Gage Skidmore

Are Conservatives Really Happier Than Liberals?

For years, researchers have believed there to be a "happiness gap" between contented conservatives and low-spirited liberals. But how can the right stay happy in the climate of fear and resentment they created?

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21 March 2017, 1:38pm

Gage Skidmore

(Top photo: Gage Skidmore, via)

Whose lives are happier: liberals or conservatives? The answer seems intuitive: those intolerant conservatives, with their fear of the unknown and bitter resentment of the modern world, must be deeply miserable? Surely it's liberals, with minds wide open, who are happiest?

Years of research have suggested this is not the case. When asked to rate their happiness, conservatives have always tipped the scale over liberals – a phenomenon known as the "happiness gap".

Happiness is an evergreen interest in psychology. A report from the Pew Research Centre in 2006 found that Republicans have reported greater happiness than Democrats every year since 1972. Conservative Republicans were 68 percent more likely to say they were "very happy" about their lives than Democrats. Less a "gap", then, than a crater. The pattern has persisted in countries across the world.

"Evidence of conservatives being happier than liberals is robust," says Dr Aleksandra Cichocka, a political psychologist based at Kent University, and there's all kinds of theories as to why.

"Conservatives tend to have a greater need for cognitive closure, concrete answers and to see the world organised in an orderly fashion," says Cichocka, which goes some way to explaining the need for order we so often ascribe to the right. "It could be argued that conservatives are less concerned by the fact that some people have less than others."

An obvious explanation for this, you'd think, would be that conservatives are generally more well-off. If you've got money and have always had money, it's hard to quantify the lived experience of someone who hasn't. 

However, the findings of a significant study in 2008 suggested wealth doesn't really come into it. NYU psychologists Jaime Napier and John Jost sought to identify why American conservatives are happier than liberals, and accounted for variables like income and employment (or lack thereof), but found they weren't as robust a predictor of happiness as political leanings.

Napier and Jost said conservatives may possess an "ideological buffer" against the negative effects of inequality. They're able to rationalise it away, believing the poor are poor because they've not worked hard enough, that the rich are rich because they have. Put all this through an academic translator and you get "system justification" – a theory in social psychology that describes the (inherently conservative) desire to justify existing social systems. The way things are.

We can use the problem of homelessness – reminder: the number of homeless people in England has doubled since 2010 – as a good example of how differently conservatives and liberals may view inequality.

"I think it's a part of society – you need a mix," said one of the young Tories VICE interviewed last year. "It's horrible that it happens, but there's not much we can do about it. If it has to happen then it has to happen." The person who said this was 18. He tells me over email that he'd "no longer class myself as a Tory", that he's a bit "in limbo" – as 18-year-olds are about so many things – now that he's studying History and Politics at university. What he said is interesting, but we need more than one teenager's developing worldview to understand conservative thinking.

Marta Parszeniew

The ways in which young people start to build a political identity for themselves are complex, but to understand why conservatives might be happier you've got to understand why people arrive at conservative views in the first place. I spoke to an A-level politics teacher I'll call Sarah about this. She teaches 16 to 19-year-olds in an ethnically diverse central London college. In her experience, right-wing views are very context-specific. "Because of how multicultural my student cohort is, it's not within anyone's interest to express right-wing views on things like immigration and inequality," she says. "Broadly, everyone hangs out together. The tension isn't there. They don't necessarily see the world as we see it; they're used to Muslims sitting next to Christians."

When Sarah taught at a school in Dagenham, things were very different. The suburb's story is that of white, working class east Londoners, but by 2011 everything had changed. In 2001, 80 percent of residents described themselves as white British. In 2011, it was 49 percent. Dagenham Ford closed down, many locals lost their jobs, housing became depressed. More migrant communities moved in. With such flux came great friction. "The classroom became segregated," says Sophie. "It was black kids on one side, white kids on the other." A handful of white boys expressed extreme right-wing views as a "defence framework", she says. 

The American psychologist Solomon Asch conducted some of the most influential conformity experiments in the 1950s, finding that conformity increases when people view others in the group as more powerful. Anyone who's been to school remembers the gnawing desire to fit in. At that Dagenham school, right-wing views will have percolated from those frustrated, threatened parents in the community. A kid who's desperate to fit in with those cool guys might start parroting extreme views to be accepted. There is safety in conformity. As a sobering aside, the eminent social psychologist Shalom H Schwartz believed that people form values in adolescence that change little thereafter.

"The right certainly seems more unified, purposeful and less despairing about the future"

So how do you get from school kids in the classroom, conforming to each others' points of view, to believing that homelessness can just "happen" to someone? It ties in with something psychologists call the "just world hypothesis" – the belief that people get what they deserve – that is inextricably linked with conservatism. "Conservatives may be more likely to attribute homelessness to individual failings," says Cichocka, whereas liberals would consider the "systemic problems".

Conservatives who believe we live in a just world are likely to look at global inequality and think that everything is as it should be. If, as predicted, Britons are going to suffer the biggest rise in inequality since Thatcher under Theresa May's government, does that mean we assume that those who support the Conservatives just aren't as concerned about human suffering – the rotten core of inequality?

There's likely no straightforward answer. "The right certainly seems more unified, purposeful and less despairing about the future," says Rupert Myers, a barrister and political writer who says he isn't the easiest Conservative to categorise. "But not many Conservatives are happy with the image of them portrayed by politicians like Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, who are worse than embarrassments – they are dangerous." 

Myers does think Conservatives generally have "the advantage", happiness speaking – because "they are less bound to restrictive and frustrating desires for ideological purity" – but acknowledges the downside of "constantly being branded heartless".

The picture of a Syrian child pulled from Aleppo rubble that emerged last year comes to mind. Five-year-old Omar Daqneesh was photographed dazed, covered head-to-toe in dust and dried blood in the back of an ambulance. His face highlighted the desperation of the Syrian civil war. We'd already been shaken awake to the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015 with an image that remains unforgettable: the lifeless body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face-down on a Turkish beach. He'd been washed ashore after the boat transporting him and his family to Greece, away from the war, capsized. We know that this war has created the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, yet our Conservative government does not think we should accept more refugees. Across the Atlantic, Trump has reportedly dropped his indefinite ban on allowing Syrian refugees into the US, but is still suspending the refugee programme, effectively telling the world: "I'm sorry about the kids, but our safety matters most!"

This is the politics of appealing to the most gut emotion of them all: fear. Conservative politicians tell the people they need to be afraid and then offer a comfort blanket.

Much has been written on Trump's politics of fear. Political psychologist Drew Weston, author of The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, told the Washington Post: "The fear of mortality tends cross culturally to shift people to the right… It prompts people to more strongly hold to traditions, rituals. I don't mean to belittle anyone's politics, but it should be understood as the political equivalent of the way that a child who is scared grabs on to a parent or latches on more tightly to a teddy bear. It offers comfort." When it comes to fear, conservative rhetoric often trumps reality. As David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, wrote earlier this month, people support Trumpism because it claims to be about "protection, security and order", even though we know his policies would actually breathe more risk into people's lives.

Conservative politicians know full well that fear drives people to the right. There's strong evidence that threat causes liberals to think like conservatives. As Weston (a democrat) says, there are probably just five major emotions you see guiding people in politics – the ones you feel in your gut – and "all the best politicians know how to use them". Simple, direct ideas ("We're gonna build a wall to keep the Mexicans out! We're gonna BAN those dangerous Muslims!") target gut emotion. Republican governors in the US began voicing serious concern about accepting Syrian refugees into the US just days after the Paris terrorist attacks.

Fear is rife in Britain, too. Our NHS is in crisis and we want to blame something concrete. Often, that thing is immigration. Having legitimate concerns about immigration and believing foreigners are dangerous to society are two different things, yet the way fears around immigration are stoked in our political discourse, many now directly blame problems with public services on immigrants.

Marta Parszeniew

Facebook is now teeming with groups like "British People Say NO to Taking in Syrian Refugees", which has the mission statement: "Our cash-strapped country just can't take any more immigrants. Our Schools, hospitals, unemployed [sic] is at breaking point. We already have far too many asylum seekers, and immigrants that our infrastructure is struggling to cope."

If we go back to the happiness gap, considering how much conservative politics depend on fear, it seems fair to ask if conservatives are just inherently more afraid, or at least more sensitive to threat. Plenty of evidence suggests this is the case.

Studies have shown that conservatives have a greater "negativity bias" and register a greater physiological response to threatening stimuli. Self-described conservatives have also been found to have a larger amygdala – an almond-shaped collection of neurons deep in the brain that becomes active during states of fear and anxiety – than liberals. Differences in unconscious actions have been found. All this tells us that conservatives do seem to have a greater propensity for fear.

But if conservatives live their lives in fear, and are more easily made anxious, why do they say they're so happy? One theory is that conservatives manage their anxiety by imposing an order on the world. It's a depressing thought, but maybe extremists are the happiest of us all, seeing as they appear to have the world so neatly divided into the good and bad guys.

Another option is that conservatives might just think they're happier and may be more likely to put a positive spin on their lives – something psychologists call "self-enhancement". A 2015 study lead by Sean Wojcik, a psychologist at the University of California, questions the self-reporting data used in research about the happiness gap. Simply put: people telling researchers whether they're happy or not via a set of questionnaires may not be truly representative of their actual emotions. What about how they conduct themselves?

Wojcik's team embarked on a more in-depth analysis of the behaviour of both political conservatives and liberals. They used linguistic analysis software to quantify the emotions in over 9 million words contained in Congressional Record transcripts from 2013, and mined similar data from more than 47,000 tweets and 4,000 Twitter users with ties to liberal or conservative agendas. They also used the Facial Action Coding System to weed out genuine smiles in 533 photos of members of Congress, along with 457 LinkedIn photos of people affiliated with political parties. The result? Liberals displayed more happiness than conservatives – despite self-reporting to the contrary. More research is needed, but this work doesn't just ask whether we've been wrong all along about who is most happy; it raises a more philosophical question of what being happy means. Can true evaluations really be made from questionnaires?

Our political views probably exist on a spectrum that is affected by human emotions like fear. We know what reminders of threat do to people, so in a society governed by conservative policy-makers, motivated by public fear, what's going to happen? "We don't know how this ends," warns Cichocka. "I do think we might see more right-leaning policies."

System justification – the desire to justify systems as they are, even if that means believing the poor should be poor – reduces feelings of uncertainty and helps us cope with things we perceive as threatening. Of course that's linked to our happiness, but it also sort of implies we're agency-less. Surely we can all take an active role in our own happiness? Keeping things in "order" and apportioning blame to anyone who upsets (or we're told over and over again is upsetting) that order might make us feel safe and liable to report higher happiness, but perhaps there is greater happiness to be found in working harder to distinguish thought from feeling – an ability we all have.

Our clever brains give us the complex ability to separate what we feel and what we see. Most of us can regulate rational thought. As Westen argues, Americans "ought to be able to distinguish between a Mexican [undocumented] immigrant who gets in trouble with the law repeatedly for, say, robbery from the vast majority who are very hard-working… Given that those workers pick the majority of our food, that ought to prompt us to be able to distinguish that group from this small percentage who abuse their spouses or are involved in gangs or robberies," he continues. "If you can't, that's when your emotions are serving you poorly."

@eleanormorgan