Pathos is a rhetorical device that stirs emotions such as pity, sadness, or sympathy in the audience.
Pathos refers to one corner of the rhetorical triangle, which means that it is one of the three main technical means of persuasion.
Aristotle claims that there are three technical means of persuasion:
“Now the proofs furnished by the speech are of three kinds. The first depends upon the moral character of the speaker, the second upon putting the hearer into a certain frame of mind, the third upon the speech itself, in so far as it proves or seems to prove” (Aristotle, Rhetoric, ca. 367-322 B.C.E./1926, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 3).
Each of these corresponds to the three means of persuasion:
- Ethos (Appeal to credibility): Persuasion through establishing the character of the speaker.
- Pathos (Appeal to emotion): Persuasion through putting the hearer into a certain frame of mind.
- Logos (Appeal to logic): Persuasion through proof or seeming proof.
For Aristotle, speech consists of three things: the speaker, the hearer, and the speech. These correspond to ethos, pathos, and logos, respectively. Pathos is the means of persuasion that is concerned with the audience and it is the subject of this article.
Pathos refers to appeals to the emotions of the audience. Whenever the audience is led to feel a certain way, and that feeling influences their judgment of a speech, the speaker is using pathos.
Aristotle’s underlying assumption is that people’s emotional states influence their evaluations, which is quite reasonable to suppose.
The rhetorical method, therefore, requires one to sway the emotional states of the hearers:
“… for the judgements we deliver are not the same when we are influenced by joy or sorrow, love or hate” (Aristotle, Rhetoric, ca. 367-322 B.C.E./1926, Book 1, Chapter 2, Section 5).
You can appeal to people’s emotions in many ways: through storytelling hooks, passionate speech, personal anecdotes, and so on.
In some sense, most pieces of writing and most speeches that have an agenda to persuade necessarily have some forms of pathos built into them. For example, even a math textbook may give rise to feelings of awe.
Pathos probably has the worst reputation out of the three technical means of persuasion because people believe that all appeals to emotion are somehow dishonest or manipulative, but this is not so.
There is simply no getting away from elements of pathos, no matter how hard the persuader tries.
Furthermore, the use of pathos to persuade can be just as honest and harmless as the most seemingly objective uses of logos or ethos.
Example 1: Advertising
Pathos is an especially common persuasion tool in advertising. Since emotions influence people’s decision-making, pathos is well-suited to the task of persuading customers to buy products (Ho & Siu, 2012).
For example, advertising is to appeal to empathy, which would be part of pathos. Animal welfare organizations like the SPCA, for instance, may appeal to people’s empathy by using pictures of stray dogs accompanied by sad music.
In this context, the power of pathos can be leveraged to not only promote immediate action, such as a donation, but also to build long-term brand associations and loyalty, embedding a sense of empathy and compassion in the perception of the organization’s mission.
Example 2: Art
Most forms of art use pathos in some form. This is more apparent in art that has a clear agenda, for example, political cartoons.
In political cartoons, the application of pathos is often used to generate empathy or outrage, thus persuading viewers to consider the artist’s perspective on social or political issues.
Example 3: In the ad hominem Argument
Arguments that commit the ad hominem fallacy tend to be persuasive because of pathos.
The ad hominem fallacy involves attacking the arguer’s personal situation or traits (Hansen, 2020). There are three commonly recognized kinds of ad hominem: (1) the abusive ad hominem, (2) the circumstantial ad hominem, and (3) the tu quoque.
The first kind involves arguing that someone’s view should not be accepted because they have some negative property. For example: “Alice’s view that breaking promises is immoral should be rejected because Alice is rude.”
The second kind involves arguing that someone’s view should not be accepted because their view is supported by self-interest. For example: “Bob’s recommendation to exercise regularly should be rejected because Bob owns a gym.”
The tu quoque involves arguing that someone’s view should not be accepted because their actions are inconsistent with that view. For example: “Clarence’s view that people should not drive cars should not be accepted because Clarence drives a car.”
Example 4: In the Slippery Slope Argument
Another form of persuasive but fallacious argument is the slippery slope. It is a fallacy that occurs when one unjustifiably assumes that a small step leads to a chain of related events culminating in some significant effect.
Such arguments may sometimes be reasonable, but they are not deductively correct.
Moreover, they usually rely on generating fear on the part of the audience. Alfred Sidgwick described slippery slope arguments in the following way:
“We must not do this or that, it is often said, because if we did we should be logically bound to do something else which is plainly absurd or wrong. If we once begin to take a certain course there is no knowing where we shall be able to stop within any show of consistency; there would be no reason for stopping anywhere in particular, and we should be led on, step by step into action or opinions that we all agree to call undesirable or untrue.” (Sidgwick, 1910, p. 40)
Example 5: In Music
The use of emotional music in a piece of media the purpose of which is to persuade is an example of pathos.
Such music can intensify the emotional impact of, for example, an advertisement and thereby make it more persuasive.
Since logic is rarely used to advertise products, pathos is often the most important means of persuasion in such cases.
Example 6: In Political Rhetoric
Word choice in political speech is particularly important for the effective use of pathos.
For example, the conflicting uses of terms like “unborn life” and ”fetus” in women’s reproductive rights debates appeal to people’s emotions in different ways.
Whereas one side would appeal to the emotion of saving life, the other would appeal to the emotion of freedom and bodily autonomy.
It is virtually impossible for an effective political speech not to contain pathos, especially in democratic contexts. How skillfully a politician appeals to the emotions of the voters will, to a large extent, determine the success of their campaign.
Example 7: In Social Media Campaigns
Pathos is frequently utilized in social media campaigns, often leveraging user-generated content to create a sense of empathy or community around a product or cause.
User stories that feature personal triumphs, challenges overcome, or emotional experiences related to the product or cause in question are designed to invoke emotional responses that foster brand loyalty or advocacy.
The use of pathos in social media campaigns often involves images, videos, and narratives that are likely to resonate emotionally with the target audience, effectively fostering a deeper connection to the brand or cause, and enhancing audience engagement and interaction.
Example 8: In Public Health Campaigns
Pathos is also evident in public health campaigns. For instance, anti-drinking ads often show the severe health effects of drinking, such as patients unable to play with their children due to health issues.
These campaigns are intended to evoke fear or concern, stimulating the public to change their behavior and adopt healthier habits.
By emphasizing the grave consequences and personal costs of unhealthy choices, public health campaigns that use pathos aim to foster a more emotional and personal connection to health issues, making the audience more likely to take preventive actions or change unhealthy habits.
Example 9: In Philanthropy and Fundraising
Pathos is used extensively in philanthropy and fundraising, with organizations sharing stories of individuals or communities in need to evoke empathy and provoke action.
Charitable campaigns that depict the harsh realities of poverty, disease, or disaster aim to stir feelings of compassion, guilt, or responsibility, encouraging donations and aid.
Through the strategic use of pathos, philanthropy and fundraising campaigns can make the plight of those in need feel more immediate and tangible, thereby increasing the likelihood of donations and encouraging more active involvement in the cause or issue at hand.
Example 10: In Literature
In literature, authors often use pathos to create an emotional connection between readers and characters or situations.
This might involve crafting narratives around heart-wrenching tragedies, touching moments, or stirring triumphs to make the readers feel a range of emotions, thereby enhancing their engagement and investment in the storyline.
By evoking deep emotional responses through the use of pathos, authors can make the characters and situations in their works more relatable and real, intensifying readers’ engagement and creating a lasting impact that goes beyond mere enjoyment of the story.
Strengths of Pathos
- Memorability: Appeals to emotion tend to stick. While you’re unlikely to remember the speaker’s logical reasoning or their credentials perfectly, you probably will remember how the speech made you feel.
- Decision-making: appeals to pathos typically affect the actions of the audience more than appeals to ethos or logos.
- Subjective topics: similar to ethos, pathos is an especially powerful persuasion technique in matters that don’t rely on objective criteria. In such a case, logical arguments alone won’t be enough. For example, the orator will make greater use of pathos when speaking about a work of art than when debating the merits of a mathematical proof.
Weaknesses of Pathos
- Manipulation: The use of pathos can be morally questionable since it can exploit people’s emotional vulnerabilities.
- Insincerity: It is easy for the audience to perceive the speaker’s appeals to pathos as insincere. Some people view all appeals to emotion as attempts to mask or modify the truth, so the orator must know their audience before resorting to pathos.
The term pathos comes from the Greek word for “experience” or “suffering.” In the context of rhetoric, it refers to appeals to the emotions of the audience.
See Also: The 5 Types of Rhetorical Situations
Aristotle. (1926). Rhetoric. In Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 22, translated by J. H. Freese. Harvard University Press. (Original work published ca. 367-322 B.C.E.)
Hansen, H. (2020). Fallacies. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2020). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2020/entries/fallacies/
Ho, A. G., & Siu, K. W. M. G. (2012). Emotion Design, Emotional Design, Emotionalize Design: A Review on Their Relationships from a New Perspective. The Design Journal, 15(1), 9–32. https://doi.org/10.2752/175630612X13192035508462
Rapp, C. (2022). Aristotle’s Rhetoric. In E. N. Zalta (Ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2022). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2022/entries/aristotle-rhetoric/
Sidgwick, A. (1910). The application of logic. London : Macmillan and Co., limited. http://archive.org/details/applicationoflog00sidgiala