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Ratner and Miller: The norm of self-interest and its effects on social action

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Ratner and Miller. 2001. The norm of self-interest and its effects on social action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81:5-16.

In Brief

Whether you support an issue and whether you act on it are conceptually distinct: You will act on your beliefs (e.g. go to a meeting or sign a petition) only if you have a stake in the issue. It's not just that you need a stake to make it rationally "worth it;" it's more that you lack standing (in the legal sense), so you feel that it's not your place to get involved in the issue. Were you to act without a stake in the issue, you would fear (rightly, it turns out) that others would respond disapprovingly. Thus, our actions are guided by a "norm of self-interest"--we don't act unless we have a vested interest because there's a norm against meddling in others' affairs. These conclusions, according to the authors, explain why attitudes predict behavior better among vested than among nonvested actors.


The paper summarizes four separate studies. The first two are interesting but so methodologically horrendous that you will appreciate this article more if you skip them. For completeness, however, I include a summary of them, followed by a summary of studies 3 and 4, which are far more persuasive.

Studies 1 and 2

Studies 1 and 2: The authors give a series of hypothetical surveys to undergraduates, asking whether they would approve of a government health plan that funded abortions, whether they would act in support of their opinion (i.e. go to meetings and such), how they would expect others to react if they did so, and how they would view others who did so. Operationally, you have a "stake" in the issue only if you are female and in favor. (Yes, that's right; the authors make the curious assumption that women opposing the plan have no stake, and men never have a stake.)

Though men and women are equally likely to favor the plan, pro-plan women are more likely to go to meetings and such than other groups. Also, pro-plan women are more likely to expect their contributions at the meeting to be well-received, and they are less fearful that others will react suspiciously (or angrily) to their attendance.

In a separate questionnaire, respondents indicate what they would think about one of four situations: a male vs female going to a meeting that is pro- vs anti- the plan. This questionnaire's results were consistent with the previous one: people react with anger or confusion to (1) men supporting either side and (2) women opposing the plan.

Several critiques of this part of the paper are listed at the end of this summary.

Studies 3 and 4

In studies 3 and 4, volunteers are informed that Congress is considering cutting funding that promises to cure a common gastrointestinal problem that afflicts only one sex (the experimenters alter which sex is afflicted). If your sex is afflicted, you have a vested interest. In a hypothetical questionnaire, respondents indicate their thoughts on this cut and how they would feel about engaging in some activism to fight it.

Consistent with expectations, vested and nonvested groups opposed the cut at similar rates. Interestingly, vested groups reported that they would feel much more comfortable attending a meeting or rally, they would expect their contributions at a meeting to be more valued, and they had less fear that others would question their motivations.

In study 4, the authors manipulate vestedness even further. Respondents are invited to undertake various actions to support either Princeton Opponents of Proposition 174 or Princeton Men and Women Opposed to Proposition 174. As expected, including both "Men and Women" in the title reduced the participation gap in vested and unvested groups considerably, since it allowed unvested groups to feel that their contributions were welcome.

Finally, study 4 showed that unvested groups were much more willing to get involved if they could do so anonymously. They were more willing to take an anonymous survey than to sign a (public) petition, even though the survey was more time consuming. It's not that unvested supporters lack an "approach motivation," it's that unvested supporters have an "avoidance motivation." In other words, it's not that actors rationally choose not to support a cause they believe in, it's that gaffe-averse humans prefer not to be seen as meddling in others' affairs.

Comments and Criticism

What does this tell us about deliberative democracy and voting? It seems that active, public deliberation might attract only those with a vested interest, while everybody would be willing to cast an anonymous vote.

If this norm exists, is it an element of human nature or is it merely a corollary to liberalism? Recall that "the right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins."

Comments and Criticism about Studies 1 and 2

The first two studies are premised on a double-barreled question: You have to support (1) the idea of government-funded health care and (2) abortion. The authors fail to recognize this problem, which causes them to overlook something important: Anybody who pays taxes or receives medical care has a fundamental stake in this issue.

Also, the authors fail to consider that a "self-interested" stake might be more than the ability for a woman to receive an abortion; those with religious attitudes might see their political activities as directly influencing their own salvation.

The majority of the questionnaire's respondents favor the proposed plan. Perhaps, then, gaffe-fearing humans who know that their views are in the minority are all the more likely to expect negative social consequences if they publicly express their opposition to the plan. From the data in the article, we cannot adequately rule out the possibility that it is the pro-abortion majority causing the pro-life minority to expect social disapproval.

Finally, if we really expected social disapproval for acting in behalf of causes that we have no stake in, why do we observe the Moral Majority, Sierra Club v Morton (p 6 in the article), philanthropy, pro-life organizations, and so on?