Handling Emotional Appeals

byfiddlemath7y10th Dec 201112 comments


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?