No, Arthur Brooks: Conservative women are not ‘particularly blissful’

December 19, 2013

Yesterday we reported on Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and occasional New York Times op-ed writer, and his claim, unsupported by data, that “None, it seems, are happier than the Tea Partiers.” As sociologist Jay Livingston figured out, Brooks’s claim may have come from an analysis of the cumulative (since 1972) data of the General Social Survey (described accurately by Brooks as “the scholarly gold standard for understanding social phenomena”), but Brooks did not realize that things have changed, and since 2009 (the Tea Party era), self-described conservatives have not been the happiest Americans.

Livingston then noticed another false claim, this time from Brooks’s most recent column, where the AEI president wrote, “conservative women are particularly blissful: about 40 percent say they are very happy.”

Not so fast. Livingston goes to the trouble of sharing the GSS cross tab for us, based on data for women since 2008:

Happy x POLVIEWS (female - 2008-12) a

The far left and far right are equally “very happy,” and in the “not too happy” category, very conservative women outnumber their liberal sisters nearly two to one.

What happened? Again, Brooks seems to have gone with the cumulative GSS data, which indeed is the default if you try to access the data online:

Happy x POLVIEWS (female - all yrs) a

In the cumulative data (aggregated since 1972), the most conservative women were indeed most likely to describe themselves as very happy.

Livingston speculates:

Why might political views correlate with happiness? Brooks doesn’t say, but later in his formula he cites the importance of work, of being satisfied with your job. (“I’m a living example of the happiness vocation can bring.”) People who are dissatisfied in the world of work will not be happy in general. The same logic applies to politics – those who are dissatisfied in the political world will also not be happy in general. So maybe the link between conservatism and happiness is really about who is satisfied with the political status quo. Who is happy will depend on whose status is quo.

For most of those GSS years since 1972, conservatives have felt right at home politically. But the election and re-election of Obama – despite a huge recession, despite a supposedly much-hated healthcare law – changed that status quo. Hence all the conservative talk about taking their country back.

And, indeed, there is a lot of unhappiness on the far right in the Obama years, as the top graph shows.

Again, let me emphasize that I am imputing no malign intent on the part of Arthur Brooks. Social scientists (including myself) use aggregated data all the time. It’s natural to assume, at least as a starting point, that what happened in the past will continue to be happening now. Brooks made the default choice. But it turns out he made a mistake. He should thank Livingston for catching it, and the New York Times should run a correction. No hard feelings, it’s just a simple mistake that could happen to anyone.

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University. His books include Bayesian Data Analysis; Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks; and Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.
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John Sides · December 19, 2013