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.