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Funk: The dual influence of self-interest and societal interest in public opinion

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Funk. 2000. The dual influence of self-interest and societal interest in public opinion. Political Research Quarterly 53 (March): 37-62.

Argument

Self-interest and societal interest both affect the opinions of people on issues, with societal interest mitigating the influence of self-interest.

Funk presents a dichotomy between self-interest and societal interest, and says that rational choice typically explains even benevolent actions as resulting from self-interest rather than genuine societal interest. Funk argues that strong evidence for societal interest would be when citizens sacrifice self-interest in the public interest. Societal interest is likely to underlie political attitudes, she says, because individuals often differentiate between the public and private and so see little impact of government on their own well being, they often rely on socio-tropic information when making decisions, and that collective-benefit can be a motive for political behavior.

Study

  • Using the 1990-1992 National Election Survey, Funk examined whether societal interest value helps explain attitude positions later on.
  • Hypothesis: The more societal interested are expected to show greater support for government programs and services than the less societal-inclined.
  • Funk argues that strong evidence of societal interest occurs when people adopt positions in support of societal interest at odds with their own personal utility. This can occur when people are willing to
    1. sacrifice a personal benefit or
    2. bear the cost of the policy.

Results

Those with low societal interest were less likely to support programs if they do not receive a benefit than if they do, which supports a self-interested model. Societal interest tended to decrease the link between self-interest and policy support. Individuals with high societal interest were less likely to support a position when it benefited them than those with low societal interest, while the opposite occurred when the position would not benefit them.

Conclusions

  • Self-interest is important in the decision making process, but it is moderated by greater societal interest.
  • Individuals are often willing to support benefits to others.
  • Individuals are more willing to sacrifice personal costs than personal benefits.

Comments and Criticism

  • Is it possible to be societal inclined and believe that more welfare programs or government services are bad for the general good of society? The study appears to argue for a single position being societal inclined, but this might not be the case.
  • What happens when citizens actually vote on these issues, for example in referendums, rather than just supporting positions in the abstract? Could self-interest become more important?