Conservatives are giddy over last week’s victories, but research shows they’re usually happier than progressives anyway … because conservatives rationalize other people’s suffering. (More)

Bouncing Back Part I: The ‘Right’ Path to Happiness

This week Morning Feature looks at bouncing back after disappointment. Today we begin with the conservative path to happiness: indifference to others’ suffering. Tomorrow we’ll consider how the same empathy that empowers progressives can also lead to despair. Saturday we’ll conclude with how to take better care of ourselves as we continue to care for others.

“Conservatives more readily support and rationalize the status quo”

Most of the conservatives I’ve met are cheerful and pleasant, at least if we don’t discuss politics. They talk about their jobs, families, friends, and hobbies, and they’re usually upbeat and positive. Of course those are all anecdotes and there’s a lot of selection bias involved. But it’s not just me. Research supports the idea that conservatives are generally happier than progressives:

People living in more liberal countries are happier on average than those in less liberal countries, but individually, conservatives are happier than liberals no matter where they live, according to a study of people in 16 Western European countries.

“Liberal governments tend to do more to shield citizens against certain hardships, such as unemployment and poverty, which can make people feel happier overall,” said the study’s lead author, Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn, PhD, of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. “On the other hand, conservatives rate their well-being higher than liberals because conservatives more readily support and rationalize the status quo, thus, believing that socioeconomic hardships are a result of individual shortcomings.” The study appears online in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Applied Psychology.

And that wasn’t a small study:

The researchers analyzed surveys collected from 1,134,384 people between 1970 and 2002 in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Denmark, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Finland, Sweden, Austria and Norway. The surveys were representative samples of each country’s population. This data set is part of a series of public opinion surveys conducted on behalf of the European Commission.

“Politics is everywhere”

A quick glance might suggest we’d be happier if we were all more conservative, but the study’s findings emphatically disagreed:

To determine if a country was politically liberal or conservative, the researchers looked at ease of access to services such as pensions, sickness benefits and unemployment compensation. They also examined each country’s level of spending on welfare, which is found in a report produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Sweden was often cited as being the most liberal country, with more public welfare services, while countries such as Ireland, France and Portugal were found to be more conservative. In general Scandinavian countries were the happiest countries and were also the most liberal. Denmark was consistently the happiest country in the study.

Yes, conservative Danes were happier than progressive Danes, but as Dr. Okulicz-Kozaryn concluded: “These findings lead us to believe that conservatives living in liberal countries are most likely to report the highest well-being.”

The researchers also found that the typical individual’s sense of well-being has wider societal and economic effects:

“Our findings are important to governments and organizations because they underscore the impact that these two entities have on one another,” said Okulicz-Kozaryn. “Politics is everywhere, and our findings suggest that citizens are best served when governments and organizations work together by instituting policies that have been shown to increase citizens’ well-being. For example, if governments do not enact sufficient policies that protect citizens from underemployment, the expected decreases in well-being can have an effect on employees’ productivity within organizations.”

“Freedom of movement on the roads was a fundamental right”

Conservatives’ higher sense of well-being is grounded in the just world hypothesis, a sense that life is fair and people generally get what they deserve.

For example, let’s say you’re a 45-year-old, socially concerned mom who joins a protest on behalf of port workers in Lyttleton, New Zealand. And let’s say a guy drives a 1.8 ton Land Cruiser over you, causing brain injuries that kill you two days later. Sure, a jury convicts him of manslaughter, but why should he go to jail?

Yesterday’s sentence in the Christchurch High Court of nine months’ periodic detention made a mockery of the jury’s manslaughter decision, said [Council of Trade Unions] secretary Paul Goulter. It sent a signal about the right to protest and the safety of picket lines.
Powell was told by Justice Graham Panckhurst that his driving had not been the only cause of the tragedy in what had been a highly unusual and difficult situation.

Freedom of movement on the roads was a fundamental right, and the decision by police to allow this movement to be interrupted by picketers was “dangerous.”

“When they were powerless to alter the victim’s fate”

That was one of several cases cited by psychologists Carolyn Hafer and Laurent Bégue in their 2005 paper titled Experimental Research on Just-World Theory: Problems, Developments, and Future Challenges. They reviewed dozens of studies conducted since the 1960s and found that people who believe in a just world use a range of strategies to ignore or rationalize unjust events:

  • Avoidance – The easiest strategy is simply to insulate yourself from injustices. Don’t read or watch the news, or mute or avoid upsetting stories.
  • Reinterpret Cause – Are you sure woman’s death was caused was the driver who ran over her? Didn’t she really cause it herself, by being in the road?
  • Reinterpret Character – Yeah, she was a 45-year-old mom. But she was also a self-appointed do-gooder who should’ve been home with her kids.
  • Reinterpret Outcome – Her death will teach people to stay out of the road. And yes her kids are sad, but everyone dies and kids need to learn to deal with that.
  • Ultimate Justice – And if she was truly innocent, God will reward her in heaven and punish the driver in hell. It’s not for us to judge.
  • Multiple Worldview – Besides, that was New Zealand. That kind of thing wouldn’t happen here (or at least not to someone like you).
  • False Cynicism – And let’s face it, life sucks and you can’t do anything about it so stop whining about her and enjoy what you have.

One of the landmark studies they considered was this 1966 experiment by just world theory pioneers Melvin Lerner and Carolyn Simmons:

Under the guise of an experiment on the perception of emotional cues, 72 undergraduate female [subjects] observed a peer (victim) participating in a paired-associate learning task. The victim, as a result of making the usual errors, appeared to receive severe and painful electric shocks (negative reinforcement). In describing the suffering victim after these observations, [subjects] rejected and devalued her when they believed that they would continue to see her suffer in a 2nd session, and when they were powerless to alter the victim’s fate. Rejection and devaluation were strongest when the victim was viewed as suffering for the sake of [subjects] (“martyr” condition). These results offer support for the hypothesis that rejection and devaluation of a suffering victim are primarily based on the [observer’s] need to believe in a just world.

“Unfortunately, the right-wing grousing is endemic”

But wait, you say. If conservatives are happier, and if they truly believe in a just world, why do they always complain about being victims?

Ever since Sarah Palin complained about the “lamestream media,” victimhood has become an attribute of hard-core conservatives. Indeed, fellow conservatives who refuse to complain about their lot in political life and urge Republicans to learn to live with certain facts of political life (e.g. most media is liberal) are considered to be sell-outs and/or dupes. Unfortunately, the right-wing grousing is endemic – in conservative media, among activists and GOP candidates and elected officials.

That wasn’t a liberal analysis. It was conservative Jennifer Rubin, who added:

Moreover, it’s not very, well, conservative to wallow in victimhood. Conservatives are supposed to believe in personal responsibility, understand the world as it is and disdain a sense of entitlement.

Predictably, she finds a way that it’s really President Obama’s fault and the conservatives are just “mimicking the president’s perpetual victimhood.” But Bill O’Reilly began whining about the “War on Christmas” back in 2004 and the evangelical persecution complex dates back decades. It’s grounded in what Richard Hofstadter famously called “The Paranoid style in American Politics,” and a belief that anything less than complete dominance is persecution.

“People are situationalists for themselves”

Okay, sure, conservatives don’t like it if they don’t get everything they want, but what about personal responsibility? If they believe in a just world, shouldn’t they accept that the world is still inherently just, even when they don’t get their way?

Enter the fundamental attribution error, our tendency to see our own behaviors and outcomes in terms of situations … and others’ behaviors and outcomes in terms of their character traits, as psychologist Len Ross explains:

And the hypothesis that I was pushing was that people are situationalists for themselves to a much greater extent than they are to others. I know what situations I’m responding to, so I explain my own behavior in terms of situations. I explain other people’s behavior in terms of their dispositions.

Combine the fundamental attribution error with just world theory and a sense of privilege, and you get this handy guide to interpreting outcomes:

  • If I win – I deserved it.
  • If I lose – I was cheated.
  • If you win – You cheated.
  • If you lose – You deserved it.

Add it all up and conservatives are generally happier than progressives … because conservatives can enjoy their wins, undimmed by others’ losses.

We progressives can’t do that as readily and, as we’ll see tomorrow, that can both energize and dispirit us.


Happy Thursday!