Effective Emotional Appeals

Persuasive Emotional Appeals: Starved Child

Effective Emotional Appeals: More is More or More is Less?

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

The above quote, attributed to the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, contains a powerful lesson for anyone using persuasive emotional appeals.

Nearly everyone understands that emotions (affect), such as guilt, fear, compassion, empathy, or pity can persuade very well. The thinking then probably goes something like this: if one suffering person is bad, it stands to reason that the suffering of two people should sway even more, and appeals to save millions of starving children will persuade most. That’s why most advocacy groups will usually point out to millions of starving and suffering people.

But as with many other methods and techniques of influence, less is more when it comes to effective emotional appeals.

Research on Effective Emotional Appeals

Several research studies conducted in the last decade have found that that the suffering of one person sways more than the suffering of many.

In one study, half of the participants were asked to donate money for costly life-saving treatment necessary to save one child. The target amount needed to save the child was 1.5 million Israeli Shekels ($300.000). The other participants faced the same request, but this time it was not a single child but a group of eight sick children. The target amount to save the group of eight children, however, was the same – $300.000. One would expect thus that people would donate more money, or at least the same amount, but not less to the group of eight children. Yet, the contributions to the individual children were far greater than contributions to the entire group.

In another study, the researchers wanted to see if the previous findings would apply even to donations of two starving children. The researchers asked the first group of participants to donate to Rokia, a 7-year-old girl from Mali. The second group of participants could contribute to Moussa, a seven-year-old boy from Mali. The third group could donate to both Rokia and Moussa. Here again, donations to any single child were greater than donations to both children.

As Paul Slovic points out, the same applies not only to emotional appeals that refer  to starving children or people in general, but even to animals. For example, in 2005, a sparrow flew into a site of domino competition in Netherlands and was shot down. A website, which was set up as a tribute to the dead sparrow, attracted tens of thousands of hits. Appearing on TV, the head of the Dutch Bird Protection Agency bemoaned that the incident was blown out of proportion: “I just wish we could channel all this energy that went into one dead sparrow into saving the species.” The sparrow was later put on display at Rotterdam’s Natural History Museum.

Why Single Suffering Individual Outweighs Millions

We’re swayed more by emotional appeals that are constructed on the suffering of a single person (or a bird) than by emotional appeals that point out to the suffering of millions. This happens because of the psychophysical numbing – our diminishing sensitivity to losses of life as they become larger than one person’s death or suffering. Largely, it is the neurobiological product of the evolution.

Paul Slovic, one of the leading researchers in this field, thus explains our numbness to distant and large-scale events:

Affect is a remarkable mechanism that enabled humans to survive the long course of evolution. Before there were sophisticated analytic tools such as probability theory, scientific risk assessment, and cost/benefit calculus, humans used their senses, honed by experience, to determine whether the animal lurking in the bushes was safe to approach or the murky water in the pond was safe to drink. Simply put, [experiential thinking system] evolved to protect individuals and their small family and community groups from present, visible, immediate dangers. This affective system did not evolve to help us respond to distant, mass murder.

Evolution, it seems, has programmed our cognitive machinery to be sensitive to small changes in our environment; the downside is that we’re less able to detect and respond to large changes. This might explain one of the findings in the previous studies that we process the suffering of a single individual differently from that of a group. We view a single individual, as opposed to a group, as psychologically coherent unit; thus, we tend to process single individuals more extensively and form clearer impressions.

Mixing Emotional with Rational Appeals Doesn’t Work

Rokia vs the entire Africa


Persuasive Emotional Appeals

If you’re going to rely on emotional appeals, it is best if they are separated from rational appeals. In another experiment people were asked to donate money to Save the Children NGO. The subjects in the experiment faced one of the three appeals:

  1. An emotional appeal: description of Rokia – a 7 year-old girl from Mali
  2. Statistical lives: information about plight in Africa
  3. The emotional appeal combined with the statistical lives

Emotional appeal – Rokia.

Rokia, a 7-year-old girl from Mali, Africa, is desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger or even starvation. Her life will be changed for the better as a result of your financial gift. With your support, and the support of other caring sponsors, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family and other members of the community to help feed her, provide her with education, as well as basic medical care and hygiene education.

Statistical lives

  • Food shortages in Malawi are affecting more than 3 million children.
  • In Zambia, severe rainfall deficits have resulted in a 42% drop in maize production from 2000. As a result, an estimated 3 million Zambians face hunger.
  • Four million Angolans — one third of the population— have been forced to flee their homes.
  • More than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance.

As one could expect, the emotional appeal outperformed the more rational one (statistical lives). More surprisingly, however, the emotional appeal did worse when it was combined with the rational one.

In the follow-up experiment by the same researchers, subjects were primed either emotionally or analytically. Emotionally primed subjects, for example, were asked to describe their feelings when they heard the word “baby”. Analytically primed subjects had to answer questions like “if an object travels at five feet per minute, then by your calculations how many feet will it travel in 360 seconds?” Unsurprisingly perhaps, analytically primed subjects donated less to the identifiable victim (Rokia).

Emotional Appeals and Logical Appeals in Advertising

Research in advertising likewise shows that it is a bad idea to mingle rational and emotional appeals. For example, one study of TV advertising found that commercials that mixed rational and emotional appeals did worse than commercials without a balance of rational and emotional appeals (Stewart & Furse 1986). Another quasi-experimental analysis found that recall for ads without the combination of rational and emotional appeals was 1.24 times better than the ads that mixed them (Armstrong 2010).


1. Emotional appeals are most powerful when you focus on a single individual, animal, or object. Less is more. As Mother Teresa pointedly observed,

“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

2. Don’t mix emotional appeals with rational appeals.
It does not mean that you can never use both emotional and rational arguments. In the experiments described above, the persuasive appeals were closely combined in the same message.  Yet, if rational appeals don’t interfere with emotional processing, both types of appeals can work successfully together. So for example in a social advocacy campaign you can use both rational and emotional appeals as long as they don’t interfere with each other.


  • Slovic, P. (2007). If I look at the mass I will never act: Psychic numbing and genocide.Judgment and Decision Making, 2, 79–95.
  • Kogut, T., & Ritov, I. (2005). The singularity of identified victims in separate and joint evaluations. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 97, 106–116
  • Armstrong, J. Scott (2010), Persuasive Advertising: Evidence-based Principles (Palgrave)
  • Stewart, David W. and David H. Furse (1986), Effective Television Advertising: A Study of 1000 Commercials. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books
  • Small, D. A., Loewenstein, G., & Slovic, P. (2007). Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 102, 143–153.