How emotional appeals manipulate us

by Annelise Mitchell September 09, 2016

How emotional appeals manipulate us

Leaders, marketers, relatives, friends, indeed everyone and anyone that we hear or interact with will use emotional appeals to persuade us. I did this with the title of this article. The word “manipulate” has very negative emotions associated with it.

Hey! I hear you think out loud, no one can manipulate me without me giving them permission. I know when I’m being manipulated!

If so, why did you read this article?

Did the word “manipulate” invoke a fear response. A desire to learn how you are being manipulated and to try and protect yourself in the future?

I hope so.

The word manipulate originally meant to “skillfully handle or use something” to your own advantage. In the modern era, the term is often associated with individuals who manipulate others for their own needs and often for selfish reasons. Therefore, we often associate the word with negative emotions, of being tricked, lied to and even deceived.

And this is indeed what emotive language can do and does do.

This is why it is so important for you to identify.

To not understand the effect of emotive words will leave you prey to the plans of others. This is because language has the ability to incite exaggerated thoughts, known as bipolar thinking, such as black and white thinking (i.e. good/evil, beautiful/ugly, innocence/corruption, etc.). This binary-type thinking can be used by the devious to induce feelings such as horror, joy, pain, rage, disgust, relaxation, and even sadness. This also gives them ultimate power, as they have the ability to make you see events or issues as more or less outrageous, vivid, and exciting than their reality.

This is why it is important to recognise emotive language and how it can be used to control how we see things and how we behave.

How can something as seemingly simple as words create changes in our beliefs and behaviour?

Indeed, emotive language has been used as far back as historians can tell, when the first humans began writing down their thoughts on how we should live and how leaders in their society gained power.

We now know that leaders throughout Greek and Roman history, as well as in Ancient China and the Middle East, used emotive words to stimulate thought and arouse strong, irresistible feelings within their subjects, sometimes managing to sway the majority of a population to support their cause, whether for good or evil. Think Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun.

What these superb orators realised was that if they wanted to influence the beliefs and behaviours of their subjects, their first and foremost goal was to associate positive and negative emotions with what they are saying. They understood that words that don’t invoke emotion will not sway their audience into supporting their cause, and if they fail to arouse these emotions, they will lose power.

Indeed, Adolf Hitler, a German politician and leader of the Nazi Party in the mid-twentieth century is known to have said that he uses emotion, and not reason to persuade his audience. He understood that emotion is so much more powerful, or visceral than objective words that are based on reason or rationality.

Modern writers and political leaders understand this very well indeed. They know that when broadcasting news and preparing political speeches, the way a situation is described will have a very different effect on the audience.

For example, when a political leader refers to a situation as “ethnic cleansing” rather than as “genocide,” the former suggests that the country is being cleaned (i.e. cleansing), whereas the latter suggests that the people are killing each other and it is disastrous.

Their choice of words will shape how the audience sees and feels about the event in question. In each case, the speaker or writer would have evoked different emotive meanings. The former meaning (ethnic cleansing) clouds the issue, and the latter (genocide) ignites strong emotions and displeasure.

This is the effect politicians and others desire when they use emotive language. They select words for their emotive power. Words that express strong feelings but don’t encourage you to think about the underlying issues that they are glossing over. For example, when a political leader says that a group are “extremists,” their use of a word that is associated with other negative events, such as terrorism and genocide, activates a fear response and makes it incredibly difficult for us to think rationally.

We think, oh no, extremists will bomb our communities and cause people to begin killing each other. Better vote for this political leader to keep us safe!

Politicians and others who desire power know that when they select words or pictures they will be most effectual when they use loaded language – highly emotive language that evokes strong emotions, such as fear and hope. One anti-abortion activist declared: “just put the words “baby” and “kill” together and she has conjured up the strongest emotions of all, our desire to protect the vulnerable.

Another problem with misusing language is it breeds a distrust of language and in the world around us, especially our politicians. We grow apathetic and will only respond to those who use loaded language. In our growing despondency, it is only highly emotive words have the power to shake us and get our attention.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it causes us to make errors in judgement. By tapping into our emotions, the speaker suppresses evidence through not providing enough information or details for us to come to an informed position on the issue or event. We are so distracted by our emotions that we fail to see how the speaker has chosen certain information or facts over others and selectively arranged, limited, or organised the facts to influence our views, behaviour, and feelings. They have us like putty in their hands, and the worst thing about it is these tactics lead us to conforming to what they want and not making judgements based on our reasoning process.

Arghh, this is terrible!

Emotional word, I know but it really is.

When we are not using our reasoning ability, we are far more likely to make emotion-driven choices rather choices based on our informed decision-making.

When analysing language, we need to ask:

  1. What is the emotive meaning of the words?

  2. How are the words positioning me to see and feel about the issue?

  3. What agenda does the author or speaker have?

Should we completely avoid using emotive language?

Highly undesirable, because emotive language brings colour to our world and helps us conjure all sorts of spectacular imagery in our minds, and it is these images that are associated with valuable emotions that cause us to feel a certain way when others speak to us. A world where we use nothing but seemingly objective language that aims to avoid inducing feeling would be a very boring and colourless world.

Which one sounds better, “You are a dashing beauty that will knock em’ dead,” or “You look nice in that dress.”

If we use emotive language in our everyday lives and it is unavoidable, why analyse its use?

The reason is that emotive language is often used to conceal the truth, to mislead, confuse or deceive us. It is also used to control our thoughts and behaviour.

The worst thing about not having awareness of how other’s use emotive language is not being aware of how the language is controlling our perception of reality.

For this reason, we need to develop the ability to separate fact from emotional appeal, giving us far greater control of our destiny.

Click on the following to access a free copy of the “Using Words to Appeal to Emotion” worksheet and answer sheet. You can also purchase the “All About Emotive Language” critical thinking card set.

Annelise Mitchell
Annelise Mitchell


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