The Power of Emotion: Propaganda and Persuasion, Part 4

by Patricia Engler on June 16, 2021
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God created us with strong emotional capacities, but in our fallen world, emotions can be used to mislead us to believe wrong ideas. Let’s look at the science behind how emotions persuade, how to spot emotion-based fallacies or propaganda, and how to respond with truth.

Persuasion can be a bit of an emotional subject—but you don’t have to take my word for it. Consider the following paragraph, meant to persuade global leaders to exclusively teach evolutionary interpretations of science in public schools:

With creationism today, we are witnessing a growth of modes of thought which, the better to impose religious dogma, are attacking the very core of the knowledge that we have built up little by little concerning nature, evolution, our origins and our place in the universe. There can be no doubt that this is a serious attack on human rights. There is a great risk of a serious confusion being introduced into our children’s minds between what has to do with convictions, beliefs and ideals and what has to do with science, and of the advent of an “all things are equal” attitude, which may seem appealing and tolerant but is actually extremely harmful.1

This quote comes from the draft report Resolution 1580, “The Dangers of Creationism in Education,” which the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed as a guideline for its 57 member nations.2 Did you notice the emotionally charged words in that quote? Impose, dogma, attack, rights, risk, serious, children, extremely harmful…such wording adds up to an undisguised emotional campaign rallying anger, fear, and pity to sway the minds of leaders.

But we don’t need to be global leaders to experience emotion-based persuasion. Just scroll through social media. Flick on the television. Read a few billboards. Even some of my university textbooks channeled the power of emotional wording and imagery to make a case for evolutionary origins, for instance, by showing apes in adorably human-like poses.3

When facing emotionally evocative messages, we can apply the critical thinking hack of asking, “Is this message true or false because…?” Here, we’d ask, “Is a message true because it raises strong emotions?” Worded that way, it’s easier to see the answer is no. Emotions add power to a messages’ persuasive punch, but believing a message is true or false based only on the emotions it evokes is a fallacy, or logical error, called appeal to emotion.4

Does the fact that emotions are not a logical compass of truth mean they should never play a role in our thinking? Not necessarily. To understand emotions’ proper place in our thinking, we can start by asking, “What’s a biblical view of emotions?”

A Biblical View of Emotions

In answer, Genesis reveals that God created humans in his image as relational beings. Scripture indicates that God himself experiences emotions including joy, grief, and righteous anger. So, it makes sense that God hardwired us with emotional capacities. As a result, emotions help comprise the fabric of our humanity, being woven into our experiences, relationships, and communication. Even Jesus infused emotions into his teachings—for example, the remorse, delight, and anger portrayed in his parable of the prodigal son.

In our fallen world, emotions like fear play protective roles in keeping us from danger. But emotions may also mislead. Let’s dive into a little brain science to understand how.

Emotions and the Brain

In an earlier post, I mentioned that our brains often use a mental shortcut called the affect heuristic to make snap decisions based on how something makes us feel rather than on whether the decision is logical. And propaganda, which persuades by appealing to anything besides logic, exploits this shortcut to help us make judgements based mainly on emotion instead of reason. For example, advertisements may show appealing images of junk food in hopes we’ll buy the food because it makes us feel good, even though we know it’s physically harmful. On the other hand, some advertisements appeal to fear, implying that buying a product will save us from negative outcomes.

Either way, linking products to positive or negative emotions is a common propaganda technique called association. As another example, have you noticed how often commercials play upbeat music while showing happy people enjoying a product? Marketers compose such commercials to help us associate their products with positive emotions. On the other hand, messages in culture may link biblical teaching to negative emotions—like the fear evoked by the above threats of “a serious attack on human rights” and “risk of confusion being introduced to our children’s minds.”5

With a little help from the affect heuristic, biased, emotional wording can manipulate people into jumping to conclusions that have not yet been logically established—a fallacy (and staple propaganda tactic) called the question-begging epiphet.

Studies on Emotional Persuasion

Not only do emotional appeals beget powerful propaganda, but certain emotions can also make us more susceptible to other propaganda techniques like gain-framing or loss-framing. Gain-framing puts a positive spin on a message, while loss-framing gives messages a negative spin. Take, for instance, the following logically identical statements:

  1. New medication shows an 80% success rate!

  2. New medication fails to help 1 in 5 patients.

As you might have guessed, statement A is gain-framed, while statement B is loss-framed. Some research suggests we’re more susceptible to gain-framed messages when experiencing positive emotions and more susceptible to loss-framed messages when experiencing negative emotions.6

Along similar lines, multiple studies suggest we’re more likely to make judgements without logic while experiencing positive emotions like happiness or emotions like anger, which involve a strong sense of feeling certain about something.7 One study, for instance, asked students to remember a time when they felt a particular emotion and then read a persuasive essay written by either a professor or another student.8 Students who remembered feeling angry or content were more often persuaded by the professor’s “expert opinion,” suggesting these students had relied on an authority heuristic rather than thinking critically about the message’s content.

Still, the effects of specific emotions under specific circumstances are not always clear cut. For example, more recent research found that anger, specifically, did not affect how deeply people processed information.9 Fear, however, has been confirmed as a powerful persuasion force across scores of studies.10 One study, for instance, showed that messages which evoked a strong fear reaction tended to persuade people regardless of the arguments’ logical strength.11

Logic and Emotion

Ultimately, a little biblical critical thinking helps us understand emotions for what they really are—and what they’re not. Emotions are core to our humanity, reflecting our nature as relational beings created in the image of God. They play a protective role in our fallen world and can even help us make logical decisions—like not touching fire because we’re afraid to burn. But our fallible human emotions are not consistently reliable standards for truth. As such, they can be easily manipulated to make us fall for persuasive—but unbiblical—ideas, like evolutionary origins.

Instead, our ultimate authority for truth is the God who loves us.

Footnotes

  1. Brasseur, Anne, “The Dangers of Creationism in Education,” Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Committee on Culture, Science and Education, September 17, 2007, https://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/X2H-Xref-ViewHTML.asp?FileID=11751&lang=EN.
  2. “Resolution 1580: The Dangers of Creationism in Education,” Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Committee on Culture, Science and Education, October 4, 2007, http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-XML2HTML-EN.asp?fileid=17592&lang=en.
  3. Emotions can play a role in persuading us to believe true and logical messages too. The trouble comes when the main persuasive power of a message lies in factors that are irrelevant to a message’s truth—including its emotional appeal. (This is especially prone to happen in messages that have limited logical basis and so must be promoted primarily by propaganda, including appeals to emotion.)
  4. For example, people may argue against the Bible by attacking the moral character of God, claiming that a loving God would not drown people in a global flood or condemn people to hell. Such arguments may have strong emotional appeal. But they neglect the logical reality that God’s justice demands judgement for wickedness, even while his mercy and love provide a way of salvation—like the ark and the cross. For more information, see Critical Thinking Scan Season 12, Episode 3, “Is the God of the Bible a Bully?” on Answers TV.
  5. It’s a common tactic of culture to say that teaching kids about creation stunts their intellectual growth and love for science. But as this article and its linked resources explain, a biblical worldview provides the foundation for scientific reasoning (and human rights) in the first place.
  6. Changmin Yan, James Dillard, and Fuyuan Shen, “The Effects of Mood, Message Framing, and Behavioral Advocacy on Persuasion,” Journal of Communication 60, no. 2 (2010): 344–363.
  7. Vladas Griskevicius, Michelle Shiota, and Samantha Neufeld, “Influence of Different Positive Emotions on Persuasion Processing: A Functional Evolutionary Approach,” Emotion 10, no. 2 (2010): 190. (Applies evolutionary interpretations to observational science that positive emotions correlate with less reliance on logic.)
  8. Larissa Z. Tiedens and Susan Linton, “Judgment Under Emotional Certainty and Uncertainty: The Effects of Specific Emotions on Information Processing,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81, no. 6 (2001): 973.
  9. Meaghan McKasy, “A Discrete Emotion with Discrete Effects: Effects of Anger on Depth of Information Processing,” Cognitive Processing 21, no. 4 (2020): 555–573.
  10. Melanie Tannenbaum et al., “Appealing to Fear: A Meta-Analysis of Fear Appeal Effectiveness and Theories,” Psychological Bulletin 141, no. 6 (2015): 1178.
  11. Anneloes Meijnders, Cees Midden, and Henk Wilke, “Communications About Environmental Risks and Risk‐Reducing Behavior: The Impact of Fear on Information Processing,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 31, no. 4 (2001): 754–777.

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