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Chong, Citrin, and Conley: When self-interest matters

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Chong, Citrin, and Conley. 2001. When self-interest matters. Political Psychology 22: 541-57.


Those individuals with a clear self-interest on an issue hold positions according to this interest while those without a clear self-interest are more likely to be swayed by sociotropic arguments.

The authors argue that self-interest has often been shown to have only a weak impact on policy orientation in past studies, which they find puzzling given the centrality it plays in so many arguments about voting behavior. They define self-interest as "the tangible, relatively immediate, personal or family benefits of a policy," (542) taking a narrow approach. They argue that in instances where people have a clear stake, or when they are primed to think in a self-interested manner, they will tend to behave more self-interestedly. When they are primed to behave sociotropically, or have less of a stake in an issue, they are more likely to be swayed by values.


A random sample of Americans were asked using a telephone survey about Social Security reform, the home mortgage interest tax deduction and health care benefits. Also, they were asked about issues related to their objective self-interest in the issue and then their subjective evaluation of their self-interest. Some individuals received self-interest priming prompts, some received sociotropic priming prompts, and some received no prompt before answering the survey questions.


  • The respondents' subjective measures of self-interest were very well correlated with their objective self-interest but not other measures like partisanship or ideology.
  • Those respondents with a clear stake in the issue (including homeowners on the mortgage issue, cohabiters on the domestic partner issue, and the elderly on the social security issue) were more likely to behave in a self-interested manner and were only reinforced by self-interested priming. Sociotropic priming had little impact in changing their positions.
  • Those without a clear stake were more likely to support issues out of a sociotropic interest, which was especially observable in the case of the mortgage issue, where non-home owners position swung wildly given different prompts


The clearer the stakes, the less individuals can be manipulated by symbolic appeals. Non-beneficiaries, however, may be able to be motivated through symbolic appeals, and winning coalitions may use both of these methods.

Comments and Criticism

Just as the study included separate prompts for the sociotropic response in opposite directions for the mortgage issue, they probably should have done the same for the other issues. By muddling the two directions together in the other instance, they diluted possible observations that could have been made about the impact of sociotropic cueing.