Ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos all stem from rhetoric—that is, speaking and writing effectively. You might find the concepts in courses on rhetoric, psychology, English, or in just about any other field!
The concepts of ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos are also called the modes of persuasion, ethical strategies, or rhetorical appeals. They have a lot of different applications ranging from everyday interactions with others to big political speeches to effective advertising.
Read on to learn about what the modes of persuasion are, how they’re used, and how to identify them!
"Yes, Alexander, this will be on the test."
What Are the Modes of Persuasion?
As you might have guessed from the sound of the words, ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos go all the way back to ancient Greece. The concepts were introduced in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, a treatise on persuasion that approached rhetoric as an art, in the fourth century BCE.
Rhetoric was primarily concerned with ethos, pathos, and logos, but kairos, or the idea of using your words at the right time, was also an important feature of Aristotle’s teachings.
However, kairos was particularly interesting to the Sophists, a group of intellectuals who made their living teaching a variety of subjects. The Sophists stressed the importance of structuring rhetoric around the ideal time and place.
Together, all four concepts have become the modes of persuasion, though we typically focus on ethos, pathos, and logos.
If Einstein says it, it must be true.
What Is Ethos?
Though you may not have heard the term before, ‘ethos’ is a common concept. You can think of it as an appeal to authority or character—persuasive techniques using ethos will attempt to persuade you based on the speaker’s social standing or knowledge. The word ethos even comes from the Greek word for character.
An ethos-based argument will include a statement that makes use of the speaker or writer’s position and knowledge. For example, hearing the phrase, “As a doctor, I believe,” before an argument about physical health is more likely to sway you than hearing, “As a second-grade teacher, I believe.”
Likewise, celebrity endorsements can be incredibly effective in persuading people to do things. Many viewers aspire to be like their favorite celebrities, so when they appear in advertisements, they're more likely to buy whatever they're selling to be more like them. The same is true of social media influencers, whose partnerships with brands can have huge financial benefits for marketers.
In addition to authority figures and celebrities, according to Aristotle, we’re more likely to trust people who we perceive as having good sense, good morals, and goodwill—in other words, we trust people who are rational, fair, and kind. You don’t have to be famous to use ethos effectively; you just need whoever you’re persuading to perceive you as rational, moral, and kind.
Sad imagery is an example of pathos, which appeals to emotion.
What Is Pathos?
Pathos, which comes from the Greek word for suffering or experience, is rhetoric that appeals to emotion. The emotion appealed to can be a positive or negative one, but whatever it is, it should make people feel strongly as a means of getting them to agree or disagree.
For example, imagine someone asks you to donate to a cause, such as saving rainforests. If they just ask you to donate, you may or may not want to, depending on your previous views. But if they take the time to tell you a story about how many animals go extinct because of deforestation, or even about how their fundraising efforts have improved conditions in the rainforests, you may be more likely to donate because you’re emotionally involved.
But pathos isn’t just about creating emotion; it can also be about counteracting it. For example, imagine a teacher speaking to a group of angry children. The children are annoyed that they have to do schoolwork when they’d rather be outside. The teacher could admonish them for misbehaving, or, with rhetoric, he could change their minds.
Suppose that, instead of punishing them, the teacher instead tries to inspire calmness in them by putting on some soothing music and speaking in a more hushed voice. He could also try reminding them that if they get to work, the time will pass quicker and they’ll be able to go outside to play.
Aristotle outlines emotional dichotomies in Rhetoric. If an audience is experiencing one emotion and it’s necessary to your argument that they feel another, you can counterbalance the unwanted emotion with the desired one. The dichotomies, expanded upon after Aristotle, are:
Note that these can work in either direction; it’s not just about swaying an audience from a negative emotion to a positive one.
However, changing an audience's emotion based on false or misleading information is often seen as manipulation rather than persuasion. Getting into the hows and whys requires a dive into the ethics of rhetoric, but suffice to say that when you attempt to deceive an audience, that is manipulation.
If you really want to get an audience fired up about something, you can inspire righteous anger, which may or may not be manipulation. If somebody is offended that you’ve asked them for something, you can try making them feel sorry for you by turning indignation into pity—that’s manipulation.
Seems trustworthy, right?
What Is Logos?
Logos comes from a Greek word of multiple meanings, including “ground,” “speech,” and “reason.” In rhetoric, it specifically refers to having a sense of logic to your persuasion; logos-based rhetoric is founded in logic and reason rather than emotion, authority, or personality.
A logic-based argument appeals to a person’s sense of reason—good logos-based rhetoric will persuade people because the argument is well-reasoned and based in fact. There are two common approaches to logos: deductive and inductive arguments.
Deductive arguments build on statements to reach a conclusion—in effect, the conclusion is reached in reverse. A common method is to propose multiple true statements which are combined to reach a conclusion, such as the classic method of proving that Socrates is mortal.
All men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates must be mortal.
That’s not really a case that needs to be argued, but we can apply the same framework to other arguments as well. For example, we need energy to live. Food gives the body energy. Therefore, we need food to live.
All of this is based on things we can prove, and results in a conclusion that is true, not just theorized. Deductive reasoning works on the assumption that A = B, B = C, so therefore A = C. But this also supposes that all the information is true, which is not always the case.
Sometimes the conclusions you reach with deductive reasoning can be valid, as in the reasoning makes sense, but the conclusion may not be necessarily true. If we return to the Socrates argument, we could propose that:
All men eat apples. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates must eat apples.
The problem is that we can’t prove that all men eat apples—some do, some don’t. Some might eat an apple once but never again. But based on our arguments, the conclusion that Socrates must eat apples is valid.
A strong deductive argument for logos-based reasoning will be composed of provable facts that can reach a provable conclusion. However, a valid but not entirely sound argument can also be effective—but be wary of shifting from persuasion to manipulation!
Another approach to logos-based rhetoric is inductive reasoning, which, unlike deductive reasoning, results in a probable argument rather than a definite one. That doesn’t mean that it is less effective—many scientific concepts we accept as truth are inductive theories simply because we cannot travel back in time and prove them—but rather that inductive reasoning is based on eliminating the impossible and ending in an argument that is based in sound logic and fact, but that may not necessarily be provable.
For example, all people with a cough have a cold. Kelly has a cough. Therefore, Kelly likely has a cold.
Our conclusion is likely, but not absolute. It’s possible that Kelly doesn’t have a cold—not because she doesn't have a cough, but because there are other possible causes, such as having allergies or having just breathed in some dust. The conclusion that she has a cold is likely based on data, but not absolute.
Another example would be that Kelly picks her nose. Kelly is a woman, therefore all women must pick their nose.
Inductive reasoning is based on generalizations. The first example, in which Kelly likely has a cold, makes sense because it’s based on something provable—that a sampling of people who have a cough have colds—and followed up with a likely conclusion. In the second example, this is a less sensible conclusion because it’s based on extrapolation from a single reference point.
If we reverse the claim and say that all women pick their noses, and Kelly is a woman, therefore Kelly must pick her nose, that would be more sound logic. Still not necessarily true—not all women pick their noses—but a more sound example of inductive reasoning.
Inductive reasoning can still be incredibly effective in persuasion, provided that your information is well-reasoned. Inductive reasoning creates a hypothesis that can be tested; its conclusion is not necessarily true, but can be examined.
As always, be wary of venturing into manipulation, which is more likely to be based on erroneous or misleading facts.
Kairos is all about the right time and place.
What Is Kairos?
Kairos is the Greek word for the opportune moment, which is precisely what it means in rhetoric. According to this principle, the time in which an argument is deployed is as important as the argument itself. An argument at the wrong time or to the wrong audience will be wasted; to be effective, you must also consider when you are speaking and to whom.
In effect, kairos means choosing the correct rhetorical device to match the audience and space in which you’re attempting to persuade. If you wanted to persuade people to go vegetarian, the middle of a hot dog-eating contest is probably not the right time. Likewise, you’re probably not going to persuade a room of data-driven scientists of something by appealing to pathos or ethos; logos is probably your best bet.
In essence, kairos asks you to consider the context and atmosphere of the argument you’re making. How can you deploy your argument better considering time and space? Should you wait, or is time of the essence?
As Aristotle famously said, “Anybody can become angry—that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody's power and is not easy.”
The goal of kairos is to achieve exactly that. Effective use of kairos strengthens your persuasion ability by considering how people are already feeling based on context. How can you influence or counteract that? Or maybe pathos isn’t the right approach—maybe cold hard facts, using logos, is more suited. Kairos works in conjunction with the other modes of persuasion to strengthen your argument, so as you’re putting a persuasive piece together, consider how and when it’ll be deployed!
Do a little detective work to figure out which mode of persuasion you're seeing.
How to Identify Ethos, Pathos, Logos, and Kairos
Understanding how the modes of persuasion work can make you better at identifying and picking them out. Not only is a better understanding of them useful for composing your own arguments, but it’s also beneficial when seeing other people’s arguments. When you understand how ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos work, you’re less susceptible to them.
Advertising is one of the places we see the modes of persuasion most often. Looking at each of these advertisements, you can see how they use each mode of persuasion to convince audiences to convince an audience of something.
Using celebrities is a classic example of ethos, which uses authority or recognition to convince an audience of something. In this case, celebrities like Michelle Obama, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Janelle Monáe discuss the importance of voting.
It doesn’t matter that they’re not politicians or political scientists; audiences find them appealing and genuine. When they speak of the importance of voting, audiences listen because they like what these figures have to say. If talented, famous people like this are taking the time to vote, it must be important!
Historians or those well-versed in politics might make different arguments about why audiences should vote, but in this case, the goal is to inspire people. When we see people we admire doing things, we want to do them too; hence the reason that ethos works so well.
ASPCA’s commercials are some of the most infamous examples of pathos in advertising. Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” plays over footage of abused animals in shelters, encouraging viewers to donate money to support the organization.
It’s not hard to understand why it works; both the song and the imagery are heartbreaking! You can’t help but feel sad when you see it, and that sadness, when followed up by a prompt to donate, encourages you to take immediate action. And these ads are effective—the campaign raised millions of dollars for ASPCA.
By appealing to our emotions and making us feel sad, this advertisement encourages us to act. That’s a classic use of ethos—it influences our feelings through the one-two punch of sad music and imagery, encouraging us to perform the desired action.
In some cases, emotion and authority aren’t the right tactic. Logos often appears in tech advertisements, such as this one for the iPhone XS and XR.
Notice how the advertisement focuses on product shots and technological terms. Most audiences won’t know what an A12 bionic neural engine is, but it sounds impressive. Likewise, that “12 MPf/1.8 wide-angle lens, with larger, deeper 1.4 micron pixels” is pretty meaningless to most people, but the numbers suggest that this phone is something special because it uses scientific-sounding language.
It doesn’t matter whether audiences really understand what’s being said or not. What matters is that they feel confident that the ad is selling them something they need—in this case, impressive technological specifications that make this phone an improvement over others.
Kairos should ideally factor into all uses of the modes of persuasion, but timeliness can also be a big selling point. In this Christmas-themed M&Ms advertisement, the company uses timely humor to forge a connection between the holidays and M&Ms.
Because these commercials have been running for such a long time, there’s also a nostalgic attachment to them. Just as people look forward to new Budweiser advertisements during the Super Bowl, others look forward to seeing M&Ms or the Coca-Cola polar bear during the holidays.
Though this commercial doesn’t go out of its way to tell you the benefits of M&Ms, it does forge a connection between M&Ms and Christmas, encouraging people to purchase them around the holidays.
Enhance your persuasion by better understanding ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos.
Examples of the Modes of Persuasion
Now that you’ve had some exposure to how ethos, pathos, logos, and kairos function and what they can do, you can test your ability to recognize them using the images below!
There are a few things to notice about this image:
- The anonymous figure
- The language
- The use of a statistic
Can you figure out which mode of persuasion this represents?
The fact that the figure is anonymous tells us it’s probably not ethos. While we might be influenced by a person who’s in shape, there’s not really an appeal here based on the person—they’re just an image to support the ad.
“DOMINATE” is a pretty loaded word, suggesting that this may have elements of pathos.
However, take a look at that statistic. Whether it’s true or not, a hard statistic like that suggests that this ad is using logos to appeal to viewers. You can draw out an argument from there—75% of users lose weight within weeks. You’re a user. Therefore, you will likely lose weight within weeks.
What do you notice about this image?
- The photo
- The way the text frames the woman’s body
- The name of the perfume
- The color choice
What mode of persuasion is this?
Again, we don’t know who the model is, and perfume isn’t going to make us look like her, so we can count ethos out.
The ad seems pretty intent on making us look at certain things—the woman’s lips and chest in particular. What is it trying to make us feel?
“FORBIDDEN FRUIT” has a connotation of sensuality.
Red is a color commonly associated with passion.
When you combine the photo, the framing, the perfume name, and the color, you get a strong sense of sex appeal from the advertisement. This makes it an example of pathos—the ad is trying to make us feel a certain way. If we buy this perfume, maybe we would feel attractive, too.
How about this advertisement?
- A serious-looking photo
- Text promising “no more back pain”
- “Doctor recommended.”
Seeing a doctor might make you tempted to think the answer is logos, but there’s no appeal to logic here.
“No more back pain,” is a nice promise, but there’s no attempt to appeal to emotions, so it can’t be pathos.
What’s important in this image is the combination of the doctor in the image and the line “doctor recommended.” This doctor might not be famous, but he does have authority, making this an example of ethos.
Our confidence in this treatment grows because we trust that a doctor understands how to address back pain.
What mode of persuasion is this? Think about:
- The framing
- The model
- The text
She does look fashionable and the ad mentions stylists, so it’s possible that this is ethos.
There are no statistics or arguments being made, so the answer probably isn’t logos.
Pathos is possible, but despite having a heavily made-up model, this ad is far less about sex appeal than the previous one.
But the text mentions a specific holiday—New Year’s—suggesting that this is kairos. Kairos can, and often should, be combined with all the modes of persuasion to be even more effective. In this case, the model’s appearance could suggest either ethos or pathos in addition to kairos. The message here is that you should act now, at the beginning of the year, to take advantage of the deal and to start the year off with a new style, much like the one the model is sporting.
A crying child is almost certainly pathos.
Key Tips for Identifying Ethos, Pathos, Logos, and Kairos
Now that you know the difference between all the modes of persuasion, you’ll have a much easier time identifying them. If you run into trouble, you can always ask questions about what you’re seeing, hearing, or reading to understand what mode of persuasion it’s using.
#1: Is It Related to a Specific Time?
If the argument is based on a specific day or context, such as Valentine’s Day or appealing only to a select group of people, such as people with dogs, it’s more likely to be kairos.
#2: Does It Involve a Celebrity or Authority Figure?
Celebrities are often a dead giveaway that an argument is using ethos. But authority figures, such as doctors, dentists, or politicians, can also be used to appeal to ethos. Even regular, everyday people can work, particularly when combined with pathos, to appeal to you based on a mutual connection you have.
#3: Does It Involve Statistics?
Statistics are a huge clue that an argument is using logos. But logos can also just be a logical argument, such as that if plants need water, and it’s hard to remember to water them, you should buy an automatic plant waterer. It makes perfect sense, making you more likely to buy it, rather than changing your habits to remember to water your plants more frequently.
#4: Does It Influence Your Emotions?
If an argument tries to change your emotions, whether by making you sad, happy, angry, or something else entirely, it’s a good indicator that it’s using pathos. Sex appeal is one of the biggest examples of pathos in advertising, appearing everywhere from makeup ads to car commercials to hamburger advertisements.
Need help understanding the historical context for The Great Gatsby to perfect your kairos-based argument?
You can always combine the modes of persuasion with literary devices to make your arguments even stronger!
Learn how to say "good morning" in Japanese! Even if it's not a mode of persuasion, it's just good manners.
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Melissa Brinks graduated from the University of Washington in 2014 with a Bachelor's in English with a creative writing emphasis. She has spent several years tutoring K-12 students in many subjects, including in SAT prep, to help them prepare for their college education.