Are conservatives happier?

Over recent years a number of studies have suggested that conservatives are happier than more liberal (in the US sense of the word) people. As this is where most of the studies have been done the blog will stick to the US usage even though it is potentially misleading in a European or Australian context.

Impressionistically it’s a bit hard to match the data with the day to day political realities as conservatives such as UKIP, the French National Front and the US Tea Party types seem to be driven as much by anger, frustration and hate as some of the emerging left wing parties in Europe and the protestors against the G7 and social and economic injustices often are.

But a recent report in Science (15 March 2015) suggests that conservatives ‘report’ greater happiness while liberals ‘display’ greater happiness. Meta-analysis of previous studies suggesting the greater happiness of conservatives has confirmed that there is a small but reliable effect. But, the problem may be that the data is based on self-report measures according to the University of California, Irvine, Department of Psychology team of Sean Wojcik, Arpine Hovasapian, Jess Graham, Matt Motyl and Peter Ditto. Initially the team looked at whether conservatives’ reports of greater subjective well-being, relative to liberals, could be attributed to self-enhancing tendencies and found that “increasing political conservatism predicted greater life satisfaction”. In other words conservatives are pretty happy with themselves even if they’re not too keen on others – like Barack Obama. The authors then looked at proxies for happiness such as: Duchenne smiling (real as opposed to synthetic); emotional content among US politicians’ speeches; linguistic content of Twitter status updates; and, LinkedIin photographs of employees at liberal or conservative organisations. They found that: “Together, our studies found that political liberals exhibited more frequent and intense happiness-related behaviour than political conservatives.”

While the research is interesting in political terms it also has a wider implication. “Happiness” measures have been explored by a variety of scholars such as Richard Layard as a means of broadening the social and economic policy evidence-base. But to the extent that researchers use self-reporting measures rather than behavioural ones they may be misleading. Moreover, we also need to consider Kenneth Arrow’s “impossibility theorem” which raises another problem – that it is actually impossible to speak of what “society truly prefers”  in political terms.

An even more fundamental problem is the difference (if it can be inferred) between the behaviours shaped by evolution and those shaped by our social constructs, particularly as these social constructs are often the most obvious difference between conservatives and liberals. For instance, another study in Science (6 March 2015) by Nicola Fuchs-Schundeln and Matthias Schundeln of Goethe University in Frankfurt, looked at support for democracy – specifically whether support for democracy is affected by the length of time under the system and whether preferences are affected by the system. They reviewed 380,000 observations from 104 countries between 1994 and 2013 and found that political preferences are endogenous. “In sum, across data sets and across a large number of specifications we find a statistically significant positive impact of individual experience with democracy on support for democracy,” they say.   Looking at how big the effect is they suggest that for individuals support for democracy grows stronger after 8.5 years of experience of it (the survey included data on countries that had recently become democracies as well as democracies) which was about the same as the increases in support which came from having a secondary rather than a primary education.

Moreover, in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari looks at Sapien history in terms of how we came from an animal of no significance through the agricultural revolution of about 10,500 years ago to the cognitive revolution which brought writing and the creation of myth and imagined order and imagined hierarchies such as markets, castes, money and the brands owned by limited liability companies. To over-simply much of what we consider ‘natural’ is a product of our collective imaginations rather than any evolutionary explanation. Indeed, paradoxically, he suggests that cognitive dissonance is not a fault of the mind but a vital asset which allows us to rationalise in our minds these disconnects between our imagined order and biological reality.

To illustrate the difference between our imagined order and biological reality he deconstructs the 1776 US Declaration of Independence. For those, like the US Republican, John Boehner, who have trouble remembering  which is which (In 2009 he quoted the Declaration when he was allegedly quoting the Constitution to a large crowd of Tea-Partiers who also couldn’t tell the difference) the Declaration says in its second sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” On top of the usual reservations – that the Declaration didn’t apply if you were a woman, slave or American Indian – Harari looks at how the Declaration can be converted from an imagined order or social construct to a biological reality. In this case the Declaration would say: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (sapiens) evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.” Many US conservatives probably wouldn’t like this formulation, not only because they have made the Declaration sacred but also because they don’t believe in evolution.

(Note: the blog’s friend John Spitzer alerted it to the Science articles)