© Hans L Zetterberg

Sedan Mona Sahlin valdes till socialdemokraternas partiledare har hon talat ofta och intensivt om ”rättvisa.” Det är ett laddat ord, särskilt som svenskar inte kan skilja på jämlikhet och rättvisa. Rättvisa i socialdemokraternas land är att alla ska ha lika. Rättvisa är schysst, renhårigt, reko, likaberättigat, demokratiskt, jämbördigt.

Rättvisans vokabulär har en påtagligt stark emotionell innebörd; oftast förmedlar dess ord mer känslor än sakligt innehåll. När motgångar inträffar så laddar man upp rättviseordets känslobatteri genom att framhärda att rättvisa innebär att inga ska få mindre än de är vana vid; alla sådana förändringar är orättvisa!

För regeringar som är tvungna att ha med verkligheten att göra innebär rättvisa oftast en kalkyl: det är rättvist är att den som satsat mer ska ha mer. Sådant kan man beräkna. Kalkyler är nödvändiga i allt förnuftigt tänkande. Också allmänheten kan vara förnuftig. Flertalet vanliga medborgare brukar faktiskt hålla med om att det (också) är rättvist att den som satsat mer ska ha mer.

Den offentliga sektorns många kvinnor är partiernas nyckel till valseger 2010. Skall de följa Sahlins rättvise-ordsvall? Eller skall de följa Reinfelt-Borgs och deras allianskamraters skattesänkningar och bygga upp ett sparkapital? Skall de utnyttja deras lagändringar och köpa hushållstjänster billigt, få möjligheter att byta arbetsgivare, eller t.o.m. starta eget. Skall de åtminstone uppskatta att andra får dessa möjligheter? Det första är ett enkelt val att följa känslans kompass. De senare är krävande val som bara sker om man gör rationella kalkyler.

Samhällsvetenskapen har en del att säga om emotiva och rationella val och deras roll i opinionsbildning. Om det skriver jag en stump i min kommande bok ”The Many-Splendored Society”. Här är ett utdrag ur manuskriptet sådant det föreligger idag. /HLZ


Hans L Zetterberg

Emotive and Rational Choice

Emotive components of symbols can be positive, i.e. releasing pleasure. For most people the word "garden" is such a symbol. Some other symbols have negative emotive charges and release fear, the word "thunder" for example. These are common emotive meanings. Other emotive charges are idiosyncratic. If the name "Bill" — even as the brand of a bookcase — gives you a sense of boredom it might be because a Bill is one of the greatest bores among your acquaintances. However, regardless how boring they may be, most people give their own name a positive emotive charge.

Two important discoveries in the everyday use of symbols should be formalized. The first is that humans register an emotive meaning quicker than an executive meaning. For example, in any text a reader will notice his or her own name a little more readily than other names. Even names similar to your own may be seen faster than other names. Psychologists have shown that this holds also in the laboratory when words are flashed on a screen (Pelham, Mirenberg & Jones 2002).

The second discovery is that negative emotive charges in symbols are intrinsically more potent than positive emotive charges. Loss in one stock on the stock market usually gives an investor more grief than the pleasure of a gain of the same amount in another stock (Kahneman & Tversky 1979). The names of companies in which the investors have losing stocks have bigger negative emotive meaning to them, while the names of the company where they have winning stocks acquire an additional, but smaller, positive emotive charge. To realize a loss on the market takes more effort for an investor than to take home a gain of the same amount. In a similar vein, a soccer player finds that missed chances and boos from the public in a match are not fully compensated by an applause at the same decibel and length when he scores.

The emotive components in language make choice easy. We choose quickly according to them, giving somewhat greater weight to negative than to positive feelings. Suppose someone asks "Do you want to stay in the garden during the thunder storm?" You say "No" because the negatively charged "thunder" outweighs the positively charged "garden." No requirement to reason here. You do not have to consider the quality of the shelter in the lovely garden, nor the risk of becoming wet from the rain before you have to sit down for lunch.

It is only when no distinctive emotive components are present, or when they are suppressed, that man starts reasoning and makes so-called rational choices. They take time and effort. It would become rather unbearable if choices had to be elicited by reason every time a choice has to be made. However, many people, as we know, make important decisions on the basis of "love at first sight" or "never trust a stranger."

The rules of emotive and rational choice can be summarized in a proposition with three parts: (a) In scanning a symbolic environment or part thereof man first reacts to the symbols, if any, that have emotive charges and then to the executive symbols, (b) In this reaction, negative emotive symbols have greater effect than positive emotive symbols, (c) If all symbols are equally executive, i.e. emotive meanings are spread evenly or are absent, man exercises rational choice.

The healthy life and the favorable circumstances, which are such a large part of existence, are not what we first notice. We pay more attention to sickness, separation, sudden deaths, trapped minors, sinking ships, crimes, toppled regimes, et cetera. 

Rational choice is the mechanism that always applies, such has been the message from important economists since the days of John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern (1944) and Kenneth J. Arrow (1951). Rational choice theory has has since become important in political science (see, for example Peter C. Ordeshook 1986 on how political science used its early formulations). Under the label "public choice" scholars such as Buchanan and  Tullock (1962) merged a broad knowledge of democratic politics with some rational choice as used in economics. In sociology, James S. Coleman (1990) has effectively applied rational choice to most every aspect of society.

The conclusions of rational choice theory appear valid, provided we see them as special cases that fall under clause (c) in the above proposition. The general case is a more brutal insight: the emotive choice is the default mechanism for mankind. However, when the language that presents the choice is stripped of emotive meanings, rational choice is the only alternative available. Rational choice requires more effort than an emotive choice that is more automatic. Rational choice is also difficult, for, as its theorists have made clear, It is not easy to define rational behavior on the part of any one person when that very rationality depend on the probable behavior of others. By and large, emotional choice is hardwired into our organism while rational choice belongs in the precarious realm of human freedom.

The above knowledge is grounded not only in observations of the symbolic environment and studies of the consumption of media content, but in the physiology of our senses and the workings of our brains. The state of the art in this field of research is found in Handbook of Affective Sciences (Davidson, Scherer & Goldsmith 2003).

The distinction between rational choice and emotive choice was actually known at the beginning of our chronology in the form of a parable, an old literary form that presents comparisons to teach a lesson. In this parable (Luke 15:11-32) a father treats the deviant Prodigal Son with an emotive choice, while the well-behaved son is treated with rational choices.

Emotive and Rational Aspects of Journalism

The news media thrive on the need of human beings to scan their environment. "News" is what is caught by Normal Scanning, a theorem that tells to what we pay attention. Publics scan for (a) utterances that present opportunities or threats for them; (b) they scan for whatever is highly or lowly evaluated, particularly opinions about people such as themselves, and (c) scan for the prescriptive language in current use, particularly for any norms that may apply to themselves. The usual and the stable do not make news. The latter is essential stuff for historians and scientists but not for journalists.

Furthermore, negative emotive news turn up first when readers and viewers scan their media. There is an irresistible temptation in mass media to create attention and large editions by focusing on negative emotive symbols in big headlines, giving readers an emotive choice rather than a rational analysis of news.

Emotive and Rational Aspects of Opinion Formation

Daniel Yankelovich (1991) discovered that practically every mature public opinion has passed different stages. When an opinion has passed through all of them, politicians, business strategists, editorial writers, PR-consultants, and leaders of voluntary associations can trust them. An initial immature emotional choice has then in successive steps become a mature rational choice, also supported by new emotive arguments.

I will illustrate this process by the shifting opinions that lead Sweden to join the European Union after a referendum in 1994. (I had the opportunity to personally follow these events in the opinion climate in detail.)

Sweden, of course, is a part of the geographical and historic Europe, but the country had rejected an earlier opening to join the European Union when neighboring Denmark became a member. Let us take the opinions about joining as an illustration of the Yankelovich stages that public opinion passes through. There are seven steps:

1. Awareness of an issue. As part of the general internationalizations of the late twentieth century many Swedes in leading positions realized that they had became increasingly dependent on other parts of the world, and particularly on those countries already in the European Union.

2. Sense that the issue gets on the public agenda. Openings to join the European Union are far between. The country had to decide before the EU-train with new members had left the station. The next chance lay many years in the future. This insight was well established in government circles.

3. Hunting for solutions. The initial emotive reaction of the majority of the general public was that a change was unnecessary. The country could cope with internationalization by staying outside the European Union but become more European anyway by increasing its already institutionalized cooperation and integration with its Nordic neighbors. Or, the country could cope with the internationalization by intensifying its work in the United Nations, which is more encompassing than the European Union.

4. Wishful thinking. At this next stage unrealistic emotive arguments abound. Some say that Sweden has a better welfare system than the other countries in Europe so there is no need to join. Others say that Swedes by joining can reshape the European Union so that it becomes more socialist like Sweden.

5. Working out realistic choices. At this stage rational choice begin to enter. Respondents in polls take a little longer time to answer an interviewer's questions. Most people begin to realize that there are clear advantages and clear disadvantages of joining, and they began to assess the pros and the cons, usually without abandoning their initial emotive choice.

6. Cerebral solution. The rational choices now dominate over the emotive ones. On the pro-side a sense crystallizes that pro-arguments, and persons and institutions that support the pro-side, are the better ones. On the con side the opposite sense crystallizes. At this stage of cognitive decision-making the polls in Sweden show even sides. But many who are opposed or uncertain tell the pollsters that they, too, think that the country will eventually join the European Union. This fact hints at the outcome of the referendum.

7. Mature judgment. At this stage the pros are willing to intellectually and emotionally sacrifice the amount of sovereignty needed for a future in the European Union. And the anti-EUs are intellectually and emotionally ready to give up economic and other advantages of the union in order for their country to stay outside and be independent. These rational choices, in fact, begin to achieve new emotive support; both sides think their choice is best for their children. And both can support their views in debates and conversations also on days when media present news negative to their views.


Public opinion is shaky and unstable unless it reaches the maturity of the seventh stage. In the Swedish referendum fewer pros than contras reached this stage. A political decision to join the European Union was made, but the majority opinion recorded by the referendum was not mature. For half a decade after the referendum, the Swedish public was more negative to the European Union than any other public in a member country. The pro-EU forces won the referendum but lost, at least temporarily, their cause.

The Swedish referendum of 1994 concerned, among other issues, whether Sweden ought to join the EU in order to influence its development. However, the public had few mature opinions regarding the Union in respect to a common currency, defense policy, veto rights in the Council of Ministers, or whether the EU’s future would be a supra-state or an inter-state organization. Some of these questions never reached the first stage of awareness, while others got stuck in the search for solutions and wishful thinking (stages 3 and 4). The polls reported in the media are unreliable at these stages. They record mostly emotive choices, not rational ones.

A similar caution must be expressed about polls of party or candidate standing between elections. The standard polling question "If the election were held today, which party (or whom) would you vote for?" suffers from the fact that no election is held today. Only during an election campaign are most voters pressed toward rational choices. Even then they may be victims of the emotive alternatives presented by the political spin doctors and by mass media that get more of their income and audience from being emotive rather than analytic and rational.



Coleman, James S., 1990. Foundations of Social Theory, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Davidson, Richard J, Scherer, Klaus R. and Goldsmith, H. Hill (editors), 2003. Handbook of Affective Sciences, Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

Jones, John. T., Pelham, Brett W., Mirenberg, Matthew. C., & Hetts, J. J. 2002. ”Name letter preferences are not merely mere exposure: Implicit egotism as self-regulation”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 170-177.

Kahneman, Daniel., & Tversky, Amos, 1979. “Prospect theory: An analysis of decisions under risk”, Econometrica, 47, 313-327.

Ordeshook, Peter C., 1986. Game Theory and Political Theory : an Introduction , Cambridge University Press, New York, NY. 1986.

Yankelovich, Daniel, 1991. Coming to Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY.