Sometimes, emotional appeals are effective in persuading an audience—think: that super sad ASPCA commercial that plays Sarah McLachlan’s “Arms of an Angel,” while pictures of abused and malnourished animals flash across the screen. I can’t speak for everybody, but I’m certain that commercial convinced a few dozen people to sponsor a pet. That’s not to say, however, that emotional appeals are always effective measures of persuasion… some audiences want a rational and reasonable argument instead.

It’s a good rule of thumb to consider your audience when constructing an argument and choosing a means of persuasion—but it might not make too much of a difference, according to new research. This study “Persuasion, Emotion, and Language: The Intent to Persuade Transforms Language via Emotionality” says we can’t help but use emotions to persuade, even if emotionality doesn’t appeal to our audience.

Researchers made this discovery after they decided to explore our communication strategies and tendencies in attempting to persuade someone one way or another. Matthew D. Rocklage of The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and his colleagues, Derik D. Rucker and Loran F. Nordgren, theorized that people would use emotional language as a means of influence more often than not. Then, they put their theory to the test.

The group of researchers recruited 1,285 study participants who were first shown a picture and description of a product on Amazon. Some of these subjects were then asked to write a five-star review glamorizing the product and persuading others to purchase the product, while the remaining participants were tasked with writing a five-star review that merely described the product in a positive light. The researchers then used the Evaluative Lexicon, a tool for quantitative linguistic analysis, to determine how emotional (positive or negative) the reviews were.

Rocklage’s team found that the reviews were equally positive in language; however, those who were tasked with persuading buyers used more emotional language than those who did not specifically intend to persuade. Additionally, the persuasive reviews created by participants in this study contained more emotional language than real five-star reviews for the same products on Amazon.

Ultimately, study subjects appeared to use emotional language automatically—not deliberately. This became apparent when researchers gave them an 8-digit number to remember while writing their persuasive review. This added element was designed to make strategizing more difficult; still, participants utilized emotional language as primary means of persuasion. Furthermore, this tendency persisted when subjects were told their audience consisted of rational thinkers.

Rocklage summarizes these findings to NeuroscienceNews: “Past research indicates that emotional appeals can backfire when an audience prefers unemotional appeals. Our findings indicate that there is a strong enough connection between persuasion and emotion in people’s minds that they continue to use emotion even in the face of an audience where that approach can backfire.”

Association for Psychological Science (2018, April 1). People Use Emotion to Persuade, Even When it Could Backfire. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved April 1, 2018 from

Rocklage, M. D., Rucker, D. D., & Nordgren, L. F. (2018, March 15). Persuasion, Emotion, and Language: The Intent to Persuade Transforms Language via Emotionality. Psychological Science. Retrieved April 3, 2018 from