News and Tribune

November 2, 2012

STAWAR: Self interest or social networks?

Local columnist

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Next Tuesday is the big day. After what has seemed like an eternity of campaigning, Election Day is finally upon us. But even at this late date, media pundits and political scientists are still seeking to discover what makes voters tic. Self-interest has long been considered the premier factor in voter decision making, but more recently social networks have been thought to play the primary role.

Social scientist have repeatedly demonstrated that the so-called “Economic Man,”  who in theory makes choices, entirely based on rational self- interest, is largely a myth. Millionaires back nominees who promise to raise their taxes,  while people living on governmental entitlements vigorously support candidates who promise to cut such benefits. Many people seem to choose a candidate based on a single emotionally charged issue or on the basis of that elusive quality of “likability.”

Most political consultants now believe that social networks, especially online ones, can strongly influence voting behavior and are indispensable to campaigns. A study published in the  journal “Nature” reported  that a special “get out the vote” Facebook posting that showed pictures of friends, who said they had already voted, generated 340,000 additional votes in the 2010 congressional elections. It’s less clear to what extent social media can influence which candidate you decide to support. One survey indicates that unsolicited political postings rank among the top three things that irritate people on Facebook.

According to Harvard political scientist Robert Putman, back in the 1950s and 1960s  people belonged to a lot more social, fraternal, and civic groups. It seemed like my parents were always going off to various meetings (Mother’s Club, Band Parents, Fire Practice, Canasta  and Po-Ken-O clubs, The Eagles, The Moose Lodge, the American Legion, The Oddfellows, Eastern Star, etc.). Even I, anti-social as I was,  was  on a Little League team, belonged to a church club and the Cub Scouts, as well as a youth group sponsored by the Free Masons. Most of these organizations had overlapping memberships. Many people seemed solidly embedded in a social matrix that helped create a common social identity — one that often included a shared sense of what was in their self-interest.  

To a large extent deciding who to vote for can be considered a moral decision. The late Harvard scholar Lawrence Kohlberg created a theory of how moral reasoning develops, based on the work of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget.  

Kohlberg's theory places self-interest and social networks within a common context. He believed that there were three basic levels of moral development.

The first level (the Pre-Conventional) stresses maximizing self-interest. A lot of political advertising aims at this level, especially those ads  featuring scare tactics, implying that something bad will happen to you, if you vote for a certain candidate.  

The second level, called the Conventional  Level, underscores the importance of being seen as a good person, obeying laws, and  conforming to social conventions. This is the social networking level and is represented by campaign activities that employ peer pressure to try to influence your vote.

 The final level (Post-Conventional) emphasizes the notion that humans have a mutual obligation to work toward the common good and that there are universal ethical principles to consider whenever we act. This level can occasionally be seen in campaign communications that seek to inspire voters to work for the benefit of all, even if it requires breaking with convention or some self-sacrifice. Most of us don’t progress beyond the Conventional Level and this may account for why we seldom see the lofty appeals of Level Three in  most elections. The audience that possess that level of moral reasoning evidently is just too limited.       

 Elections always make me nostalgic, since I grew up in a fairly political household in Southern Illinois. Looking back I can readily see the importance and influence of both self-interest and social networks. My father was a staunch member of the steelworker’s union and took their political platform to heart. Back then he saw the union fighting for higher wages, extended benefits, and better working conditions, all of which directly affected him. My father was also, however, a volunteer fireman and because of that, my parents belonged to The City Organization, which was sort of a cross between a social club and the local political machine. As a kid, I thought the best part of the City Organization were the tons of shrimp and peppermint ice-cream  they served at the annual Christmas party.

Through the City Organization my mother  worked in every election, picking up and driving people to the polls. In the 1960s political parties still had separate organizations for women. My mother eventually became the president of our county's  “Ladies Society” as it was called. As county president, she had the honor of riding in the lead car in the governor's caravan from our county to the state capitol in Springfield. This motorcade across the state was intended to drum up support for the governor’s  re-election campaign. He handily won the election, possibly because he had been voted the most photogenic governor in the country. He went on to chair a famous presidential commission and later was appointed to a federal judgeship. Shortly thereafter, he initiated what was to become an Illinois gubernatorial tradition, by being indicted and convicted on 17 counts of fraud, conspiracy, and perjury.

Even today it looks like we're still pretty far away from voting on the basis of post-conventional morality. Most of us are still trying to figure out what is really in our own best interest as well as who our friends really are. Regardless of all these possible influences, don’t forget to vote.     

Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at