Week 6 – Pathos (Emotions, Values)

Pathos is a quality of an experience in life, or a work of art, that stirs up emotions of pity, sympathy, and sorrow. Pathos can be expressed through words, pictures, or even with gestures of the body. Pathos is an important tool of persuasion in arguments because it is a method of convincing people with an argument drawn out through an emotional response. Analyzing examples of pathos, one would come to the conclusion that it differs from the other rhetorical appeals of persuasion, namely ethos and logos, in several significant ways. Ethos means convincing others through the credibility of a persuader or of the argument itself, while logos is a method to convince others by employing reliable, sufficient logic and reason. But only pathos is employed to specifically trigger the emotional states of the readers and listeners and thus, is an incredibly powerful, but also incredibly manipulative, method of appeal.

Pathos is an important tool of persuasion in arguments. Pathos is a method of convincing people with an argument drawn out through an emotional response. Analyzing examples of pathos, one would come to the conclusion that it differs from other “ingredients of persuasion,” namely “ethos” and “logos,” in that it requires us to try to quantify subjective, emotional and values-based assumptions in our quest to understand and evaluate academic arguments. The use of pathos is called a “pathetic appeal.” Note that this is very different from our usual understanding of the word “pathetic.” “Pathos” is used to describe the rhetor’s attempt to appeal to “an audience’s sense of identity, their self-interest, and their emotions.” If the rhetor can create a common sense of identity with their audience, then the rhetor is using a pathetic appeal. “Pathos” most often refers to an attempt to engage an audience’s emotions. Think about the different emotions people are capable of feeling: they include love, pity, sorrow, affection, anger, fear, greed, lust, and hatred. If a rhetor tries to make an audience feel emotions in response to what is being said or written, then they are using pathos.

Common Examples of Pathos

For a better understanding of the subject, let us examine a few pathos examples from daily conversations:

  • “If we don’t leave this place soon, we’ll be yelling for help. There’s no one to help us here, let’s get out of here and live.” – This statement evokes emotions of fear.
  • The “Made in America” label on various products sold in America tries to enhance sales by appealing to customers’ sense of patriotism.
  • Ads encouraging charitable donations show small children living in pathetic conditions, to evoke pity in people.
  • Referring to a country as “the motherland” stirs up patriotic feelings in individuals living in that country or state.
  • A soft, instrumental symphony may arouse people emotionally.

Resources for studying and using Pathos in Arguments

Using Pathos Correctly

Whether we are making arguments or analyzing them, it is important that we use Pathos carefully. Often, our emotions can get in the way or clear and critical thinking on an issue. Pathos can and should be used to clarify how a well-supported position relates to our values and beliefs but should never be used to manipulate, confuse or inflate an issue beyond what the evidence is capable of supporting.

The Science of Emotions

The following three TED Talks each address the science and growing body of research that explores the biological origins of our emotional states and what we can learn about ourselves from carefully studying our feelings. While not addressing the techniques of argument analysis and critical thinking directly, we can learn a great deal from these talks about the way Pathos is used to influence our choices, our perceptions, our thoughts, values and beliefs by understanding how emotions work and how, possibly, to better control them.

These TED Talks give us a great deal of information on the science of emotions and how we can use that data to better understand and work with our feelings. Some things to consider in summary:

  • Humans are very complex emotional creatures who use their feelings as much as, or even more than, their thoughts to make decisions in the world.
  • Even though scientists have graphed close to 35,000 distinct emotions, most people only feel around 10-12 of them with any regularity.
  • Of those top 12, the overwhelming majority of people make most of their decisions based on just three: love, hatred and fear.
  • We make, on average, around 33,000 individual choices a day. If the data is correct, most of those decisions are governed, at least in part, by our reactions to our internal states of love, hatred and/or fear.
  • So if we are not aware of (and at least somewhat in control of) how we process these emotions, anyone who wishes to manipulate us (politicians, advertisers, abusive partners, incompetent writing professors, etc.) can misuse Pathos in manipulative ways to trigger states of love, hatred or fear in us to make us more susceptible to accepting or rejecting a given argument without fully considering the merits of its evidence.

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Critical Thinking by Andrew Gurevich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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