Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds

The vaunted human capacity for reason may have more to do with winning arguments than with thinking straight. New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason.

By Olivia Goldhill, Science reporter, October 10, 2015, Quartz

Even if you have all the facts, you may not convince others to agree with your argument. It’s frustrating, but according to Rob Yeung, a chartered psychologist and author of the recently published book How to Stand Out, it happens more than we would like. It turns out that the most effective strategy may be to use emotion, not logic, to make your case.

“If you think about most big topics, people are not persuaded by logic,” Yeung tells Quartz from London. “Most people in the Western world know that smoking cigarettes is bad for you and understand the principles of weight loss. But that’s not enough to motivate them to change. People do not listen to facts. You need an emotional angle.”

This theory is backed up by neuroscience: Researchers have found that patients who cannot process emotions also struggle to make decisions, suggesting that emotions play a key role in our decision-making abilities.

Yeung says that deciding which emotion to deploy in any given argument depends on the situation. Just remember, you have many options, so choose wisely. “Is it to get them angry about social injustice, is it to use humor to make them engage, is it about inspiring people and making them feel a sense of awe?” he says. “There’s lots of research showing that fear can be a motivating emotion but it has to be used properly.”

As an example of what not to do, Yeung cites former Nokia chief executive, Stephen Elop, who gave a speech to employees in 2011 in which he described a man standing on an oil platform that was on fire. He continued:

As the fire approached him, the man had mere seconds to react. He could stand on the platform, and inevitably be consumed by the burning flames. Or, he could plunge 30 meters in to the freezing waters. The man was standing upon a “burning platform,” and he needed to make a choice. Elop warned his employees about the growing success of Apple and Android and said “our platform is burning,” but didn’t set out a clear escape route. Yeung explains that using fear is ineffective as a motivator if can’t also offer a simple solution. Otherwise, “the solution may be so complex and frightening in itself that fear won’t motivate you into action.”

If fear isn’t an option, Yeung notes that both pride and shame are also very persuasive emotionsIn 2007, researchers conducted field experiments on whether those two emotions would motivate voters to cast their ballot. Some voters were told that the names of all verified voters would be published in the local newspaper (pride treatment), while others were told that the names of all verified nonvoters would be published (shame treatment).  On this occasion, researchers found that shame was more effective on average.

In addition, an effective emotional argument can be accentuated by several factors including a memorable style of speech (research supports the argument that metaphors have a strong effect on decision-making), animated gestures, and physical movement. “If you’re the person who moves round the room rather than standing behind a podium, you’re more visually entertaining and as a result people are more likely to listen to you and remember your messages,” says Yeung.

Ultimately, if your argument is watertight and you’re still not persuading listeners, it might be time to appeal to the heart instead.


Books By Elizabeth Kolbert Published in the print edition of the February 27, 2017, issue of the New Yorker, “That’s What You Think.”

The vaunted human capacity for reason may have more to do with winning arguments than with thinking straight.
The vaunted human capacity for reason may have more to do with winning arguments than with thinking straight. Illustration by Gérard DuBois

When most people think about the human capacity for reason, they imagine that facts enter the brain and valid conclusions come out. Science reveals this isn’t the case. People’s ability to reason is subject to a staggering number of biases. But what if the human capacity for reason didn’t evolve to help us solve problems; what if its purpose is to help people survive being near each other? Pulitzer Prize–winning author Elizabeth Kolbert’s thought-provoking article explains why people stand their ground, even when they’re standing in quicksand.


  • Human thinking is deeply flawed and prone to predictable biases.
  • Cognitive biases may have evolved to help humans argue as they thrived and cooperated in close-knit groups.
  • People often mistake the boundaries between their knowledge and the knowledge of others in their social group.
  • People tend to fall for arguments that evoke strong emotions rather than those based in fact.
  • When people are forced to examine the details of an issue, they tend to admit that they know less than they previously thought; this, and science, offer hope for humanity.

In the mid-1970s, Stanford University began a research project that revealed the limits to human rationality; clipboard-wielding graduate students have been eroding humanity’s faith in its own judgment ever since. Why is human thinking so flawed, particularly if it’s an adaptive behavior that evolved over millennia? Cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have written a book in answer to that question. In The Enigma of Reason, they advance the following idea: Reason is an evolved trait, but its purpose isn’t to extrapolate sensible conclusions from studying the available data. When living in a close-knit group, there is often more to be gained from winning disputes than there is from actual problem solving. “My-side bias” helps people spot the flaws in the other person’s argument while remaining blind to weaknesses in their own.

The vaunted human capacity for reason may have more to do with winning arguments than with thinking straight.”

Another book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, by professors Steven Sloman and Philip Ferbach, adds to the theory that flawed thinking has roots in human sociability. They argue that people are often unaware of the boundaries between their knowledge and that of the people on whom they rely. This ignorance has worked to society’s advantage, however, because “if everyone had insisted on, say, mastering the principles of metalworking before picking up a knife, the Bronze Age wouldn’t have amounted to much.”

“They cite research suggesting that people experience genuine pleasure – a rush of dopamine – when processing information that supports their beliefs.”

Despite the historical benefits the socially designed human brain poses, it’s clear that my-side bias and other flawed modes of thinking cause problems in modern times. Nowhere is this clearer than in politics. Jack Gorman and Sara Gorman, authors of Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts that Will Save Us, pinpoint the problem: People disregard accurate information, instead tending to fall for arguments that appeal to emotion.

Hope springs eternal, however, particularly for researchers who’ve discovered that people will amend erroneously high assessments of their own knowledge when asked to explain the details of a policy or process. If people are confronted by their lack of knowledge, they might seek facts accordingly. Science, too, offers hope, because when done right, reproducible experiments eliminate bias.

Elizabeth Kolbert is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. She has written for The New Yorker since 1999.

In 1975, researchers at Stanford invited a group of undergraduates to take part in a study about suicide. They were presented with pairs of suicide notes. In each pair, one note had been composed by a random individual, the other by a person who had subsequently taken his own life. The students were then asked to distinguish between the genuine notes and the fake ones.

Some students discovered that they had a genius for the task. Out of twenty-five pairs of notes, they correctly identified the real one twenty-four times. Others discovered that they were hopeless. They identified the real note in only ten instances.


Feelings: what’s the point of rational thought if emotions always take over?

February 21, 2020 by Eyal Winter Andrews and Elizabeth Brunner Professor of Behavioural/Industrial Economics, Lancaster University. Lancaster University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK.

I have long sought to make radical changes to my life, such as leaving a toxic workplace and losing weight. Yet I never get around to it. I am scared to leave work and sad about being overweight – and I eat when I feel that way. To what extent are humans driven by fear and emotion? What’s the point of rational thought if it keeps getting overridden by emotions? Ed, 42, London.

That’s because decision making is a complex matter involving both reasoning and emotions. Even the most emotional person uses rational thought when deciding, and even the most rational person is affected by emotions when making decisions. Yet we often, as you do here, tend to highlight the negative role of emotions in decision making.

It may seem like life would be easier if we could be entirely rational. But evolution has supported the development of feeling and thinking exactly because we need them both. Feelings take care of our desires and needs now, while rationality is defending our interests and wellbeing in the future. call these two entities that live in us Tod (today) and Tom (tomorrow).

If Tom didn’t exist, we would definitely be in a bad shape. Just imagine a world without reasoning – we would lose interest in anything that doesn’t provide us with instant pleasure. We would avoid learning, producing and protecting ourselves. We would simply sink into a life of addiction that would kill us even before we managed to breed.

But without Tod we wouldn’t survive either. Tod is providing us with immediate decisions when danger is imminent. If we spot a car coming towards us while crossing the street, Tod will stop us. Tom might be able to calculate velocities and distances to tell whether or not we are in danger, but by the time he’d come up with the answer, it would be too late.

Tod is also facilitating our social interactions, not only with his positive habits, such as love and empathy, but also with nasty ones. Studies show that people who can evoke a certain degree of anger and insult during bargaining and debate do better than measured people.

A world without feelings

But beyond all this, there is one crucial reason why we should never be sorry for Tod being part of us. My friend Tali Tishbi, an eminent artificial intelligence (AI) researcher, believes that, in a few decades, AI will manage to do away with death and grant us all eternal life – albeit digitally. Here is how it is going to work: during our regular life – phase 1 – a database will store all the decisions, views, comments and ideas we have ever made, together with the circumstances in which they were made.

Machine learning (a type of AI) techniques will then analyze this data and generate software that can produce decisions in hypothetical circumstances based on those we took in our life. When our phase 1 life eventually terminates, we will enter phase 2 of eternal life, through this software. Our bodies will be dead at this stage, and this data from our minds will instead be located in a computer.

We would feel or experience nothing, but for all other purposes, we’d be there. This version of ourselves can resume our job as a chief executive because the machine would make exactly the same decisions that we would have done had we been in phase 1 of our life. It would also still be able to offer advice to our children when they are in their 90s, and be able to comment on our grand-grand-grandchild’s new girlfriend in 2144.

‘We’ve never met but here’s what I think about your girlfriend’. whiteMocca

But let’s now go back to Tod and Tom. Life without Tod would look pretty much like what my friend calls phase 2 of life – and what I call death with an advanced photo album. Had our decisions been ruled solely by Tom, we wouldn’t be humans – we would be algorithms.

For you, it sounds like Tod is ruling the day in your life, leaving little space for Tom. After all, you can always start a diet or quit your job tomorrow – right now, though, you’d rather relax. People may differ in how much they rely on rational thought, but everybody ultimately uses both – even you. You have, after all, identified a goal that you want to achieve.

So how can we have a better balance between the Tod and Tom? Several psychology studies show that our patience with Tom is depleted rather quickly. This is not surprising, since he is the one who tells us to do those unpleasant things, such as staying away from croissants. When we were kids it was the role of our parents to help us to invite Tom in. But even when we are independent, we need help in a similar way from time to time.

One way of doing this is to ask our partner or friends to support us in achieving our goals. Another is inviting Tom to comment on someone else who is in a similar situation to us. We don’t like Tom to tell us what to do, but we are curious to hear what he has to say. So with a little bit of self-deception we might be able to take the perspective of an “impartial spectator”, which will make it harder to ignore him.

Tod and Tom are better friends than we tend to believe. They feed and reinforce one another. The best rational decisions take feelings into account. If you want to go on a diet, the best option is not always picking the one with the smallest calorie intake, but the one that you like the most and can stick with. For some people, it will be eating only boiled potatoes, while for others it will be a low-carb diet.

So don’t be scared to let Tod have a say. And get some help with inviting Tom in. It is ultimately together that they work best.


Emotional appeal can be accomplished in a multitude of ways:

  • By a metaphor or storytelling, common as a hook
  • By a general passion in the delivery
  • By an overall emotion
  • By the sympathies of the speech or writing as determined by the audience

The pathos of a speech or writing is only ultimately determined by the audience.

The Purpose of an Emotional Appeal

An emotional appeal is directed to sway an audience member’s emotions and uses the manipulation of the recipient’s emotions rather than valid logic to win an argument. An emotional appeal uses emotions as the basis of an argument’s position without factual evidence that logically supports the major ideas endorsed by the presenter. In an emotional appeal, persuasive language is used to develop the foundation of an appeal to emotion-based arguments instead of facts. Therefore, the validity of the premises that establish such an argument does not prove to be verifiable.

A US soldier holds his daughter and his son.

Emotional Appeal: A picture like this could be used as an emotional appeal for a charity campaign to increase funding for soldiers’ families.

Emotional appeal is a logical fallacy, whereby a debater attempts to win an argument by trying to get an emotional reaction from the opponent and audience. It is generally characterized by the use of loaded language and concepts (God, country, and apple pie being good concepts; drugs and crime being bad ones). In debating terms, emotional appeals are often effective as a rhetorical device, but are generally considered naive or dishonest as a logical argument, since they often appeal to the prejudices of listeners rather than offer a sober assessment of a situation.

Examples of Emotional Appeals

Children are more often than not toddled out as an appeal to emotion. From pictures of starving children to motivate people to give to charity to using them as any excuse to ban things that children shouldn’t even be aware of (e.g., guns), they are repeatedly paraded in front of audiences to appeal to their emotional protective instincts, often overriding anyone’s sense of rationality. “For the children” or “think of the children” as emotional appeals have been used with success in passing political motions such as Proposition Hate in California.

As with children, cute animals override most people’s logic. Even if the pictures of animal testing put out by PETA are 50 years out of date, they still provoke an emotional response rather than a reasoned one when trying to assess cruelty in animal testing.

Producing an Emotional Appeal

Finding words to match the speech context and audience’s disposition is essential to producing an effective emotional appeal.


Identify the components that produce an emotional appeal in a speech


Key Points

  • Producing an emotional appeal requires an understanding of your audience and what may strike their emotions the most.
  • An effective way to create emotional appeal is to use words that have a lot of pathos associated with them. Pathos is an emotional appeal used in rhetoric that depicts certain emotional states.
  • An example of a speech that is particularly effective at producing an emotional response with its listeners is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The speech uses rhetoric to convey the point of equal opportunity for all people.

Key Terms

  • pathos: An appeal to the audience’s emotions.
  • Disposition: A habit, a preparation, a state of readiness, or a tendency to act in a specified way.
  • rhetoric: The art of using language, especially public speaking, as a means to persuade.

Producing an Emotional Appeal

Producing an emotional appeal requires an understanding of your audience and what may strike their emotions the most.

For example, if you are giving a speech at an event to raise money for a children’s hospital, it would be appropriate to use an appeal to emotions relating to children. For instance, the speaker could use an emotionally charged anecdote about a child who was sick and was cured at this hospital. This story stresses the value that the hospital had on improving the child’s health.


Emotional Appeals: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech “I Have a Dream” effectively produced an emotional response from the audience.

In general, an effective way to create emotional appeal is to use words that have a lot of pathos associated with them. Pathos is an emotional appeal used in rhetoric that depicts certain emotional states. Some examples of “pathos” charged words include: strong, powerful, tragic, equality, freedom, and liberty. These words can be used in a speech to intensify an emotional appeal to an audience.

The Emotional Appeals in “I Have a Dream”

An example of a speech that is particularly effective at producing an emotional response with its listeners is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The speech uses rhetoric to convey the point of equal opportunity for all people. It is considered by many as a prime example of successful rhetoric and emotional appeal.

In the speech, Martin Luther King Jr. weaves current events into the fabric of American history, underscoring the tragedy with biblical rhetoric. King hinges his call for change on three refrains, or repeated phrases. He frames his vision for the future with the famous phrase, “I have a dream.”

As his speech draws to a close, he wills his vision to become reality across the country, moving on to the refrain, “Let freedom ring!” He closes his speech with the repeated line, “Free at last!” King articulates cruel injustices, leads us in imagining a world without those injustices, and then appeals to his audiences emotions through these phrases and the idea of a world with equal opportunity.

Ethical Usage

When you make emotional appeals avoid unethical tactics, such as exploitative manipulation.


List the types of manipulative techniques used to emotionally appeal to audiences


Key Points

  • Ethos (plural: ethe) is an appeal to the authority or honesty of the presenter.
  • Emotional appeals will encourage the audience to identify with your message on a visceral level, bypassing intellectual filters, such as skepticism and logic.
  • It may be appealing to take a shortcut to making the audience sympathize with your point of view. However, emotional appeals don’t always hold up well after the fact–so fortify your emotional appeal by engaging the intellect, too.

Key Terms

  • ethics: The study of principles relating to right and wrong conduct.
  • manipulation: The usage of psychological influence over a person or situation to gain a positive outcome.
  • ethos: A rhetorical appeal to an audience based on the speaker/writer’s credibility.

Ethical Usage

Emotional appeals are very powerful. When you stir sympathy in your listeners, you encourage them to identify with your message on a visceral level, bypassing intellectual filters, such as skepticism and logic.

However, this may be unethical because you are not allowing your listeners to logically consider your argument and rationally determine how they would react to your argument in absence of an emotional appeal.

It may be appealing to take a shortcut toward making the audience sympathize with your point of view. An emotional appeal may save you the trouble of working out a good argument. However, emotional appeals don’t always hold up well after the fact when your audience has had a chance to process your message.

Therefore, be sure to substantiate your emotional appeal with both logic and facts.

Emotional Manipulation

Since emotional appeals are very strong, they can sometimes be used inappropriately in order to gain something from the audience members.


Manipulation: Adolf Hitler is an example of a political figure who used emotional manipulation.

For example, an emotional appeal could be used in a political rally to persuade people to vote for the candidate, especially if the vote will happen in the next few days. This emotional appeal may persuade audience members to vote for you or your candidate, but it may also be unethical or considered manipulative if the audience members do not have a chance to rationally process the message before the vote takes place.

This is especially critical for situations, such as politics, which people generally have emotionally charged opinions about.

Some inappropriate uses of manipulative techniques of emotional appeals include:

  • Lying or lying by omission: telling outright falsehoods or misleading by leaving out crucial pieces of information.
  • Denial: refusing to admit that you or your affiliates have done anything wrong.
  • Covert intimidation: using subtle, indirect or implied threats.
  • Guilt tripping: suggesting that the audience does not care enough, is too selfish, or has it easy. Guilt tripping encourages self-doubt and submissive behavior.
  • Shaming: using tactics, such as direct criticism, a fierce look or glance, an unpleasant tone of voice, rhetorical comments, and subtle sarcasm to undermine audience members.
  • Playing the victim: putting on the role of a victim of circumstances or the bad behavior of others in order to evoke sympathy.
  • Vilifying the victim: acting as though the victim of the bad behavior of your (or your associates) did something to deserve negative consequences.
  • Seduction: using charm, praise, and flattery to manipulate others.

In order to ethically portray an emotional appeal, be sure to avoid these inappropriate uses and manipulative techniques for emotional appeals. Emotional appeals can be effective if they are not manipulative and are used to further an honest message.

How to Prove that You are Ethical

Ethos (plural: ethe) is an appeal to the authority or honesty of the presenter. It is how well the presenter convinces the audience that he or she is qualified to present (speak) on the particular subject. It can be done in many ways:

  • By being a notable figure in the field in question, such as a college professor or an executive of a company whose business is that of the subject.
  • By having a vested interest in a matter, such as the person being related to the subject in question.
  • By using impressive logos that show the audience that the speaker is knowledgeable on the topic.
  • By appealing to a person’s ethics or character.