails because the emotion is mostly on the side of the one making the argument. If perceived as such, the desire to be pitied, for good reasons or bad, can turn off a listener's emotions, rather than elicit them. Often, a dispassionate but accurate accounting of one's plight is more effective than a tear-filled and self-pitying narrative of the wrongs one has suffered.




Appeal to Prejudice. A prejudice is a predisposition to judge groups of people or things either positively or negatively, even after the facts of a case indicate otherwise. This fallacy is also called an appeal to stereotypes, but be sure to distinguish this appeal to a pre-existing prejudice from stereotyping, the sort of generalizations which create stereotypes.

By appealing to a prejudice in the listener, the person making the argument attempts to ensure a favorable reaction. Most often, such an appeal works on negative images, and extreme cases can be classified as so-called "hate speech" when directed against a group defined by race, ethnicity, or gender. However, some appeals to prejudice are devoid of the hatred that is a requisite for a different emotional fallacies--apppeal to spite. Consider this example:

    "Gosh, officer, I know I made an illegal left turn, but there ought to be special laws for those of us proud to be American and driving American cars on American streets, instead of making us follow the same rules as those foreign-made cars that have ruined the economy and put so many of us good Americans out of work."
Conceivably, this statement could be made without hatred, though perhaps some measure of indignation is necessary. Instead, our scofflaw has mixed prejudice with wishful thinking to produce the image of how the world would be if people with a prejudice against foreign-made cars were in control.


Appeal to Spite. Appeals to spite, to hatred, and to indignation attempt to tap into the animus a person feels about an individual or group of people or things. They differ from appeal to prejudice in the sense that prejudice works on a pre-existing belief, which may be positive or negative, but spite can be elicited by the attempt at persuasion itself, and is always negative. Of course,we can imagine a case in which there is an appeal to both spite and prejudice. But consider the following example of appeal to spite alone:
    "Gosh, officer, I know I made an illegal left turn, but you know how it feels when you are unappreciated and your work is ignored, while someone else is given the rewards that should really be yours! It seems like there are signs saying "No this" and "No that" everywhere--but just for you--and at some point you just have to end that cycle of mistreatment and show the world you can't be pushed around any more."
This isn't an appeal to pity, because the speaker is inviting the officer into joining him or her in outrage, rather feeling any pity. And it isn't an appeal to prejudice, because the basis for the anger here is more frustration than anything else (though it may also be a combination of various emotions).


Appeal to Vanity. Also known as apple-polishing, the strategy behind this fallacy is to create a predisposition toward agreement by paying compliments. The success of the strategy depends on a combination of the vanity of the target and the subtlety of the compliment, and it is usually more effect when the compliment is somehow related to the issue at hand. Consider these two examples:
    "Gosh, officer, I know I made an illegal left turn, but you certainly look handsome in your uniform."
    "Gosh, officer, I know I made an illegal left turn, but it was certainly perceptive of you to notice. You deserve a commendation."
Admittedly, for either of these appeals to succeed in the attempt to avoid a ticket, the officer would have to be remarkably vain. The second example would seem slightly more subtle and relevant, and therefore perhaps more effective, or at least less embarrassing when the officer writes the ticket anyway.


Sex Appeal. Perhaps the most familiar of all emotional appeals, the appeal to (or of) sex is firmly rooted in our biological urges. Like all appeals to emotion, sex appeal has a perfectly acceptable function: it is a powerful reason for making a date, for example. But is it such a good reason for buying a car?

Before answering that, we need to make clear what we mean by "sexy." We think a person is sexy if he or she appeals to our sexual desires. An object can be considered sexy if it heightens or increases the sex appeal of a person (real or hypothetical); in that sense, a sheer negligee, a well-tailored suit, or a stylish car can all be sexy accessories. So, if it is important to you for a car to make you feel sexy, then its sex appeal might be a good reason for buying a specific car. (Of course, it might also be a good reason to take a hard look at your values, and try to put the shallowness of our material culture behind you!)

So there are at least two types of sex appeal when it comes to automobile advertising. Sexy styling, while possibly shallow, is nevertheless a legitimate consideration for some in buying a car. However, a second kind of sex appeal--say, the cleavage of the model in a car ad--is an illegitimate appeal to emotions, which functions by trying to excite someone in a way that impacts on rational decision-making. And it works! As a result, that is exactly the sort of advertising we will be getting, until we collectively refuse to be persuaded by celebrity endorsements, sexy models, and other sorts of emotional manipulations, and demand intelligent and informative ads.

You can, no doubt, imagine many scenes in which sex appeal is used to avoid a ticket. Let's consider this one:

    "Gosh, officer, I know I made an illegal left turn. Let me get my license for you."

    "What are you doing, ma'am?"

    "Oh, it's okay. I keep my license tucked away here in my brassiere."

Notice that, in appeal to vanity, the speaker makes the most of someone else's appearance, while in sex appeal the persuader (often wordlessly) trades on his or her own features. Note, too, that no offer of sex (or anything else) is being made here--whatever suggestiveness there may be in where the woman keeps her license. That is important, for sex appeal as well as all other emotional appeals, because once the attempt at persuasion goes beyond a simple appeal to the emotions, and involves a tangible reward or exchange, then it ceases to be a fallacy, and becomes a bribe.