The Argumentative Structure of Some Persuasive Appeal Variations

Daniel J. O’Keefe*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


The purpose of this paper is to analyze the conceptual relationships among the argument forms embodied in a number of message variations that have figured prominently in persuasion research. The central claim is that one relatively simple argumentative contrast underlies a great many of the—seemingly different—message variations that have been studied by persuasion researchers. This underlying unity has been obscured, however, precisely because persuasion researchers have not been attentive to the fundamental argumentative structures of the messages under investigation. The persuasion research of central interest is studies of different kinds of appeals based on consequences or outcomes—the kind of argument Perelman termed a “pragmatic argument” and Walton labeled “argument from consequences.” Although not anywhere explicitly acknowledged previously, a good deal of social-scientific persuasion research has addressed the question of the relative persuasiveness of different forms of consequence-based arguments, and specifically the differential persuasive effects of variation in the evaluative extremity of the consequences invoked by such arguments. Specifically, findings from a variety of different lines of research—self-monitoring, consideration of future consequences, regulatory focus, individualism-collectivism, argument quality—all buttress the conclusion that consequence-based arguments emphasizing relatively more desirable consequences of the advocated action are likely to be more persuasive than are arguments emphasizing relatively less desirable consequences. And research on fear appeals has found that threats perceived as more severe (i.e., more undesirable) make for more effective persuasive appeals than do threats perceived as less severe (less undesirable). So consequences that are evaluated more extremely (more desirable consequences of adopting the advocated action, or more undesirable consequences of failing to adopt the advocated action) make for more persuasive appeals than do consequences that are less extremely evaluated. That all these different lines of research address the same underlying phenomenon would not have been easy to see without closely considering the underlying argumentative structure of these appeals—but once seen, the common thread is obvious: Persuasion researchers have confirmed, over and over again, that the persuasiveness of consequence-based arguments is affected by the evaluative extremity of the depicted consequences. The research to date does add something beyond this unsurprising generalization, because it identifies various substantively different kinds of outcomes whose evaluations might vary. But these substantive variations represent different surface manifestations of an underlying argumentative unity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationArgumentation Library
PublisherSpringer Nature
Number of pages16
StatePublished - 2012

Publication series

NameArgumentation Library
ISSN (Print)1566-7650
ISSN (Electronic)2215-1907


  • Argument Quality
  • Desirable Consequence
  • Persuasive Message
  • Regulatory Focus
  • Underlying Variation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Law
  • Philosophy
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Language and Linguistics

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