The Dual Influence of Self-Interest and Societal Interest in Public Opinion

By Funk, Carolyn L. | Political Research Quarterly, March 2000 | Go to article overview

The Dual Influence of Self-Interest and Societal Interest in Public Opinion


Funk, Carolyn L., Political Research Quarterly


Evidence that political attitudes are influenced by a concern for societal interest has been viewed with skepticism since expressions of societal interest could reflect a disguised self interest. More convincing evidence of societal interest motivations requires citizens to sacrifice self-interest in public policy opinions. The present study examines the influence of both self and societal interest in order to test whether self-sacrifice underlies public policy opinions. A value commitment to societal interest is expected to explain support for government-sponsored solutions to societal needs and, further, to moderate reliance on self-interest. Using data from the NES 1990-92 panel survey, OLS regression is used to evaluate opinion in three different policy areas. Results showed that a societal interest value has consequences for policy attitudes that are independent of self-interest. Further, a societal interest value commitment tended to moderate the connection between policy preference and self-interest. These results suggest that citizens incorporate both self and societal interest considerations when evaluating public policy proposals. Citizens are not completely selfless, however. Citizens seem more willing to engage in self-sacrifice when that sacrifice involves giving over benefits to others than when it involves giving up benefits to themselves. Under important limiting conditions, then, citizens sometimes set aside personal interest in favor of societal interest when making political judgments.

To what extent is the public concerned with anything other than the self when making judgments on public policy matters? Does public opinion attend to public needs and concerns? The relationship between private and public concerns is central to a long-standing debate on the antecedents of public opinion. Several early thinkers, most notably Thomas Hobbes, argue that the chief motivation of mankind is self-interest (Mansbridge 1990; Monroe 1991). While there are a number of dissenters, many have accepted this premise. Rational choice theory, for example, is built on the premise that human motivation is largely self-interested (Monroe 1991; Petracca 1991). The primary alternative to self-interest in public policy opinions is a public-regarding or societal-interest motivation. Rational choice theory has typically explained benevolent actions and outcomes as resulting from the coincidence with self-interest rather than from genuine motives other than self-interest. So, greater confidence that societal interest also influences political attitudes needs to be rooted in distinguishing societal from self-interest.

The strongest evidence for societal interest in public opinion depends on citizens setting aside or sacrificing a direct self-interest in political opinions. Little has been done to test empirically whether self-sacrifice underlies public policy opinions. The present study does just that. I look, first, at whether a societal interest value orientation predicts policy positions that are independent of selfinterest effects on policy. Second, I turn to whether a value commitment to societal interest diminishes the relationship between self interest and policy attitudes. The analysis makes a distinction between cost and benefit considerations underlying self-interested policy preferences. This allows us to move beyond simply pitting self interest vs. societal interest by beginning to disentangle the components of self-interest. This study provides empirical evidence on whether individuals set aside self-interest when evaluating public policies either in terms of sacrificing personal benefits or in terms of sacrificing personal costs.

Evidence that people set aside self-interest would lend greater confidence that the relationship between societal interest value and policy positions reflects a genuine consideration for societal benefit. The structure of this test accepts the premise that self interest is a tenacious motive for political attitudes and requires any alternative motive to demonstrate that it is separate from self-interested explanations of the same attitude position. …

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