Self-interest, symbolic attitudes, and support for public policy: A multilevel analysis

Richard R. Lau, Caroline Heldman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

61 Scopus citations


This paper examines the role of self-interest and symbolic attitudes as predictors of support for two domestic policy issues - guaranteed jobs and incomes and national health insurance - in the American National Election Survey (ANES) between 1972 and 2004. As was the case in 1976 when Sears, Lau, Tyler, and Allen (1980) first explored this topic, symbolic attitudes continue to be much more important predictors of policy attitudes than various indicators of self-interest over the 30 years we analyze. We explore this finding further to determine whether any individual/internal and external/contextual variables affect the magnitude of self-interest effects on policy support. Five possible internal moderators of self-interest effects are examined: (1) political knowledge, (2) issue publics, (3) political values, (4) social identifications, and (5) emotions, but none are found to boost the magnitude of the self-interest effect. However, we do find some evidence that contextual variables representing the social/information environment moderate the impact of self-interest on public opinion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)513-537
Number of pages25
JournalPolitical Psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2009

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Philosophy
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


  • Contextual effects
  • Government health insurance
  • Guaranteed jobs
  • Hierarchical linear models
  • Self-interest
  • Symbolic politics

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