“They only care about themselves,” “They’re out of touch with reality,” “They don’t become academics.” These are just some of the answers people yelled at me yesterday when I read out loud the title of a paper in the June issue of Psychological Science. My answer was “some of each.”
Oh, the paper, by Napier and Jost(1), is titled “Why are conservatives happier than liberals?” (duh!), and was inspired by the Pew Research Center study from a couple years ago, which naturally got a bunch of media and blog attention, in which 47% of conservative Republicans said they were “very happy,” as compared to 27% of liberal Democrats. Since we all know that self-reported overall life satisfaction is incredibly accurate, this Pew finding was begging for an explanation. Fortunately, Napier and Jost give us one.
In their first study, Napier and Jost took data from the 2000 National Election Survey (a big survey taken before the November 2000 election), and using linear regression, explored the relationship between political orientation, need for cognition, rationalization of inequality, and several control variables (gender, job status, education, church attendance, etc.) and the self-reported happiness of the survey takers. Considered alone conservatism was positively related to happiness (in case you don’t know, regression is like correlation — a positive relationship basically means that as one variable goes up, the other tends to go up as well). This positive relationship remained statistically significant even when all of the control variables and need for cognition were included. However, when they included rationalization of inequality in their regression model, the relationship between conservatism and happiness was no longer statistically significant. Furthermore, in a second regression exploring the relationship between political orientation and rationalization of inequality, they found a strong positive relationship between conservatism and rationalization of inequality. Together, these findings suggest that rationalization of inequality statistically mediates the relationship between conservatism and happiness. In other words, it suggests that at least part of the reason conservatives are happier than liberals is that they’re more likely to rationalize inequality. In a second study, using a multi-national survey, they found that the relationship between conservatism and happiness, and the mediating role of rationalization of inequality, is an international phenomenon.
In a third study, they confirmed these relationships with data from 20 of the 31 yearly General Social Surveys. This time, instead of measuring rationalization of inequality, they just looked at the level of economic inequality in the year of the survey (using the Gini coefficient). If rationalization of inequality mediates the relationship between conservatism and happiness, then we would expect that, while more liberal people should be less happy when inequality is high, the level of inequality should not effect the happiness of conservatives. Once again, and over all of the years, they found that conservatives tended to be happier than liberals. Also, liberals’ happiness was significantly affected by the level of inequality in a given year. Conservatives’ happiness, however, was unaffected by the level of inequality.
So why does rationalization of inequality make conservatives happier, particularly in the face of inequality? Well, in the past, Jost and others have argued that “political conservatism is a system-justifying ideology”(2). In other words, it’s all about justifying the status quo, and part of the status quo is its existing inequalities. Jost has previously argued that this form of justification is, for several reasons, associated with more positive mood and life satisfaction. So it seems that by justifying the status quo, and thereby justifying what in today’s day and age are fairly gross inequalities, conservatives end up happier than liberals who can’t seem to justify those inequalities. Makes sense to me, ’cause every time I watch the news and see starving people, I get pretty depressed, and can’t for the life of me rationalize why I’m sitting in a comfortable living room watching TV while they’re struggling to survive. I guess I should try being more conservative to improve my quality of life.
1Napier, J.L., & Jost, J.T. (2008). Why are conservatives happier than liberals? Psychological Science, 19(6), 565-572.
2Jost, J.T., Nosek, B.A., & Gosling, S.D. (2008). Ideology: Its resurgence in social, personality, and political psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 126-136.