POLICY AND POLITICS: Rational vs alternative reasoning – what ordinary people choose

POLICY AND POLITICS: Rational vs alternative reasoning – what ordinary people choose

Markus Holdo, PerOla Öberg and Simon Magnusson

This section of Discover Society is provided in collaboration with the journal, Policy and Politics. It is curated by Sarah Brown.


Pundits, lobbyists, politicians, and experts often dominate political debates. However, while they are trained to persuade viewers and listeners, shape public opinion, and influence political decision-makers, their debating skills are not necessarily matched by tangible knowledge, nor by a concern about the interests and views of ordinary citizens. Increasingly, political scientists have come to see the lack of inclusion of diverse perspectives in the public conversation as a major democratic problem.

But how, then, could our public discussions become more inclusive and responsive to ordinary citizens? To this question, political theorists have given two very different answers.

First, some have reasoned that we need to become more open to a variety of forms of speaking and reasoning. In particular, they argue, many people that are marginalized in public discourse do not express their views in ways that we might recognize as “rational argumentation.” They appeal to emotions, not rationality, and use their own experiences and personal anecdotes rather than evidence and reasons to justify their claims. Advocates of this first view therefore claim that to make public conversations more democratic requires that we adjust (or “lower”) the standards for what can count as a legitimate form of public reasoning.

The second answer suggests the opposite. Public reasoning should be based on evidence and rational arguments to avoid a situation where any view is regarded equally valid and where people can just match verifiable facts with their own “alternative facts.” Advocates of this second view think that it is norms of reason-giving that make it possible for ordinary people to demand that those with more knowledge and power answer questions and justify their views. Making discussions more democratic therefore requires a firmer insistence on upholding standards for public reasoning.

Which of these views is correct? In a recent study, we tested both views by analyzing how ordinary people make their views heard by decision-makers. Do they tell stories, or do they express their views through rational argumentation?

To conduct our test, we used a collection of 1,033 letters that ordinary citizens had sent to the Swedish minister for integration between 2011 and 2016. These contained the views of ordinary people – people who were not invited to give their opinions on TV shows or in newspapers. Three fourths of the letters expressed criticism of the government’s immigration policy or immigration in general, while other letters expressed support or could not be classified as either critical or supportive.

But why letters to the minister for integration? One reason is that few groups have claimed so loudly that their views were ignored as those who wanted their country to reject more refugees and other immigrants. In Sweden, it was common up until 2015 to associate critique of immigration with the far right. Most people, and most of public discourse, supported the relatively immigration-friendly policy of the government. In fact, when the government changed this policy in 2015 it was not in response to shifts in public opinion. On the contrary, public opinion only changed, becoming slightly more in favor of a more restrictive immigration policy, after the government declared its policy change. The letters we examined were written during a period in which those who were critical of Sweden’s comparatively generous immigration policy felt, not without reason, that their views were largely ignored in both public discourse and policy-making.

An additional reason for studying these letters is the common view that people who favor more restrictive immigration policies are particularly prone to basing their reasoning on emotions and personal experience, as opposed to rational argumentation on the basis of widely accepted sources of information. Critics of immigration are commonly said to be nostalgic, resentful, and angry. If people who hold marginalized views engage in other, non-rational, reasoning than those with mainstream views, such differences should be particularly visible in our sample of letters to the minister of immigration, which included both criticism and support.

So how did citizens express their views? Our study found three important results. Firstly, few people told stories and relied on anecdotal evidence to explain and support their views. Of all the letters we analyzed, only 11 percent contained anything resembling a story or anecdote. By contrast, almost half supported their claims with conventional sources, such as research or media reports.

Secondly, people who were critical of the government’s migration and integration policies did not use anecdotal evidence more frequently than other letter-writers.

Thirdly, even in cases where people used stories, these did not replace rational argumentation. Instead, people used personal stories to underline their first-hand knowledge or, conversely, to point out the minister’s lack of first-hand knowledge. For example, one person portrayed the minister as incompetent since he lacked experience of “what goes on outside the government building.” By contrast, the letter-writer, “an unemployed person,” was “tired” of every year being worse than the last and argued that the minister needed to shift priorities to improve the living conditions of Swedish citizens.

Our study thus suggested that not even those most widely claimed to be irrational storytellers preferred anecdotal evidence to reasons and conventional sources of evidence.

These findings may seem surprising, but they actually confirm similar results from previous research. For example, one previous study showed that the way people expressed themselves in discussions had little to do with status and position. We found that it also seemed to have little to do with whether people’s views were mainstream or extreme. People who felt that their views were not taken seriously may have even more reason to make an effort to support their views with reasons.

This seems to indicate that making public deliberation more inclusive of diverse points of view requires making it more, not less, reason-based.

At the same time, expressing one’s view is one thing, making others’ listen is another. Our study did not examine whether people actually have equal chances to be heard when using “rational” argumentation. Previous research indicates, in fact, that this is not the case. The views of women, ethnic minorities, working class and other groups with a history of subordination are systematically devalued in comparison to the views of other groups – even when their views and arguments are identical. More research is thus needed to examine which strategies could help make public deliberation more inclusive. Our study suggests, however, that accepting alternative forms of arguments and alternative evidence would have less effect than one might think. Even as political debates and alarming news reports suggest otherwise, most people still seem to respect norms of rational reasoning.


Markus Holdo is a researcher at the Institute for Housing and Urban Research at Uppsala University, Sweden. PerOla Öberg  is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Government at Uppsala University. Simon Magnusson is a doctoral student in culture and education at Södertörn University, Sweden.