• February 2013

The Art of Persuasion

By Dr. Carol Horn
K-12 Program Coordinator Department of Instructional Services
Fairfax County Public Schools

Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from Horn’s upcoming book, “The 10 Big Ideas: How to help your child think bigger, imagine more, and do better in school.”

I Wanna Iguana is the delightful story of a young boy’s efforts to convince his mother to let him have an iguana that his best friend is giving away.

Alex and his mother write back and forth to each other a series of humorous notes and drawings that capture the arguments he puts forth to persuade his mother to let him have an iguana for a pet, and her responses. The book can serve as an excellent introduction to the art of persuasion.

Persuasion is an important thinking skill, and, as Alex learns in this story, it is one that can be learned through practice and reflection.

Listen closely and you’ll hear persuasive appeals wherever you go!

Every time you turn on the television, numerous advertisements are promoting products; free samples arrive in the mail and in stores to entice you to try out and then purchase a product; and there are multiple venues for giving advice and suggesting what you should buy, how you should dress, what you should eat, where you should shop and travel, and the list goes on.

Therefore, it is important for children to learn about persuasion and become aware of the techniques used to persuade others. For example, do Nike shoes really help you run faster? Or is it just the logo and branding that have made the company so successful?

As children become adept at identifying how others persuade, their thinking and reflecting skills are strengthened through a continuous and critical examination of claims, ideas, questions, and research. They gradually learn to identify key aspects of a sound claim or argument and are better able to make decisions and/or persuade others based on sound reasoning and thinking.

More than 4,000 years ago, Aristotle identified four clusters of emotion and experiences that can be used to influence decisions or to persuade others.

Aristotle believed that good people need to be aware of these four “appeals” so that they are able to use them to persuade others and to protect themselves from others who might try to persuade them. The four appeals are ethos (authority, expertise, or credibility), pathos (emotions), nomos (shared cultural connections and beliefs), and logos (logic, evidence, or facts).

Let’s further explore each one.

1. Ethos is about trust. It appeals to the authority or credibility of the speaker or writer and is created through confidence in the knowledge, experiences, expertise, credentials, and/or professional standing of the speaker.

A good example of ethos is when expert testimony is brought into court and used to persuade a jury. Teaching ethos to children helps them understand why they need to listen to the dentist (an expert who knows and understands what is necessary to have healthy teeth) or their pediatrician (who tells them the importance of eating healthy foods).

However, they should also be aware that ethos can be used to convince when there is no evidence to support the claim. In “I Wanna Iguana,” Alex’s mother uses ethos to question his credibility by bringing up a past experience when he brought home the class fish.

2. Pathos is the art of appealing to another’s emotions to persuade. It is used to attract an audience’s sympathies and imagination.

This occurs when guilt, love, security, greed, pity, humor, etc., are induced in the reader or listener. In the story, “I Wanna Iguana,” Alex uses pathos in his first note when he tells his mom that if she doesn’t let Alex take the iguana, it will go to Stinky, another friend, and Stinky’s dog will eat it, thus hoping to elicit an emotional response to his plight.

Images are especially effective in arousing emotions, and throughout the story, Alex and his mother use images and pictures to illustrate their opposing arguments. There are numerous examples of how images are used to elicit emotional reactions in the world today.

For example, images of shrinking glaciers often accompany a plea to address global warming, and images of kittens and puppies frequently accompany information about animal adoptions. As children become aware of pathos and are able to identify examples of it in everyday life, they are better prepared to recognize its use and understand its role in persuasion.

Nomos is using shared cultural beliefs to persuade. It is invoked by pointing out what the parties have in common and expanding on the similarities. Peer pressure is a form of nomos, and children are often subject to persuasion because they want to belong to a certain group.

This can be a positive experience, e.g., Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, a swim team, a youth group; however, it can also be negative, such as gangs and cliques. It is important for children to understand and reflect on the reasons they are joining a group, and those reasons should go beyond a need to belong or a need for approval.

From youth activities to peer groups to school pride, nomos can be used as a positive or negative force to persuade others to join, participate, or act a certain way.

  • Logos is employing logic, providing facts, or sharing evidence that most will agree is “real.”
  • Logos may take the form of details, facts, statistics, and other information that has some form of empirical evidence to support a claim.
  • In “I Wanna Iguana,” Alex uses logos when he states that iguanas are quiet and small. His mom replies with logos when she tells him that they can grow to be over six feet long! Fact checking is a critical component of logos.

Two questions that can guide children’s thinking about logos are:

  • From whose viewpoint are we seeing or reading or hearing?
  • What is the evidence, and how reliable is it?

Children can become familiar with each of the appeals by finding, identifying, and discussing numerous examples in their everyday lives.

Advertising is a great place to begin to teach these appeals. Magazines and commercials are filled with illustrations of how the different appeals are used to persuade others.

As a family, you may want to collect examples of the different appeals over time. Reflect on and discuss this question: Which ads have persuaded you or someone in your family to try an item? What influenced your decision? Would you make a different decision now?

Gradually, children learn that all of the appeals are important and interdependent.

To win a good argument, you must be credible, well-informed, and have a researched-based knowledge of the topic, claim, or issue. While stories, images, and pictures can elicit emotions in order to persuade others, they are not enough; more information and evidence is needed.

Shared beliefs and common points of interest can be powerful tools of persuasion as they appeal to a need to belong; however, they also require a critical review of reasons why one particular group should be chosen over or in addition to another. And finally, facts, statistics, and empirical evidence are critical. If a claim is made, evidence must be provided, and this may be the most important lesson of all.

As children become aware of varying viewpoints and learn to develop sound arguments that persuade others, thinking is critical. And it takes practice.

It is important that children have opportunities to research and formulate sound arguments about subjects that are of genuine interest to them. When they need a new pair of running shoes, instead of just purchasing a well-known brand, you might have them read about the different shoes and formulate a sound argument about why their choice is the best one.

This could also be used when deciding on a new pet. For example, which breed of dog is best for your family? As your children practice the art of formulating and designing convincing arguments with evidence to support their thinking, the art of persuasion will be another powerful tool that will help them navigate the many forms of persuasion that are part of our everyday lives.


About Dr. Carol Horn

Dr. Carol V. Horn is coordinator of Advanced Academics Program (former Gifted and Talented Programs) for Fairfax County Public Schools in Northern Virginia.

She has worked in gifted education for the past 20 years and has a Master of Education in Educational Psychology with an Emphasis on Gifted from the University of Virginia.

She earned her doctorate in Teacher Preparation and Special Education from The George Washington University and is the 2002 recipient of the Hollingsworth Award from the National Association for Gifted Children for outstanding research study in the field of gifted education.

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