A Psychologist Explains Why Emotions Are More Persuasive Than Logic

Deciding which emotion to deploy in any given argument depends on the situation is critical.

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 emotions. In 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.

(Image via aastock/Shutterstock.com)