Reasoning Skills and Appeals to Emotion Help (page 2)

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Updated on Sep 28, 2011


They say flattery will get you nowhere, but they're wrong. Flattery is powerful. So powerful, in fact, that it often leads people to make poor decisions and to accept arguments that really have no logical basis. Just as people can appeal to the sense of fear, they can also appeal to our  vanity, which is another logical fallacy. Here's an example:

    You're a good citizen. You care about the future. That's why we know we can count on you to reelect Senator Houseman.

Notice how this argument doesn't give you any logical reasons for reelecting Senator Houseman. Instead, it flatters you; you like hearing that you're a good citizen and someone who cares about the future. While this may be true about you, is that any reason to reelect the senator? Not without evidence that he's done a good job during his first term. This argument doesn't give any evidence of his job performance.

Here's another example of an appeal to vanity:

    "Professor Wilkins, this is the best class I've ever taken. I'm learning so much from you! Thank you. By the way, I know that I missed an exam last week and that you normally don't let students make up missed exams. However, since you are such an excellent teacher, I thought you'd allow me to make up the test."

Here, the student doesn't give the teacher any reason to make an exception to her no-make-up policy. She may indeed be an excellent teacher and the student may indeed be learning a lot from her, but he's not giving her any good reasons; he's just buttering her up to get her to say yes.

Peer Pressure

Along with fear and vanity, another extremely powerful emotion is our desire to be accepted by others. For example, children often do things they know are wrong because of pressure from friends. Unfortunately, many people continue to give in to peer pressure throughout their lives. Peer pressure is another form of false reasoning. It is an argument that says, "Accept the conclusion, or you won't be accepted." Take a look at the following arguments for examples of peer pressure:

    "C'mon, Sally. Stay. Everyone else is."
    "We're all voting no, Joe. You should, too."

In both these examples, the arguers don't offer any logical reasons for accepting their conclusions. Instead, they offer you acceptance—you'll be like everyone else. It's the old "everyone else is doing it" argument. The counterargument is exactly the one your mother gave you: If everyone else were jumping off a cliff, would you do it, too?

No one likes to be left out, and that's why we often give in to peer pressure. It is hard to be different and stand alone. But it is important to remember that our desire to belong is not a logical reason for accepting an argument. Why should Joe vote no? He needs to hear some specific, logical reasons. Otherwise, he's just falling victim to false logic.


Ms. Riviera, an eighth-grade history teacher, finds one of her students wandering the halls when she should be in class. The student tells the teacher, "I'm sorry, Ms. Riviera. I didn't realize I was out here so long. I'm just really upset about my math exam. I studied really hard for it and I only got a D on it. That means I'm going to be kicked off the tennis team!"

    What should Ms. Riviera do?
  1. Suspend the student. She should know better than this.
  2. Send the student to the principal's office.
  3. Take the student back to class and just give her a warning.
  4. Call the student's parents and then expel the student.


Sympathy is good—it's a great trait to demonstrate with your friends and family, but when you start analyzing an argument, pity shouldn't be involved. It is just another logical fallacy that appeals to emotions instead of your thinking skills.

Clearly, options a and d are unreasonable. But should Ms. Riviera give the student a break (choice c) just because she is upset? Is that a good enough reason for Ms. Riviera not to follow appropriate procedures, when the student clearly broke school rules?

Whether or not the student is telling the truth (and that's something Ms. Riviera will have to determine), she has appealed to another one of the most powerful emotions—the sense of pity and compassion for others. No one wants to be seen as heartless or uncaring. And that's why the appeal to pity, another logical fallacy, often works.?

    Here's another example of an appeal to pity:
    Think of all the people who can't afford healthcare. Imagine the physical and emotional anguish they endure, knowing that having insurance coverage is all that it would take to alleviate their illness or disease. Support healthcare reform—for their sake.

Notice that this argument asks the listener to support a cause purely for emotional reasons. It appeals to the sense of compassion for those without healthcare. While this may be a compelling argument—after all, these people do deserve compassion—it is not a logical one. It doesn't directly address why healthcare reform is a reasonable policy.

Of course, you will have to judge each situation individually. But just as with the other appeals to emotion, it's important to have some logical reasons to balance the emotional. Unfortunately, if decisions are made based purely on pity, they often come back to haunt you. There are some people in the world who will take advantage of your sense of compassion, so think carefully before you act on pity alone.

Reasoning Skills and Appeals to Emotion Help In Short

Appeals to emotions, including fear, vanity, desire to belong, and pity, can be very powerful. It is important to recognize when an argument uses emotional appeals—especially when emotional appeals are the only kind of support the argument offers.

Skill Building until Next Time

  • Listen carefully for emotional appeals throughout the day. If you like to watch television, you'll see that these appeals are very often used in sitcoms.
  • Think about something that you want someone to do for you. Think of several good, logical reasons for that person to say yes. Then, think of four different emotional appeals—one from each category—that you might use if you didn't know better.

Exercises for this concept can be found at Reasoning Skills and Appeals to Emotions Practice.

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