Handling Emotional Appeals

by fiddlemath2 min read10th Dec 201112 comments

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In a comment elsewhere, BrandonReinhart asked:

Why is it not acceptable to appeal to emotion while at the same time back it with well evidenced research? Or rather, why are we suspicious of the findings of those who appeal to emotion while at the same time uninterested in turning an ear to those who do not?

[...] Emotional appeals would seem to have more of an urgency, requiring our attention while the scientific view's far-mode appeal would seem less immediate. In that case, we might simply ignore the far mode story because of all the other urgent-seeming vacuous emotional appeals fighting for our attention and time. Even if we politically agreed on a course of action given a far mode analysis, we might choose to spend our time on the near-mode emotional problem set.

I suspect that we percieve a dichotomy between emotional appeal and a well-reasoned, well-evidenced argument.

I have a just-so story for why our kind can't cooperate: We've learned to distrust emotional appeal. This is understandable: the strength of an emotional appeal to believe X and do Y doesn't correlate with the truth of X or the consequences of Y. In fact, we are surrounded by emotional appeals to believe nonsense and do useless things. The production and delivery of emotional appeal is politics, policy, and several major industries. So, in our environment, emotional appeal is a strong indicator against rational argument.

In order to defend against irrationality, I have a habit of shutting out emotional appeals. I tune out emotive religious talk. I remain carefully aloof from political speeches. I put emotional distance between myself and any enthusiastic crowd. In general, my immediate response to emotional appeal is to ignore the message it bears. It's automatic now, subverbal -- I have an aversion to naked emotional appeal.

I strongly suspect that I'm not only describing myself, but many of you as well. (Is this true? This is a testable hypothesis.)

If we largely manage to broadly ignore emotional appeal, then we shut out not only harmful manipulations, but worthwhile rallying cries. We are motivated only by the motivation we can muster ourselves, rather than what motivation we can borrow from our peers and leaders. This may go some way towards explaining not just why Our Kind Can't Cooperate, but why we seem to so often report that Our Kind Can't Get Much Done.

On the other hand, if this is a real problem, it suggests a solution. We could try to learn an alternative response to emotional appeal. Upon noticing near-mode emotional appeal, instead of rejecting the message outright, go to far mode and consider the evidence. If the argument is sound under careful, critical consideration, and you approve of its motivation, then allow the emotional appeal to move you. On the other hand, I don't know if this is psychologically realistic.

So, questions:

  1. I hypothesize that we are much more averse to emotional appeals than the normal population. Does this stike you as true? Do you have examples or counterexamples?

  2. How might we test this hypothesis?

  3. I further hypothesize that, if we are averse to emotional appeals, that this is a strong factor in both our widely-reported akrasia and our sometimes-noted inability to work well together. How could we test this hypothesis?

  4. Can you postpone being moved by an emotional appeal until after making a calm decision about it?

  5. Can you somehow otherwise filter for emotional appeals that are highly likely to have positive effects?

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The crux of your argument seems to be that "borrowing" motivation from leaders and peers can help your goals. Unfortunately there's a flipside: leaders and peers often try to motivate you for their goals, not your goals. So instead of becoming more sensitive to other people's emotional appeals, you could try getting more in touch with your own values, increasing their emotional appeal to you while still blocking out everyone else.

you could try getting more in touch with your own values, increasing their emotional appeal to you while still blocking out everyone else.

I would like to increase the emotional appeal of my values, yes. In fact, being better at this is the ultimate goal of this post.

But becoming more motivated by my values is not a simple process. (Is it simple for you? How do you do it?)

There are lots of tricks that can help do this, already described around Less Wrong. I'm suggesting another.

I suspect that selectively allowing emotional appeals to move you is a powerful such technique -- if it can actually be done. But I realize that doing this poorly is a hazardous to rationality. I don't know how to be selectively moved, and so I don't know how the risks and benefits balance.

I'd like to note that the evidence that "Our Kind Can't Get Much Done" (relative to everyone else) is very weak. So my step one for testing anything about this thing would be actually measuring it. And to avoid obvious subjectivity problems (different groups having different standards for procrastination), and demographic problems (different groups having different opportunities to procrastinate), I'd suggest finding some task that's pretty much independent of demographic and asking objective questions about procrastination on that.

Ideas: Paying bills, or renewing a driver's license, or doing your laundry, getting a broken alarm clock / toaster / headphones replaced, turning off lights when you leave the room, taking out the trash.

Upvoted for empiricism.

Bills seems like the best choice, because there are significant negative consequences if it's not done in a timely manner. I don't know much about renewing drivers licenses, but the same thing may apply there as well.

The last four things seem demographic-dependent to an extant, so a larger sample would probably be necessary to extract useful results. For example, I might not bother getting my toaster replaced for a while if I ate toast rarely and was otherwise busy -- if the toaster's broken for a length of time, it's not going to blow up or something.

Negative utility from not taking out the trash doesn't seem to blow up quickly enough. I don't turn off the lights when I leave the room, and don't really think it causes enough negative utility to be worth thinking about (but am not well informed, so may be wrong.)

the evidence that "Our Kind Can't Get Much Done" (relative to everyone else) is very weak.

That's fair. This isn't really the point I was trying to get at, though I can see that the post makes it look so.

I'm not too concerned about how effective we are relative to everyone else. I'm concerned with how to become more effective than we are now.

That said, the measurements you describe, as well as most of the measurements here, could be useful to gauge a motivation technique against a control group.

But... emotional appeals make me sad. Lesswrong, I thought we were friends?


Eleizer Yudkowsky used emotional appeals in the Sequences, generally in regards to cryonics. However, it should be noted that convincing someone to be frozen is literally a life-or-death situation given his axioms. If you are in a life-or-death situation, by all means use emotional appeals.

However, should you listen to them? Certainly. If someone claims injury or offense without some sort of emotional appeal, they are probably faking it. Some people also cannot make their points without emotional appeals. Just because someone is reliant upon emotion while communicating does not mean that they do not have valid points to make. Further, failing to appear moved by emotional appeals is a reliable way to appear psychologically weird. However, I'm sure that we all knew this.

If we largely manage to broadly ignore emotional appeal, then we shut out not only harmful manipulations, but worthwhile rallying cries. We are motivated only by the motivation we can muster ourselves, rather than what motivation we can borrow from our peers and leaders. This may go some way towards explaining not just why Our Kind Can't Cooperate, but why we seem to so often report that Our Kind Can't Get Much Done.

Most rallying cries are harmful manipulations, by opportunity costs if nothing else. However, the akrasia-hypothesis is interesting. If I recollect correctly, pjeby has theories that are not too dissimilar from it.

I'm indifferent to emotional appeals by nature rather than averse to them as a defense mechanism.

I don't think this community is particularly bad at getting things done or working together, and I certainly reject the unspoken idea that the people here are so brilliant, if only we could get them pumped up, they'd go out and save the world. People don't do things here for the same reasons people don't do things everywhere: doing stuff is hard and nobody has any good ideas anyway.

Nice that you brought this up. I largely agree with the direction of the post (we need to learn how to use and deal with emotional appeals), but I'd make some stronger claims.

the strength of an emotional appeal to believe X and do Y doesn't correlate with the truth of X or the consequences of Y. In fact, we are surrounded by emotional appeals to believe nonsense and do useless things.

Agreed

So, in our environment, emotional appeal is a strong indicator against rational argument.

In the memetic environment one may explain away the other (in Bayes nets once you take two independent things and have them both cause a third thing, when you condition on the third thing, the two become correlated). This means that the presence of one changes your estimate of the probability of the other (in this case, emotion makes you think that it's less likely to be rational), but it does not mean that making something emotional makes it less rational. The causality does not work that way.

If we condition on being in LW, I'd actually say that emotional appeal would positively correlate with rationality. Lukeprog is a better writer and better rhetoritician than most LWers, because he's also more rational in terms of actually going out and doing things to make him better at communicating his ideas. Like rhetoric.

Avoiding emotional appeals entirely helps you avoid irrationality by helping you avoid the problem of separating emotional appeal from veracity, but I think that in the long run learning the mental process of separating the emotional and factual aspects from each other makes you a stronger rationalist. Running away from the problem makes you weaker and less effective.

Can you somehow otherwise filter for emotional appeals that are highly likely to have positive effects?

I think that positive emotional appeals are generally better than negative or reactionary appeals.

If the argument is sound under careful, critical consideration, and you approve of its motivation, then allow the emotional appeal to move you.

My instinctive feeling is that there is often a real dichotomy between emotional and rational argument-based appeals. When constructing your message, if you use one approach heavily enough you do so at the expense of the other.

If that's true, then dismissing all the emotional parts of an "emotional appeal" will often not leave the strongest "rational", non-emotional argument behind. Sometimes removing all the emotion won't leave behind an argument at all! To judge non-emotionally, you'd be better off looking for non-emotional messages the same source has targeted at other audiences which are perceived to shun emotional appeals, such as scientifical publications.

Now, why is there a dichotomy in the first place? I don't think it's mainly due to choice between different styles of argument (emotional vs. non-emotional). I suspect it's due to bias in the listeners.

We Lesswrongers know that rationality (truth) and emotions are orthogonal and complementary, rather than opposite and exclusive. But most people have the Spock mental model of "rationality" or "cold sober facts". So I conjecture that when such people hear an emotional appeal, and in the middle of it a cold hard fact, the mere presence of that fact and of the appeal to rationality detracts from the power of the main emotional-appeal story - even if the fact is an excellent and convincing one. And conversely, when people are listening to a fact-based "rational" appeal, inserting emotion will lower their confidence and agreement - even when the emotion is a wholly appropriate one.

I submit this as my instinctive appraisal, I don't have hard data like deliberate studies to back it up.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

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[-][anonymous]10y -2
  1. Yes, your description applies to me very accurately, as far as I can tell.

  2. Keep hearing the responses to this thread, get more opinions and ideas, I'm don't have any ideas myself yet.

  3. Same as 2.

  4. Yes, this tends to be my goal. I might not be very successful at it.

  5. Sometimes. I have let myself gt sucked into the emotion of appeals that I saw to be positive before, when I determined them as such.

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