Self-Beneficial Political Attitudes
Across a range of evolutionary relevant political domains, humans seek to advance tangible fitness-related goals.
Politics is about “who gets what, when and how” (Lasswell 1950). At the heart of politics is the regulation of access to resources and the distribution of them (Easton 1965). Politics can take place in species where individuals have interest conflicts about the rules regulating the distribution of resources and have cognitive capacities for a sense of social regularity (Petersen and Aarøe 2015). This article focuses on self-beneficial political attitudes in humans.
From an evolutionary perspective, the existence of politics across species suggests that biologically instantiated psychological mechanisms evolved through natural selection underlie political behavior. Evolutionary psychologists have mapped a wide range of domain-specific cognitive mechanisms designed to assess the distribution of costs and benefits “within and between groups from the perspective of the self” (Petersen and Aarøe 2012, p. 804). To the extent that modern political issues reflect evolutionary recurrent problems such as resource sharing with needy individuals, deterrence of exploiters, relationships with outgroups, and warfare, evolved cognitive mechanisms should be expected to shape modern political attitudes (Petersen and Aarøe 2012, p. 804). An evolutionary perspective highlights that humans are equipped with a political psychology that is ecologically rational, i.e., optimized to operate efficiently in the face of recurrent adaptive problems and maximize reproductive fitness in the ecology of ancestral life (Petersen et al. 2014).
The Classic Puzzle About the Influence of Self-Interest on Political Attitudes
In the political science literature, Thomas Hobbes, one of the founders of modern political philosophy, identified self-interest as a fundamental human motive shaping political behavior (1651/1950). The notion that individuals are self-interested optimizers is also the cardinal assumption in modern rational choice theory on political preference formation (see Chong 2013 for an overview). Importantly, in a number of studies, the influence of self-interest on policy preferences has often been relatively weak (e.g., Sears and Funk 1991). Outlining the state-of-the-art view in the political science literature, Haidt (2012, p. 100) sums up: “Many political scientists used to assume that people vote selfishly, choosing the candidate or policy that will benefit them most.” But decades of research on public opinion have led to the conclusion that self-interest is a weak predictor of policy preferences (see also Weeden and Kurzban 2014, p. 28). The limited influence of self-interest in empirical studies of political attitudes represents an important puzzle in the public opinion literature.
An Evolutionary Approach to the Concept of Self-Interest and Political Attitudes
In the political science literature, self-interest has often been defined in relatively narrow, short-term economic terms as “the tangible, relatively immediate, personal or family benefits of a policy” to avoid conceptual challenges of separating different sources of interests (Chong 2013, p. 101; see also Sears and Funk 1991). In the political science literature, scholars often emphasize this narrow conceptualization and measurement of self-interest as part of the explanation for the limited influence of self-interest found in many public opinion surveys (Chong 2013).
An evolutionary approach to the study of public opinion and preference formation highlights the relevance of a wider conceptualization and a biologically informed understanding of self-interest. From an evolutionary perspective, self-serving goals can go beyond the short-term and economic benefits (e.g., Kenrick et al. 2010; Kenrick and Griskevicius 2013; Weeden and Kurzban 2014, 2017). An evolutionary approach to political attitude formation views humans as political animals equipped with psychological mechanisms designed to solve adaptive problems and pursue tangible goals that ultimately increase survival and reproductive fitness (e.g., Weeden and Kurzban 2017, p. 75; Petersen and Aarøe 2015; Kenrick et al. 2010). As explained by Kenrick and Griskevicius (2013, p. 9), “as in the case of all other animals, natural selection has endowed modern humans with brains designed to make decisions in various domains in ways that consistently enhanced our ancestors’ odds of passing their genes to the next generation.”
Humans can increase their reproductive success by achieving a range of subsidiary typical goals representing distinct domains of adaptive behavior. The human mind is equipped with multiple domain-specific motivational systems designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems that have been recurrent over human evolutionary history and in this way advance evolved strategic goals. Typical subsidiary fitness-enhancing goals include social status, resources, affiliation, mates, and parenting (Kenrick et al. 2010; Weeden and Kurzban 2017). In this view, self-serving political attitudes include not only positions that are consistent with short-term economic interests. Rather they can reflect “a range of people’s typical goals, whether directly involving material gain or not, whether involving immediate gain or something that advances someone’s progress over the longer term” (Weeden and Kurzban 2014, p. 37).
Genetically Selfish Goals and Inclusive Interests
An evolutionary perspective highlights that organisms are ultimately motivated by genetically selfish goals (Dawkins 1989; see also Weeden and Kurzban 2017, p. 75). Organisms seek genetic reproduction either through their own reproductive success or through the reproductive success of individuals carrying the same genes. From this perspective, “self-interest” can be understood to include both the self and close kin. Drawing on the concept of “inclusive fitness” (Hamilton 1964) which in evolutionary biology refers to the combined gene-level reproductive success of an organism and its relatives, some scholars have therefore suggested to “jettison the term self-interest altogether” and replace it with the notion of “inclusive interests” (Weeden and Kurzban 2014, p. 38).
The Debate Over Self-Interest and Political Attitudes Continues
Weeden and Kurzban’s (2014, 2017) wider definition of self-interest and their concept of inclusive interests have been criticized for being too broad. Critics argue that the wider definition lacks clarity with respect to what would count against the argument that self-interest is often a major determinant of political attitudes (e.g., Caplan 2015). In response, Weeden and Kurzban (2015) have highlighted that their point is not that self-interest is the only factor in public opinion but that there is no reason to reserve the term self-interest to short-term economic interests. Thus, Weeden and Kurzban (2015) explain: “An evolutionary perspective can help highlight various strategic conflicts within societies that go beyond income redistribution, including fights over in-group preferences and conflicting reproductive lifestyles. We don’t think there’s any clear reason to call it ‘self-interest’ when one of these domains is at issue but not self-interest for the others.”
In the political science literature, self-interest has often been defined in relatively narrow, short-term economic terms as “the tangible, relatively immediate, personal or family benefits of a policy” to circumvent conceptual challenges of separating different sources of interests (Chong 2013, p. 101; see also Sears and Funk 1991). In the political science literature, the standard view is that self-interest has limited effect on political attitudes. An evolutionary approach to the study of public opinion emphasizes that self-serving goals can go beyond short-term economic interests. Humans are equipped with a political psychology that is ecologically rational, i.e., optimized to operate efficiently in the face of recurrent adaptive problems and maximize reproductive fitness in the ecology of ancestral life (Petersen et al. 2014).
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