Mixing Memory

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“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.

Comments

  1. #1 Mark P
    June 11, 2008

    Fat, dumb and happy?

  2. #2 csbmonkey
    June 11, 2008

    …because ignorance is bliss.

  3. #3 Becca
    June 11, 2008

    I was highly amused by the “… because they don’t become academics”.

    Does this research prove convervatives really are more obnoxiously smug? That isn’t just my imagination, because I happen to disagree with them?

    I wonder a bit, if we looked at something other than economic inequality if the relationships would flip. What about educational inequality, or better yet, intellectual inequality… do liberals still get sad when they think that there are people dumber than them (through no fault of their own)? Or do they have their own streak of self-satisfaction?

    Hmm. I wonder if I’ve just inadvertantly stumbled upon the reason academic institutions, populated largely with liberal folk, can be tremendously conservative.

  4. #4 R
    June 11, 2008

    The underlying thought seems to be that there are two states: rationalizing inequality or being bothered by inequality. But my impression is that a lot of people, particularly conservatives, don’t care enough about inequality to even bother rationalizing it. So I’m curious, what exactly is meant by rationalizing? Is it really a matter of coming up with silly explanations for inequality, or, more broadly, does “rationalizing inequality” just stand in for “not being bothered by inequality”? Either reading would work for the third study; I’m not sure about the first two.

  5. #5 D
    June 13, 2008

    “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.”

    Yes, I’d be rather unhappy if I reached middle age and still hadn’t learned the basics.

  6. #6 Clark Goble
    June 17, 2008

    I have a hard time seeing conservativism as tied to the status quo. A lot of conservativism whether Reagan or even Bush II was pretty much throwing down the status quo and very innovative. But those two figures also highlight the problem. There’s a lot of diversity under the rubric of ‘conservative.’ I assume this was a self-identification of conservative but it would sure be nice to have more information since that label is such a blunt instrument.

    One might say that conservatives tend to see the individual as inherently more powerful (at least in potential) so they are happy because they think they can do more whereas liberals see the individual power as weaker and needing society to help which would almost imply that one would be less happy if society is doing less.

    I’m not saying that’s the case. I’m just skeptical of questions like this in general. But I bet that if you dug down in questions of individual power you’d find a stronger correlation with happiness. (And of course there are plenty of liberals who emphasize the individual’s power just as there are conservatives who emphasize the weakness of the individual)

  7. #7 Clark Goble
    June 17, 2008

    To note, in case it wasn’t clear, I’m suggesting that it isn’t inequality that tweaks people different but rather the view of how the individual can deal with the inequality. I think to say this rationalizes inequality is incorrect. A conservative might decry inequality a great deal but have a very, very different view of the relationship of the individual to society which will change the level of happiness. It seems to me that a feeling of helplessness entails unhappiness as a natural consequence while a feeling of power does the opposite. (Not to way Nietzschean) But one can still be horrified by the inequality.

  8. #8 BaldApe
    June 19, 2008

    I’m late to this party, but aren’t conservatives more likely to buy into the “put on a happy face” mentality? Wouldn’t they report that they were happy because they feel a duty to report happiness? They just don’t want to be negative.

    As an example, just ask an Amway distributor how their business is going. They will always say it’s going well, because they (or the ones I knew, anyway) believe that saying they are doing well will result in their doing well.

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