Philosophy is for Everyone

How to Spot Illegitimate Appeal to Emotion

Illegitimate appeal to emotion is a common fallacy people use in everyday conversation.

On the one hand, emotions are a crucial part of our life. They give us important feedback about positive and negative aspects of life. Our emotions can also warn us of danger or of exciting possibilities.

On the other hand, emotions can be powerful and overwhelming. And sometimes our emotions can be so powerful that they blind us to what is, in fact, going on in a situation.

Therefore, we need reason to help us understand if our emotions correspond accurately with something in our environment and are proportional to it. Understanding this can help us spot the fallacy of illegitimate appeal to emotion. (A fallacy is a faulty argument type.)

Illegitimate Appeal to Emotion

When people use this fallacy, their argument stirs our emotions  in an illegitimate way. Namely, the arguer appeals to emotions that aren’t, in fact, related to the conclusion of their argument. Or they stir up our emotions in a way that is disproportionate to the evidence at hand.

“Sixteen Faces Expressing the Human Passions”, colored engraving by J. Pass (1821), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons,

Let me give an example.

Imagine a guy who is on trial for murder. We’ll call him Peter. The prosecutors accuse Peter of murdering another guy, Ethan, in a drug deal gone bad. And the lawyer presenting the case against Peter, we’ll call him Larry, really wants to win this case.

Larry’s city is cracking down on drug activity. And Larry has received a lot of pressure from local law enforcement agencies to convict Peter and send him to jail. However, Larry and his prosecutorial team do not have a strong case against Peter. Therefore, in his opening and closing statements, Larry relies heavily on emotion.

For example, Larry paints a terrifying picture of the dangers of drugs and how they ruin people’s lives. And although Ethan was involved with drug activity, Larry portrays Ethan as a loving father and devoted husband who made a few bad decisions but was just trying to provide for his family. And Larry shows the jury beautiful family pictures of Ethan with his wife and two kids.

He describes the violence of Ethan’s death in detail and asks the jury to imagine what it will be like for Ethan’s two kids to grow up fatherless.

Larry hopes that if he can stir the emotions of the jury enough, they will be so outraged by the crime that they will decide Peter must pay, even though the evidence against him is quite weak.

Larry knows if he can evoke just the right emotion and then sprinkle in a few pieces of evidence, no matter how flimsy they are, he will own the jury.

After all, people love kids.

“Beuthen Courthouse”, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Larry and Illegitimate Appeal to Emotion

In this example, Larry certainly uses illegitimate appeal to emotion to win his case. That is because Larry attempts to stir the jury’s emotions into a frenzy, one that is not proportionate to the evidence or closely related to his conclusion.

For example, if we were to look at an abbreviated structure of Larry’s argument, it would look something like this:

Argument Evidence:

Horrible details about the danger of drugs and Ethan’s death.

Beautiful pictures of Ethan and his family.

Thoughts of Ethan’s children growing up fatherless.

A few facts.


Therefore, convict Peter for murdering Ethan.

Why Appeals to Emotion are So Effective

Of course, when we examine Larry’s argument in this form, it doesn’t look convincing at all.

For example, when we look objectively at an argument structured like this, we recognize that horrible details about a death, beautiful pictures of a family, and thoughts about fatherless are not, in fact, related to the claim that a jury should convict Peter of murder.

The jury should only convict Peter if there is sufficient evidence that he committed the murder. And it appears in this case, at least, that there are few facts proving Peter did indeed do the crime.

Nevertheless, if a jury doesn’t pay close attention, they may not realize that Larry builds most of his case on emotion, rather than solid evidence.

“Expressions of Emotion”, Guillaume Duchenne, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The jury might not realize this because arguments that rely on illegitimate appeal to emotion often sound very convincing. That is because when someone stirs our emotions powerfully, we become so focused on strong feelings, it distracts us from the fact that the arguer’s evidence is flimsy and unrelated to the conclusion they want us to believe.

All of Us Can Fall for Illegitimate Appeals to Emotion

If you are anything like me, you probably think, “There’s no way I would fall for an argument like that.” And in fact, most of us feel like we would easily be able to detect someone who used emotion to blind us to their lack of evidence.

However, people who use illegitimate appeals to emotion are often very good at reading their audience. They know the ideas and words that mean a lot to their audience, and they use those ideas and words dramatically to connect deeply with their audience’s fears, values, and hopes.

One of the most common ways people do this is to rely on a technique called loaded words. Loaded words are words that mean a great deal to people and are especially effective at stirring their emotions. I will give you an example of loaded words that politicians, for example, from different political backgrounds might use.

Words like family, freedom, body, working man, autonomy, heritage, children, God, communities, crime, predator, women, prayer, equality, and justice are all words that connect closely to almost everyone’s deepest fears, values, and hopes.

“Studies of a Woman Praying”, by Ludwig Emil Grimm, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As such, it is very easy for politicians to use such words purposely to stir our emotions powerfully. And of course, it is certainly not wrong per se for politicians to use these words. In fact, almost every politician uses at least some of these words in almost every speech they make.

However, if a politician over-relies on these words or uses them to distract his or her audience from the evidence (or lack of evidence) at hand, the politician likely commits the fallacy of illegitimate appeal to emotion.

When We are Most Likely to Fall for Bad Arguments

And as you can imagine, if an audience really likes a particular politician and cares deeply about the issue on which he or she speaks, the audience is less likely to recognize an illegitimate appeal to emotion.

For instance, let’s say that I really like a politician named Susan Jameson. Let’s say that I also really care about justice for women. And I am also concerned about crime and predators.  If I listen to Susan Jameson give a moving speech about justice, women, and fighting crime, it is going to be harder for me to notice if Susan uses illegitimate appeals to emotion in her speech.

That’s because I like Susan. And I trust her. In addition, I care deeply about justice for women, and I am really concerned about crime and predators. In fact, I am often worried that I could become a victim of a violent villain.

And Susan certainly knows this about me and others in her audience. So if she desires to manipulate me, she could fill her speech with moving words and stories about women, justice, and the defeat of violent predators.

In doing so, it would be easy for people like me to get caught up in the emotions that Susan’s stories and words evoke. I might fail to realize that Susan’s speech relies too heavily on emotion. And I might also fail to realize that her speech lacks strong facts and evidence.

“V is for Villain” from “An Alphabet” by William Nicholas (1899), picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As another example, let’s say that faith and family values are really important to me. And let’s say that I really like a candidate named Sam Reilly. Sam Reilly certainly knows that I (and people like me) care a lot about faith and family values.

So, if Sam wants to manipulate me, he could fill his speech with moving words and stories about faith, family values, and fighting atheists and other people supposedly against my values. And because I like Sam so much and love what he talks about, his speech fills me with positive emotions about my cherished values. And his speech also kindles my hatred and disgust towards people whom I think fight against my principles.

I am overwhelmed with all these feelings during his speeches, and I may fail to recognize he relies heavily on emotion and lacks evidence to support his claims. Furthermore, because Sam speaks so movingly about beautiful values like faith and family, it’s hard for me to believe he could have less-than-noble intentions.

(Note: Someone can commit illegitimate appeal to emotion by accident. In this case, people use this fallacy by mistake rather than the desire to manipulate. Whether someone intentionally or unintentionally uses illegitimate appeal to emotion, it is still a logical fallacy and a problem.)

The Point

These examples suggest that we are all susceptible to illegitimate appeals to emotion. And we are more susceptible to this fallacy when we like the person speaking and care deeply about the issues the speaker addresses.

Some Suggestions

This tendency implies a few steps we can take to better spot illegitimate appeals to emotion.

First, always listen carefully to speakers, especially those who make strong claims. Ask yourself what claim the speaker wants you to believe, as well as the evidence he or she gives to support the claim.

Second, notice if a speaker uses a lot of emotional words and stories to prove his or her point. And ask yourself if the emotions evoked relate directly and proportionally to the evidence at hand.

Third, be aware that you are more susceptible to illegitimate appeals to emotion when you like speakers and care deeply about the issues they address.

Fourth, be aware that if speakers rely a lot on loaded words (like those I mentioned above), there is a good chance they employ illegitimate appeals to emotion in their speeches.

“Knight Academy Lecture”, by Isaacsz, picture courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The more you practice these steps whenever you listen to an argument, the more likely it is that you will spot illegitimate appeals to emotion. In doing so, you also develop critical thinking, which everyone can do through practice.

Developing critical thinking protects you from people who want to deceive, pressure, and manipulate you.

You might also like these posts:

Idols of the Mind: Common Thinking Errors

How to Think for Yourself

How to Make a Good Argument

For further reading, you might be interested in these three books I have written (or co-written) to help people think for themselves.

My books are The Argument Builder, The Discovery of Deduction (co-author), and Everyday Debate.

You can find these books at Classical Academic Press here.

And you can also order them from Amazon:

Everyday Debate (I recommend starting with this one.)

The Argument Builder

The Discovery of Deduction


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