Thursday, June 12, 2008

Why Are Conservatives Happier Than Liberals?

Napier and Jost offer an interesting perspective in their article in Psychological Science. Here is an edited excerpt from their general discussion:
In three studies, using nationally representative samples from the United States and nine additional countries, we consistently found that conservatives (or right-wingers) are happier than liberals (or left-wingers). This ideological gap in happiness is not accounted for by demographic differences or by differences in cognitive style (liberals becoming less satisfied with their current situation because of the deleterious effects of rumination and introspection - versus conservatives tending to prefer relatively simple, unambiguous answers to life's questions). We did find, however, that the rationalization of inequality—a core component of conservative ideology — helps to explain why conservatives are, on average, happier than liberals. These findings are consistent with system-justification theory, which posits that viewing the status quo (with its attendant degree of inequality) as fair and legitimate serves a palliative function. The studies suggest that conservatism provides an emotional buffer against the negative hedonic impact of inequality in society.

The relation between political orientation and self-reported happiness as a function of the Gini inequality index, 1974 through 2004.


  1. Rationalization of inequality? Who'd have thought? /sarcasm

  2. Sean Wade10:41 AM

    Does this theory discredit the primacy of private property law in the constitution and in our society? I hope its advocates don't jump to this conclusion. The fact that some conservatives may use such thoughts to justify their wealth may paint an incomplete picture. I've seen studies elsewhere that show conservatives tend to give more of their personal time and money to private charity than progressives (observe the huge amount of money given privately by America's relatively conservative citizens to the Asian tsunami relief effort compared with Europe’s). Could these acts also serve a palliative function? Liberals have committed themselves to the belief that such efforts are the responsibility of government and should be automatic. But the illiteracy and improvidence displayed by inner city blacks and some southern whites are the primary cause for their lack of participation in our economy. The attitudes, beliefs and social patterns that cause this do not yield well to government action since such action involves little, if any, individual reciprocity. And for a large percentage of blacks, these dysfunctional patterns and attitudes did not exist prior to the introduction of the very government programs designed to speed their progress (See the ‘Race and Economics’ and ‘Black Rednecks and White Liberals’ by Thomas Sowell). While the pre-civil rights era blacks made tremendous economic strides relative to whites, this progress began to slow after the desegregation era and today has completely stopped.
    Since the intentions/beliefs of liberal individuals have little efficacy to affect change through the methods they prefer, might this pattern of belief/action contribute greatly to excessive rumination and frustration? Perhaps conservatives are happier because their beliefs direct them to ruminate when they have the ability to affect change (normally resulting in small, incremental change) and not to ruminate when they cannot, whereas liberals hold a strong desire for sweeping social change requiring the involvement of institutions that are notorious for their lack of efficacy in this cause.

  3. You make some really interesting points!

  4. Sean Wade12:25 PM

    "...conservatives tending to prefer relatively simple, unambiguous answers to life's questions). We did find, however, that the rationalization of inequality—a core component of conservative ideology..."

    What?! This is your definition of being a conservative or libertarian (both of whom feel that the relative lack of income redistribution in our society is largely justified)? Perhaps you are confusing the "common man" who holds these views with academics who hold these views.
    There are many blue collar liberals who feel that the government's lack of redistribution schemes are unjustified (the demographic of Hillary Clinton supporters might fit this description and well as many southern and inner city blacks). I would assume also that their beliefs regarding the role of government in their lives are held within a cognitive-theoretical model that tends to be just as "simple and unambiguous" as their similarly educated conservative counterparts. Would it seem fair to you if an academic who held sophisticated, but conservative, views on this topic attempted to discredit the liberal point of view by psychologizing it in terms of its weakest demographic? Any number of libertarian/conservative academics could have done this when making their case against state sanctioned social reform and tax-based philanthropy but have not –Robert Nozick, Thomas Sowell, Gary Becker, Richard Posner, Ludwig Von Mises, David Friedman, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Douglas North, Ronald Coase, David Boaz, James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, EG West, Vernon Smith, the list goes on and on and the list keeps getting longer and longer. In fact, the intellectual case against the welfare state -right or wrong- has largely been stated and restated in terms of the best tools of academic research such as statistics and peer review. These academics seem to go out of their way NOT to psychologize their opponents (see Hayek’s chapter “Why the Worst Always Get on Top” in “The Road to Serfdom” where he credits socialists with the best of intentions). The theme for Hayek and others, as always, is practical considerations in a complicated world where people do not always respond to our efforts of reform the way we want them to -a far cry from the simple, black and white viewpoint of blue-collar conservatives (and liberals). And in case you haven’t noticed, today’s academic climate is a great deal less Socialist and a great deal more open to the views of the libertarians I just mentioned than it was throughout most of the 20th century. Economists (many of whom were socialists) have had to revise many of their theories in light of the futility of progressive government programs around the world in the 20th century, and many of these revisions have been heavily resisted. Notice also this list does not refer the neo-cons or “popular” conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly and company of Fox News.
    It’s important to understand that since these studies psychologize two points of view on politics and society –one in terms of a demographic preselected to have simplistic and naïve views and who view “the poor” as “deserving” their situation, and the other presumably having a more sophisticated belief system—the results tell us nothing about the relative merit of various political views regarding the government, taxation and the poor. It is also important to note that the case against the welfare state is supported by many sophisticated researchers and philosophers who do not even implicitly state that the poor are somehow “deserving” of their situation and not deserving of the best charity and philanthropy society has to offer.

  5. Sean Wade12:29 PM

    I need to apologize for something. In rereading the original post I see that I have confused you (Derek) as being an author in the study when in fact you were only quoting. :)