“When I was told last year that I would be the lead prosecutor on a murder case involving an 8-year-old child witness, I knew a very important member of my team would be Rikki the therapy dog…The child barely noticed us; his attention was 100 percent focused on this calm Golden Retriever who loves to eat baby carrots. As we continued to meet throughout the development of the case, and he had to recall horrific memories, the boy always knew Rikki would be there. In his mind, she would keep him safe.” – Attorney Jack Campbell
Dogs and children. The two things guaranteed to make a YouTube video go viral. Just reading the article by Attorney Jack Campbell, I felt my heart go out to the kid, and I’m not the only one.
Somebody decided to write a TP case on this, mandating that all federal courts have therapy dogs on hand, just in case they have any traumatized witnesses.
Nicknamed ‘Doggies’, the case soon became well known. Everyone had a brief against it, detailing the many reasons that the plan was an implementation nightmare, a quantifiably insignificant problem, and would cost way more than it was worth. Yet the case kept winning. Why? Because it was based on the idea of traumatized children and adorable canines.
Using an emotional appeal isn’t wrong—in fact, they’re a major component of persuasion, and they ought to be used. But what happens when you come up against an ‘Appeal to Feels’? How do you respond without seeming heartless and cold?
First, let’s look at how and why emotional appeals work, and then go over a couple of tactics to dismantle them.
Why They Work
When you experience sadness, the brain produces several neurochemicals. A study by Paul Zak looked at two in particular—cortisol (known as the ‘stress hormone’), and oxytocin (a promoter of connection and empathy).
In the study, participants watched a short, sad video about a little boy with cancer. As they experienced the story, Zak measured and tracked each hormone. Escalating levels of cortisol indicated that the subjects were engaged, and wanted to know more, while oxytocin showed an increase in empathy, and a feeling of understanding and connection.
The impact? Participants with the highest levels of oxytocin gave more money to charity. They also were the most likely to give money to a recipient that they couldn’t see, indicating a high degree of trust.
“Our results show why puppies and babies are in toilet paper commercials,” Zak said. “Advertisers use images that cause our brains to release oxytocin to build trust in a product or brand, and hence increase sales.”
How can you beat that? A debater using an emotional appeal is establishing trust in the audience’s mind. The judge wants to vote for them, and feels like he can, because his brain is telling them it’s okay to trust the speaker in front of them. So what can you do to combat that?
Here are three approaches you can take to dismantling an emotional appeal.
Tactic 1: The Direct Approach
Being upfront about emotional appeals is always a good step. Since they’re not always blatant, sometimes judges need to be reminded exactly what the foundation of the debate ought to be. This could be as simple as saying, “Judge, my friends on the affirmative side have done a great job of engaging our emotions. But the truth isn’t always as simple as the affirmative team would have you believe. The truth depends on a complete view of the problem, one of facts and nuance. So let’s take a step back, and look at some of those facts right now…”
It won’t be enough to win back enemy-held territory, but it’s a good first step towards shifting the debate onto more rational ground.
Tactic 2: Refutation
Treat the emotional appeal (usually coming in story format) like you would any argument.
Lack of evidence/logic/implementation.
Anecdotes are supposed to be the icing on the cake, not the main ingredient. Emotional appeals rely primarily on establishing a problem. However, they sometimes come up short when presenting a solvent plan.
To establish whether or not an example is applicable or not, you have to first set up a standard—or in other words, why this example should/shouldn’t be considered. Standards could be anything you can come up with for your specific situation, but here are a few examples:
- Extremes. We shouldn’t decide this round based on extreme examples. Rather, we need to look at the norms on both sides.
- Dissimilarity. The example used isn’t anything like the real situation we’re facing, therefore it cannot be applied.
- Fallacies. Part-To-Whole is a typical one here—“Based on this one example showing XYZ, the whole thing must be like XYZ.” Slippery Slope is also common—“If we don’t do something, this tragic story could happen to all of us.”
Now, this is where many Negative teams fail: they attack the appeal using reason and logic, then stop there. But to truly mitigate the effect of an emotional appeal, you need to go one step farther.
Tactic 3: Counter Pathos
Here’s the principle: judges like having something to vote for. They like to feel like they’re doing something. They like to feel like they have a cause. That’s why so many Affirmative teams succeed when, perhaps, they shouldn’t. So what can you, as Negative, offer?
- Empathetic Delivery. If your opponents present a tragic story about orphans, respond gently. Don’t bulldoze through it. Take the time to treat it with empathy and compassion. This is a super-basic-level tactic, but one that seems to get missed.
- Emotional Steal. Usually, an emotional story can have multiple conclusions. Your opponents have just chosen to interpret it in a way that is favorable to their side. You can combat this by demonstrating that the example points to your side in some way. In other words, the example proves something, but not THIS thing.
- Disadvantages. These are straight up emotional appeals of your own, and can frequently tip the scales in your favor.
- Substitute. Poking holes in the other team’s position will only take you so far. Giving the judge an alternative, something that has equal emotional weight, is much more effective. Here’s an example. Let’s say you have a case to increase oil drilling in the US, and the Negative team runs several arguments about how your plan will result in severe environmental damage (an Appeal to Feels argument). You could say that the other team is overblowing the possibility and impact of potential spills, but judges won’t really care. Facts, research, and evidence, will only do so much. So you establish the fact that other countries don’t have environmental standards at all, and that buying their oil actually does cause harm. From there, you can plausibly make the claim that drilling here, responsibly, helps preserve the global environment. Voila—you’ve just substituted one emotionally appealing cause for another.
Will these approaches work all the time? Sadly, no. In the end, judges are going to vote for the team that they want to vote for, based on whatever standard they adhere to personally. But at the very least, you’ll have done your best to argue the point in a comprehensive way, using logic and reason as well as feeling, instinct, and emotion.
And if puppies or children ever come up, hopefully, you’ll be prepared.