Are conservatives happier?

In the pursuit of happiness, conservatives are winning.

At least according to a new study from researchers at Brock and Ryerson Universities that links conservative ideologies to feelings of well-being. According to the 237 Canadian students surveyed for the study, an inclination toward “right-wing authoritarianism” and “social dominance orientation” tends to correlate with personal contentment. (Yes, 237 people is a very small sample size. But the findings correlate to other larger sample surveys -- of which you can read plenty more below.)


Smiley face = Happiness. AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

A quick note on terminology here: These are psychological terms, not political ones. They don’t overlap perfectly with our definitions of conservative and liberal. In a nutshell, right-wing authoritarianism involves submission to authority and tradition -- generally conservative values. “Social dominance orientation” describes a willingness to support the current social hierarchy; in practical political terms, we’re talking positions like opposition to affirmative action and support for stricter immigration policies.

As Cara MacInnis, the study's lead author, explains it, authoritarianism and political conservatism are "often highly correlated and some researchers consider [them] to be the same construct," but they aren't precisely the same thing.

In either case, her findings are pretty striking. And they back up a growing body of psychological research that suggests conservatives generally feel much happier than liberals.

Republicans have historically been happier than Democrats, which aligns with evidence that conservatives are happier than liberals. (Pew)
Republicans have historically been happier than Democrats, which supports evidence that conservatives are happier than liberals. (Pew)

A sweeping Pew survey from 2006 found that 47 percent of conservative Republicans would call themselves “very happy” -- versus a mere 28 percent of liberal Democrats. The phenomenon isn’t confined to the United States, either: An analysis of research from nine additional countries found a consistent “happiness gap” in each.

“That’s not bad news for the right — it’s seriously bad news for the left,” Chris Mooney wrote last year in an essay for Salon.

We still don’t totally get, however, the exact cause-and-effect relationship between psychology and politics. Ideology could lead to psychology, as this Canadian study suggests. Or your individual psychology -- and genetics and brain structure and personality -- could influence your politics. To quote the Post’s David Montgomery, “Do happy people get married, attend weekly religious services and vote for John McCain? Or does devotion to marriage, God and McCain cause them to be happy?” Chicken, meet egg.

Among the theories in that second camp: Conservatives tend to be married and religious, two traits that correlate to happiness. Conservatives possess an “ideological buffer,” to quote New York University’s Jaime Napier and John Jost, that immunizes them against the world’s depressing inequality. This latest Canadian study goes further, suggesting that a strong sense of order and hierarchy makes people happy -- even when that order and hierarchy appear to disadvantage other people.

But there’s also plenty of evidence that our political opinions spring, to some extent, from genetic wiring. Per a 2011 study, variations of the MAOA and 5HTT genes make people more likely to vote, and scientists have also linked a larger right amygdala -- the part of the brain that handles threat responses -- to conservative beliefs. In fact, a number of studies have found conservatives tend to react more strongly and quickly to threats than liberals.


The "Big Five" personality traits and ideology. Bars above the line indicate an association between that trait and liberalism; bars below the line indicate a correlation with conservatism. (Gerber et al)

Research has also identified dramatic personality differences between liberals and conservatives, the latter of whom are generally more conscientious and emotionally stable -- but less open and agreeable, and less comfortable with ambiguity. (For a fun and pointless exercise, you can even take the University of Maryland’s Cosmo-style test of ambiguity online.) Researchers in Toronto have found strong links between what they call “motivational systems” -- politics -- and personality traits like compassion, empathy and orderliness.

"The fact that variability still exists in these motivational systems, from an evolutionary perspective, means that neither one is sufficient on its own,” University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson told Science Daily. “There are costs and benefits to each political profile and both appear critical to maintaining an effective balance in society."

All of this goes to show that there’s plenty more research to come in the space. It also suggests that many of our most common assumptions about political ideology are either unfair, oversimplified -- or outright wrong.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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