Ethos, Logos, Pathos for Persuasion

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You may be surprised to learn that much of your life consists of constructing arguments. If you ever plead a case to your parents—in order to extend your curfew, or to get a new gadget, for example—you are using persuasive strategies.

When you discuss music with friends and agree or disagree with them about the merits of one singer compared to another, you are also using strategies for persuasion.

Here's a surprise: when you engage in these "arguments" with your parents and friends, you are instinctively using ancient strategies for persuasion that were identified by the Greek philosopher Aristotle a few thousand years ago!

Aristotle called his ingredients for persuasion ethos, logos, and pathos.

Persuasion Tactics and Homework

When you write a research paper, write a speech, or participate in a debate, you also use the persuasion strategies mentioned above. You come up with an idea (a thesis) and then construct an argument to convince readers that your idea is sound.

You should become familiar with pathos, logos, and ethos for two reasons. First, you need to develop your own skills at crafting a good argument, so that others will take you seriously.

Secondly, you must develop the ability to identify a really weak argument, stance, claim, or position when you see or hear it.

What Is Logos?

Logos refers to an appeal to reason based on logic. Logical conclusions come from assumptions and decisions derived from weighing a collection of solid facts and statistics. Academic arguments (research papers) rely on logos.

An example of an argument that relies on logos is the argument that smoking is harmful based on the evidence that "Cigarette smoke contains over 4,800 chemicals, 69 of which are known to cause cancer." (1)

Notice that the statement above uses specific numbers. Numbers are sound and logical.

An everyday example of an appeal to logos is the argument that Lady Gaga was more popular than Justin Bieber in 2011 because Gaga's fan pages collected ten million more Facebook fans than Bieber's.

As a researcher, your job is to find statistics and other facts to back up your claims. When you do this, you are appealing to your audience with logic or logos.

What Is Ethos?

Trustworthiness is important in research, as you well know. You must trust your sources, and your readers must trust you.

In the example above concerning logos, you saw two examples that were based on hard facts (numbers). However, one example comes from the American Lung Association. The other comes from Facebook fan pages. Which of these sources do you suppose is more credible?

Facebook fan pages can be started by anyone. Lady Gaga may have fifty different fan pages, and each page may contain duplicate "fans." The fan page argument is probably not very sound (even though it seems logical).

Ethos refers to the credibility of the person posing the argument or stating the facts.

The facts provided by the American Lung Association are probably more persuasive than those provided by fan pages since the American Lung Association has been around for more than 100 years.

At first glance, you might think that your own credibility is out of your control when it comes to posing academic arguments but that is wrong!

Even if you write an academic paper on a topic that is outside your area of expertise, you can improve your credibility (persuade through ethos) as a researcher by coming across as a professional--by citing credible sources and making your writing error-free and concise.

What Is Pathos?

Pathos refers to appealing to a person by influencing their emotions. Pathos is involved in the strategy of convincing the audience by invoking feelings through their own imaginations.

You probably appeal through pathos when you try to convince your parents of something. Consider this statement:

"Mom, there is clear evidence that cell phones save lives in emergency situations."

While that statement is true, the real power lies in the emotions that you will likely invoke in your parent. What mother wouldn't envision a broken-down automobile perched by the side of a busy highway upon hearing that statement?

Emotional appeals are extremely effective, but they can be tricky.

There may or may not be a place for pathos in your research paper. For example, you may be writing an argument essay about the death penalty.

Ideally, your paper should contain a logical argument. You should appeal to logos by including statics to support your view such as data that suggests that the death penalty does/does not cut down on crime (there's plenty of research both ways).

But you may also use pathos by interviewing someone who witnessed an execution (on the anti-death penalty side) or someone who found closure when a criminal was executed (on the pro-death penalty side).

Generally, however, academic papers should employ appeals to emotions pretty sparingly. A long paper that is purely based on emotions is not considered very professional!

Even when you are writing about an emotionally-charged, controversial issue like the death penalty, you can't write a paper that is all emotion and opinion. The teacher, in that circumstance, will likely assign a failing grade because you haven't provided a sound (logical) argument.

You need logos!

1. From the website for The American Lung Association, "General Smoking Facts," accessed on December 20, 2011.