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Social Networks vs Self-Interest

November 2, 2012
by Terry Stawar
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Is moral development a factor in voting behavior?
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After what has seemed like an eternity of campaigning,   Election Day is finally upon us next week. But even at this late date,  social 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 a primary role.

Research has 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 chose 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 on-line 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 1950’s and 1960’s  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, antisocial as I was,  was  on a little league team,  belong to a church club and the Cub Scouts, as well as a youth group sponsored by  the Freemasons. 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.




Thank you for sharing your very informative speech. I gather learnings through it about social networking. Keep on posting.


Terry Stawar

President/CEO (LifeSpring, Inc.)

Terry Stawar


Terry L. Stawar, EdD, is President and CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems, a community behavioral...

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