How to Use Pathos in a Persuasive Argument

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Thank You for Arguing" by Jay Heinrichs. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is pathos? How can you use pathos to strengthen a persuasive argument?

In a persuasive argument, pathos is when you appeal to your audience’s emotions to make them feel a certain way about your cause. The best way to do this is to tell a vivid story.

Here’s how to use pathos to persuade an audience.

Use Pathos to Persuade Your Audience

The third persuasive appeal after ethos and logos is pathos, or emotion. Heinrichs notes that our emotions are much stronger than our rationale—therefore, a pathos-based argument is best for accomplishing the most difficult of the three audience goals: spurring your audience into action. Pathos helps you bridge the gap between your audience agreeing to your choice and acting on it. In his book Thank You for Arguing, Jay Heinrichs explains how to use pathos in a persuasive argument. The key, he says, is to tell a vivid story.

Tell a Vivid Story

Aristotle contended that one of the best ways to change an audience’s mood is to tell a vivid story. Heinrichs says this works because emotions are built on experience or expectation: what your audience believes happened or will happen. Vivid storytelling creates both scenarios—the event feels real to the audience (experience), and they believe it could happen to them (expectation). In this way, your story builds genuine, persuasive emotions.

(Shortform note: The effectiveness of vivid storytelling is due to the way people’s brains communicate with each other. Researchers have found that when someone is listening to a vivid story, their brain lights up in the same places on an MRI as that of the storyteller herself. In other words, your brain is convinced it’s experiencing the story’s events and reacts to them as such.)

How Do You Make a Story Vivid? 

Heinrichs outlines three aspects of telling a vivid story: First, describe the sensations of the event in detail. (For example, the scent of your childhood home or the feeling of your stomach dropping.) This helps your audience “experience” the event alongside you, and they’ll react to it the same way you did. Second, convey emotion carefully. Keep your emotions under control while you speak, but make sure your audience can see that you’re struggling to hold back. Instead of forcing exaggerated emotions (which can feel theatrical or inauthentic) on them, you let them sense the emotion they should be feeling and exaggerate it themselves. 

Lastly, keep your speech as simple as possible to let the audience fill in their own understanding of the experience. In other words, instead of telling them how to feel (“Doesn’t that make you angry?”), simply suggest emotions they can build on (“She kicked my cat. Boy, was I livid. I went over there and…”).

How to Build a Vivid Story 

Once you know how you’ll convey your emotions during a story, think about how you’ll structure the story in the most compelling way possible. For this, look to Freytag’s Pyramid: a five-part pattern to dramatic storytelling. The pyramid was designed by novelist Gustav Freytag, based on Aristotle’s unified plot structure. The five parts cover:

Exposition: This stage establishes the setting, characters, and so on to give the listener a clear picture of the story’s beginning.
Rising action: This stage works through the story’s conflict—often explaining how things get worse for the main character. This continues up to the climax. 
Climax (the peak of the pyramid): The conflict comes to a head and the main character reaches a significant turning point.
Falling action: The main character reflects on the climax and its aftermath—exploring their feelings about the conflict and climax and occasionally finding new conflicts. 
Resolution: The resolution simply closes out the story and ties up the loose ends. 

This framework carries the reader through the emotions of a story at the right moments—this timing, combined with the right emotions, evokes a strong response. 

Use Strong Emotions 

Besides telling a vivid story to generate emotions, Heinrichs says there are other ways to create emotions that get your audience on your side and ready to act on your ideas. One of the most effective is appealing to tribalism, or group identity.

Heinrichs notes that the strongest form of tribalism is patriotism, or loyalty to a country, school, town, or other entity. He explains that this feeling is largely due to your body’s oxytocin (the bonding hormone) levels. Oxytocin naturally spikes slightly when you’re in a group, helping you feel closer to other members. However, when your group is threatened in any way, your oxytocin levels go through the roof, triggering strong emotions such as defensiveness, jealousy, and competition—all of which can lead to impulsive actions and decisions.

(Shortform note: Heinrichs argues that highlighting your audience’s common belief or goal belongs in the realm of logos and isn’t part of the pathos agenda to get your audience to act. However, Seth Godin disagrees in Tribes: He argues that having a collective belief is what gives tribes a sense of intrinsic motivation. Without this motivation, tribes don’t feel driven to act or gather beyond the initial moment of excitement that Heinrichs describes—and therefore don’t really qualify as a “tribe” at all.)

Heinrichs notes an easy two-step process to manipulate an audience’s oxytocin levels to harness the power of tribalism: 

  1. Create a strong group bonding moment: Speak to your audience warmly and with love, and focus on what everyone in the group has in common. 
  2. Turn your focus to discussion of a rival group, and make your audience feel threatened—point out the ways “they” hold an advantage over “us,” or ways they’ve insulted “our” group and symbols.

(Shortform note: One thing that Heinrichs doesn’t mention is that certain people are more susceptible to the tribalism appeal than others. Researchers say that people with low self-esteem are most easily persuaded by tribalism because they see their group membership as a central facet of their identity. They perceive threats to their group as threats to themselves, and therefore react more strongly than someone with high self-esteem and a sense of identity outside the group.)

Use Pathos to Judge Others’ Arguments

When you understand pathos, it’s easier to see when someone is trying to emotionally manipulate you or bully you until they get an emotional rise out of you. Heinrichs recommends two ways to gain the upper hand in these situations:

Method #1: Appeal to Your Audience 

If your argument has an audience, they can likely see that the person trying to get a rise out of you isn’t a good person, and they’ll feel sympathy toward you. Heinrichs urges you to compound their sympathy by demonstrating that you’re the bigger person: Stay calm and try joking about the situation, revealing the contrast between your strong character and the bully’s weak, foolish character. (Shortform note: A well-known example of this is Kurt Cobain smilingly asking a heckler, “Why are you here?”

Usually, a bully will stop when he sees that you have the audience’s support. If he doesn’t stop, continue using the audience’s support against him. (Shortform note: Cobain likely could have gotten the audience to boo the heckler out of the room if he hadn’t quieted down.) 

Method #2: Feign Aggressive Interest

You may have a bully who “argues” by being louder and more aggressive than you are. Heinrichs suggests that you calmly respond with aggressive interest—that is, ask many questions and push for details. This won’t convince your bully that he’s wrong, but he’ll likely talk himself down: Research shows that people often moderate their opinions when they must explain themselves—unchallenged opinions are usually the most extreme. 

Heinrichs explains that aggressive interest relies on pushing your bully to define the terms they’re using. This forces them to consider how their opinions rest on assumptions and stereotypes and thereby takes some of the power out of their argument. 

For example, someone might say, “All politicians are corrupt.” Not every politician in the world is corrupt—he’s stating a stereotype as truth. Push him to define his terms: Ask if he really means “all” politicians, or ask him to explain what he considers “corruption.”

Beyond asking for clear definitions, Heinrichs stresses the importance of questioning your bully’s beliefs respectfully, so they understand that you genuinely want to gain understanding. If they feel that you’re mocking or fighting them, they may become defensive or angry. 

Consider Your Argument From the Bully’s Perspective

A limiting aspect of Heinrichs’s methods for dealing with bullies is his assumption that you’re in the right and superior to your bully. This sentiment is implied in the outcome of his methods—either your audience agrees that you’re the better person or your bully discovers his argument’s shortcomings and stops talking. Heinrichs doesn’t suggest that you consider whether you’re the foolish or incorrect person in the argument. 

When you encounter a bully, psychologists say, taking a moment to consider why you think they’re a bully may lead to a more productive approach than Heinrichs’s suggested methods. They suggest asking yourself three questions to determine why your bully isn’t receptive to your argument. 

-Are they unable to meaningfully listen to your argument? 
-Is it that they don’t want to listen to your argument? 
-Do they feel unsure if they should listen to your argument?  

When you consider your bully’s stance from this more nuanced perspective, you may find that your approach is the problem, not the bully’s receptiveness

-If your bully seems unable to be receptive, your argument may lack clarity. Make sure that you’re explaining your argument in a way the other person can understand.
-If your bully seems like they don’t want to listen, you may be inadvertently angering or provoking them—this usually prompts defensiveness, which psychologists pinpoint as one of the worst emotions for getting someone to change.
-If they feel unsure if they should listen, there may be something wrong with your argument. Perhaps it seems self-serving or otherwise disadvantageous to the other person, or you have your facts wrong. 
How to Use Pathos in a Persuasive Argument

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  • Smarter ways to argue and evaluate others’ arguments
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  • How you can get a bully to talk himself down

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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