Pathos, Where Art Thou? Intelligence Analysis and Ethical Persuasion


“If you would persuade, speak of interest, not reason.”

Benjamin Franklin


While teaching a class on intelligence and analysis last year, I asked my graduate students why the media’s shocking picture of the drowned Syrian boy seemed to have such an incredible effect on policy, whereas all of the other information had not. Their answer was immediate and insightful — “pathos,” or emotional appeal. When I asked them whether or not there are many examples of pathos incorporated into the finished intelligence reports they analyzed for class, the answer was a definitive “no, but we should carefully consider ways to use more.”

Centuries ago, Aristotle divided the means of persuasion, or appeals, into three categories — ethos, pathos, and logos. While he personally preferred the power of logos (logical appeal), the other two appeals surged to the forefront in everyday argumentative discourse.

The media and advertisers realized that the most important type of persuasive appeal to popular culture was through an abundant use of pathos, sometimes sprinkled with a dose of ethos (ethical or character appeal). The incorporation of colorful adjectives, vivid visuals, and the addition of senior “experts” that offer an opinion are examples of the use of pathos and ethos in these forums.  Each appeal is exploited in articles and commercials to gain readership and retain interest in an information crowded world.

Fundamentally, Aristotle believed that the goal of argumentative communication is to persuade your audience that your ideas are either valid or more valid than someone else’s.  This is particularly important to consider in the context of the national security enterprise. The value of an intelligence product, a form of argumentative communication, competes with the value of other sources of information and must be persuasive to cause any positive effect in foreign or domestic policy. Ultimately, analysts are guided to produce intelligence in order to ethically persuade an audience, in their case a senior decision-maker, while conforming to the analytic tradecraft standards described in Intelligence Community Directive 203 (ICD 203). ICD 203 is a type of policy document formalized by the Director of National Intelligence that describes the core principles of intelligence analysis. It initially defines five analytic standards. The fifth standard further directs analysts to implement and exhibit nine more tradecraft standards that promote a common ethic of the profession and guide analytic improvement.

According to Nancy Wood and James Miller, while unethical arguers attempt to manipulate through language choice and exaggerations — each an example of the use of pathos — ethical arguers attempt to argue logically from a strong sense of personal integrity — in other words, through the use of logos. The latter is exactly what ICD 203 promulgates to the intelligence community, particularly through the application of the sixth tradecraft standard. Congressional reform documents that have influenced different parts of the intelligence community specifically refer to the significance of using evidence-based reasoning, key elements of a logical argument, to support an analytic assessment.

How Does This Affect the Intelligence Community’s Ability to Persuade?

Since the persuasive value of any type of information may inherently effect the customer’s ability to acquire, retain, and retrieve that information as knowledge, the intelligence community might be fighting a uniquely difficult battle to gain traction with their primary audience. National security customers are busy people and receive a significant amount of information from a diverse spectrum of sources that they may or may not remember to effectively use. During times of stress when quick decisions are required, many people naturally fall back on their personal experience and recall memory to influence their choices. Furthermore, some may not even consider intelligence as an important source to study. In 2008, former Assistant Director of Central Intelligence for Analysis and Production Mark Lowenthal lamented that members of Congress had not even bothered to read the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction before voting to authorize the use of force against Iraq.

Until 2015, the intelligence community had not formally emphasized the importance of visuals in their analytic production. The modified version of ICD 203 included a new, ninth tradecraft standard, guiding analysts to effectively incorporate visual information. This is important because visuals are one of the only methods for the intelligence community to employ a type of pathos as long as they retain clarity, objectivity, and properly support a claim within a given context.

While the credibility of the intelligence agency and the unique value of their information sources can influence the reader through ethos, the effectiveness of that appeal depends on the customer. Many decision-makers assume their position after decades of work in specialized fields. Reaching a new position means suddenly gaining access to intelligence and coming to grips with any pre-conditioned views or stereotypes.

The intelligence community inherently stresses the importance of logos and ethos through their analytic tradecraft, but it is unclear if that combination will be enough to offset the unique power and prevalence of pathos, especially in a globalized world that is conditioned to it. If the intelligence community assumes that most of its customers are more like Aristotle and less like the masses, then they might retain their ability to inform and ethically persuade. But if they are more like the masses, then the intelligence community might need to spend more time researching Benjamin Franklin, the master marketer.


Dr. Brian Holmes is a faculty member at the National Intelligence University in Washington, DC. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not imply endorsement by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government. He would like to acknowledge all of the graduate students that toiled their way through his MCR 607 course at NIU — your hard work was not in vain.

Image: Frank C. Mueller, CC