Do People Use Stories or Reasons to Support their Views?

holdo et al







Markus Holdo, Per Ola Oberg & Simon Magnusson

Political debates often become dominated by the same kind of people: pundits, lobbyists, politicians, and experts, who know how to grab people’s attention and articulate their viewpoints convincingly. These people persuade viewers and listeners, shape public opinion, and influence political decision-makers more than other people do. But debating skills are not necessarily matched by knowledge, nor by a concern about the interests and views of ordinary citizens. In that sense, it could be viewed as a democratic problem that the public conversation is usually shaped by the narrow perspectives of a privileged few.

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.

But why letters to the minister for integration? Because few groups have claimed so loudly that their views were ignored as those who wanted their country to reject more refugees and other immigrants. While Sweden’s policy on immigration became drastically more restrictive in 2015, this was not due to a change in public opinion. On the contrary, public opinion changed, becoming slightly more negative to immigration, after the government declared its policy change. For the period we examined, the view that dominated political discourse was supportive of Sweden’s immigration policy, which was comparatively generous at the time.

Few opinions have been as frequently claimed by opponents to be based on emotional and irrational reasoning as the views of critics of immigration, and this was important for our purposes., They are commonly said to be nostalgic, resentful, and angry. This fitted our purposes well since we needed a sample with both traditional, “rational” argumentation and less conventional kinds of reasoning, like anecdotal storytelling.

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 confirmed 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 would require 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 which strategies could help make public deliberation more inclusive. Our study suggests, however, that accepting alternative forms of arguments and alternative evidence is not one of them.

This blog post was originally published on the Discover Society – Policy and Politics blog on  8 January 2020.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Holdo, Markus; Öberg, PerOla & Magnusson, Simon (2019) ‘Do citizens use storytelling or rational argumentation to lobby politicians‘, Policy & Politics, DOI:

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Narratives as tools for influencing policy change [Open Access]

When the people speak – and decide: deliberation and direct democracy in the citizen assembly of Glarus, Switzerland

Public deliberation in an era of communicative plenty

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