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Sears and Funk: The limited effect of economic self-interest on the political attitudes of the mass public

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Sears and Funk. 1990. The limited effect of economic self-interest on the political attitudes of the mass public. Journal of Behavioral Economics 19 (3): 247-271.


Throughout a wide range of studies, self-interest terms were only significant about a quarter of the time, and even when significant the results tended to only be of a small degree. However, self interest had significant effects when the issue has very clear and direct repercussions for the individual, especially with regards to tax policy.


Self Interest is defined as the "(1) short-to-medium term impact of an issue (or candidacy) on the (2) material well-being of the (3) individual's own personal life." (248). This does not include long term interest, social or psychological elements of well-being or group-related benefits.

Sears and Funk contrast self-interest with measures of "symbolic predisposition" like partisanship, ideology and the like. They have a theory of "symbolic politics" in which "political symbols evoke long-standing emotional responses rather than rational, self-interested calculations." (249) They argue that these are formed early in life and are stable, and so are not correlated with self-interest

Throughout the literature, with only a few exceptions, the effect of self-interest was not significantly significant or was small. However, symbolic predispositions had higher explanatory power and had higher significance levels.

Self-interest had the greatest impact on tax-payers support for tax-cut measures and public employee opposition to measures that would result in pay or job cuts. In each of these cases the interest was clear and the stakes were significant.

Self-interest may be moderated because people rarely see government as significantly impacting their personal well-being. Only in cases when the impact is clear (like taxes) does self-interest begin to become more important.

Comments and Criticism

  1. The study relies on objective measures of self-interest. What about when people subjectively view self-interest in different or even opposing manners? For example, issue around "Homer Gets a Tax Cut". Can we decide objectively for others what is their self-interest in all these cases?
  2. What if people are supporting positions out of a long-term interest?
  3. What if people act out of group interest, rather than self-interest