In this series, my son Ben is learning the skills needed to become a critical thinker and reporting about his experience. This week, he learned about Aristotle’s three Modes of Persuasion: logos, pathos, and ethos, subjects frequently taught and learned in English and rhetoric classes. If you also want to learn about how this concept applies to critical thinking, you can read the same material Ben studied to prepare to write this piece.
Many people feel that studying the elements that make arguments persuasive might contradict what it means to be a critical thinker. As I talked about last time, breaking down our biases can help us see the world as it really is. But are modes of persuasion methods by which we become biased?
That’s what I thought, having studied modes of persuasions before in the context of learning rhetoric for English class. But, much like biases, logos, pathos and ethos are three ways involved with how we receive and give information. They translate to fact-based, emotion-based, and relational qualities in our arguments. When we understand them, we can use them to make our arguments resonate with people, as well as understand when they are being used to manipulate us.
Logos, which is fact-based, is the pick of purist’s who think all our debates should be founded on logic. With logos, an argument consists of weighing of facts and data to come to a conclusion. But, more often than not, an argument that is based only on facts and logic is either easily solved, or complicated when pathos and ethos enters the picture. Pathos arguments appeal to our emotions, while ethos appeals to our empathy.
While logos on its own can’t do much to create a compelling argument, it can be an integral part of what makes an argument convincing. It’s very hard to argue against reliable facts, especially if they are backed up by numbers. If a political ad can hammer home a tragic number (be it number of victims, debt, or unnecessary expenses), it can convince you that you are dealing with a real issue.
On the other hand, the overuse of logos can be just as big a problem as the overuse of pathos (emotion). While the latter can get you labeled as oversensitive or manipulative, putting logos on a pedestal can make you seem like a heartless jerk who dodges human experiences with data. That’s especially true when you make it your personal brand, like political personality Ben Shapiro, whose slogan “facts don’t care about your feelings” ignores that real humans think with their hearts as well as their heads. But while pathos and can add nuance and complexity to our understanding, it can also limit us by masking harsh or complicated realities with easily comprehensible emotions.
For example, in the television series Breaking Bad, our house’s quarantine pick, pathos is used as a trick on the audience. In the series’ first episode, the main character, Walter White, is set up as a beacon for our sympathy. He’s a poor teacher suffering from a system that underpays his intellect. He must work a second job where he is ridiculed by his students. He has a son with Cerebral Palsy, an additional expense. Then, half-way through the episode, he’s diagnosed with cancer!
We become so overwhelmed with pathos that we support and root for his first risky decision: to start cooking crystal meth to pay for his expenses. Soon, his actions spiral as he begins to cook for gangbangers, often becoming part of the violence and horrors of the drug trade. Suddenly we’re hit head-on with a logos-based argument: you shouldn’t like this person who is committing horrible crimes.
The writer’s achievement is the pathos-based sympathy they created for Walter in those first few episodes that overpowers our judgement based on the terrible things we see him do. When we sympathize with him (a pathos response), it warps our view of the character that our heads (logos) tells us is bad.
Not coincidentally, the likability and complexity of actor Bryan Cranston’s performance introduces mode number three: ethos. Ethos is not a quality of your argument so much as it is something you have to earn. The more you relate to the person you’re trying to convince, the more you humanize yourself, the more you can get someone on your side. In real life, personal connections, our relationships with people, determine if people believe your arguments.
And in an age of social media, ethos becomes more valued than ever before. Gone are the days when politicians are judged only by their policies. Even the most all-business public figures use social media outreach to make themselves seem relatable. In many ways, Barack Obama did a great job creating that feeling of connection. He released an annual playlist packed with popular hip-hop songs, played basketball with NBA Analyst Clarke Kellogg, even knew how to take a smooth looking selfie. Beyond those “social dollars,” he also connected with people by reading letters from ordinary working Americans, inviting them to dinner, or sitting down with victims of a disaster.
Whether arguments appear in ancient Greek dialogs or in Twitter wars of 2020, our brains, our emotions, and our connections to others is what determines what we believe. Knowing that this is how our brains functions can help us understand the effects each mode of persuasion has on how we think.