Sometimes I must discuss a subject with someone who has an emotional, not necessarily reasonable, connection to a subject. How can one discuss a subject or convince a person who has an emotional attachment to the subject matter? This might be a school teacher, or an ex-wife, or a voter, or another person whose viewpoint is in fact important to the wellbeing of my own family. So I can not simply dismiss and ignore that person's influence.

I've tried connecting the subject to other subjects of emotion for the person - however I seem to lack the connection to emotions to understand which emotion is dominant and will affect the other. As emotion seems to be the basis for the nature of so many people's reality, has the philosophic community developed tools for including these people in discussions? My specific need is to know how to convince these people, however I'm specifically asking about the methods that philosophers use to understand and talk with these people in general. Considering that philosophy and rule of the people developed closely in time and geography, I would think that such methods and tools would have been a priority for early philosophers. However I find little information on the topic.

Some examples, not comprehensive nor relevant to any discussion I'm currently having:

  • A "naturalist" who has been told that some oil has "anti-bacterial properties" and thus prescribes it for everything, even though they do not understand that different bacteria are sensitive to different treatments (e.g. gram-negative vs gram-positive bacteria). Asking which bacteria have been shown to be sensitive to the oil is met with contempt - they feel that I am being condescending towards their field even though I ask with enthusiasm and interest.

  • People who "just feel" that vaccines cause autism, even though extensive studies have disproven any connection. For some reason "just feel" is a stronger motivator than are scientific studies. I've tried to show them optical illusions and other tricks for which "just feels" is proven invalid, however, this has absolutely no effect.

I was unsure if this question is on-topic for philosophy.SE, but according to the site rules, "logic — the nature of reasoning and inference" is on-topic and that is exactly my concern.

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    You might want to check out the backfire effect. Commented Aug 31, 2023 at 19:42
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    You are asking about the study of Rhetoric. If someone is easily convinced by emotion rather than logic, then you should use emotion to convince them and vice versa. Emotions may not follow the formalism of Logic, but that doesn't mean they are chaotic and totally unpredictable. For example, Anti-Vaccine positions might be a manifestation of a generic lack of trust for medical authorities and a innate distaste for compulsion. Instead of framing the discussion around scientific studies try focusing on why the compulsion is warranted, or why the distrust is misplaced. Commented Aug 31, 2023 at 20:42
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    Essentially, the goal isn't to tackle the emotion, it's to adress WHY they feel that emotion in the first place. You need to understand that first. Commented Aug 31, 2023 at 21:11
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    In OP "whose viewpoint is in fact important to the wellbeing of my own family...", so in effect it entails by logic reasoning that if you had no such person's actual presence in your vicinity then you'll ignore this problem of emotion. Yet, very close you wrote "As emotion seems to be the basis for the nature of so many people's reality", so you already intuitively and rightly knew the ubiquitous of emotional influence upon people almost everywhere. So there seems already an irrational emotional aspect on your mind for such a question which contradicts Kant's categorical imperative... Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 0:08
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    DIBS: Disputing Irrational Beliefs LOL. The psychologists use an acronym for this effort: DIBS! I don't see much useful advice offered in online articles about DIBS. If you want to reduce communication problems and try to improve the behavior of others (not change their attitudes or beliefs, but get them to behave differently) then I recommend the techniques in the book Leader Effectiveness Training. In essence everyone is a leader in some domain who must influence others to meet their needs. A good leader (self-empowered person who empowers others) needs conflict management skills! Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 1:20

4 Answers 4


Everyone is influenced by emotion, believe it or not. In fact, emotions arguably come before reason, not the other way around, as many studies have shown. Reason is done through assumptions and axioms. But where do those assumptions and axioms come from? People just call them instincts, heuristics, or whatever else. But they’re ultimately just feelings. And so are emotions.

The only way to “reason” through an issue is if that person shares your assumptions. If the person believes that the scientific enterprise is corrupt, then no amount of studies will convince him that vaccines don’t cause autism.

The discussion is a dead end.

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    If someone believes the scientific enterprise is corrupt, the reasonable discussion to have would be what justification they have for thinking that.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 7:41
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    I don't agree with saying reason is based on "assumptions" ("beliefs" is a more appropriate term). The scientific community not being corrupt isn't an assumption, it's a conclusion (which is like the opposite of an assumption) based on them having produced a whole lot of useful scientific discoveries, them having a reasonable level of transparency (even if not nearly enough, but that's a different issue), few barriers to entry, peer review, etc.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 7:46

I don't know if the methodology of inculcating rationality is on topic or not, but there aren't any close votes, so let's get it.

First, let's leave emotional manipulation at the door. There are good reasons to do it sometimes, just as sometimes it's justified to use violence to prevent self harm, but its methods are the same methods as abuse and con artistry.

To honestly change minds without recourse to empiricism and reason:

First, manage expectations. Set a time limit for engagement and a specific topic and keep to it unless the interlocutor wants to continue or pursue a digression. This is, strictly speaking, emotional manipulation - but we're just making the engagement less stressful, not trying to change their mind.

Then use gentle Socratic questioning to identify in order:

  • what do you think?
  • why do you think so?
  • how certain are you?
  • is that reason generalizable? What if someone thought the opposite, but gave the same reason?
  • is it a good enough reason to be sure?
  • if not, do you have other reasons?
  • if you believe that for reasons that aren't good enough, is it reasonable to be as sure as you are?
  • what could we learn that would move the certainty up if true and down if false, or vice versa?

I should add that this is exactly the method one should be using on onesself.

  • Yes, the Socratic is often a great way to convince, or at least discuss. But it is very condescending and annoying enough that the inventor was pretty much murdered, in part due to the animosity that it creates.
    – dotancohen
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 10:42
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    @dotancohen Challenging someone's beliefs is inherently confrontational. But the Socratic method seems far less confrontational/condescending than the alternative of just explaining why someone is wrong ... if you do it right. Although people could find it annoying or you can make them uncomfortable when you ask a question for which an honest answer would demolish their position (but... that is the goal, no?). As for doing it right, don't ask questions like the one I did just - they should be open-ended to have them explain their position, and they shouldn't be rhetorical questions.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Sep 1, 2023 at 11:03

I might recommend not entirely giving up on logical arguments and evidence with such people.

If someone responds that they "just feel" something, that typically means they have no other justification for their position. That being the case, highlighting that the other side has justification shows that contrast, and could convince them over time. On some level, they may realise that having no justification beyond "just feeling" something is bad.

But here are some ways to address appeals to emotion:


In a lot of social/political discussions, you could appeal to empathy: if they want to take other people's rights away, how would they feel if they had comparable rights taken away?

This, unfortunately isn't typically that effective, much like logical arguments. What's far more effective is exposure: getting to know people whose rights they want to take away, and/or more directly seeing the consequences of their actions. Although this is harder to achieve. And even this is doesn't convince some people: they're willing to even lose their own children (and plenty do) in order to stand strong in their convictions.


If someone believes something because they "just feel" it, you could ask them:

  • Whether they care whether it's true
  • Whether "just feeling" something is a reliable method for determining whether something is true. How would they deal with someone who "just feels" something which contradicts what they believe? Can both be right? How do they know they're right and the other person is wrong? Do they know this?

Also consider ending a discussion if you feel you've made your case well enough, if things get heated, or if you've otherwise reached an impasse, so they can reflect on what you've said. If you keep trying to scratch at it, rather than convincing them, that could have the opposite effect, as they keep reasserting their position in their mind, and especially if the discussion moves away from your core point. Picking the discussion again at a later time could be more effective than trying to keep it going.

That said, the same may not necessarily apply to public discourse, where one should also consider the perspective of potential onlookers.

You can see a lot of this in action on call-in debate shows like The Atheist Experience, Talk Heathen, The Line, and so forth. Although the focus there is on public discourse and entertainment: the hosts will sometimes push back really hard against callers (especially someone like Matt Dillahunty, who I'd say is far too aggressive, even if he makes good arguments). You'd want to be a lot more gentle in in-person discussions.


Very interesting question, and I rush to say that all the answers so far appear useful to me. I just want to add two points:

  1. Emotions are not the enemy of reason, they are its motivators and modulators. People do not act based on reason. They use reason to try and get what they want. They may also rationalize their decisions post facto, but the real motivation for action is always emotional.

So don't fetish reason, and don't "look down" on emotions, listen to what they tell you, leverage them. Don't speak or write like an accountant. Let your passion get through your words.

  1. Nobody likes to publicly lose face, least of all people who are insecure. Which is why people often publicly resist arguments even though they secretly or unconsciously agree with you. In other words, some of the push back you are getting is artificial, to avoid losing face. I suspect that when they say “it feels like it”, they mean something like: “I don’t want to give you this pleasure”. And the more your interlocutors sense that you badly want to convince them, the less they will want to give you this pleasure.

So manage your own emotions too: You do not need to convince people, you can live with folks having different views than yours. All you really need, most of times, is an opportunity to put forth your arguments and to get them a fair hearing. And if you are not given a fair hearing, don’t force it. Quietly call them out on it and move on: “You guys are not ready to hear what I say."

Another consequence of the same point is that one can “plant ideas” in other folks’ heads, where they will grow by themselves if they are good ideas and if the head in question is reasonably fertile. If all you want is to get your message across and you don’t care about your ego too much, give your interlocutors time to "chew on it". People who disagree with you today may agree with you tomorrow, although they are unlikely to ever admit (or even be conscious) that you convinced them. They will say (and think) that they arrived at this conclusion by themselves.

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