Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Journalist Chris Mooney is feeling his way towards an understanding of the psychology of politics

In his article below he has acknowledged that there are two sides to the debate over the merits and demerits of conservatism and notes that conservatives as a whole are markedly happier than Leftists,  which is a considerable step forwards for him.  Perhaps the best indication of his naivety is that he sees the debate as going back "well over a decade".  In fact it has been going on for over 60 years.  He still has a lot of catching up to do.

His basic mistake below is one common throughout science -- interpreting a correlation as if you JUST KNOW the direction of  the causal arrow.  He assumes that conservatism makes you happy when there is a much stronger case for arguing that happiness makes you conservative. 

That is most easily seen if you look at the converse of conservatism:  Leftism.  What is ABSOLUTELY distinctive about Leftism?  Dissatisfaction.  They seem to like very little in the world about them and are never satisfied.  Regardless of what they have already achieved, they are always wanting to change something  -- whether by legislation or by revolution.   So conservatives are simply people who don't have such motivations.  There are a lot of things that conservatives would like to change  -- such as Obamacare and affirmative action,  but they don't have that PERVASIVE dissatisfaction with the world about them that Leftists do.  In psychological terms, Leftists are maladjusted and conservatives are not.

Poor old Mooney is still relying on the ludicrous Kruglansky work for much of his understanding.  One hopes that as he explores the world of psychological research, he realizes what a crock it is.  Kruglanski argues that conservatives are less "open", a question that was originally addressed by Rokeach in 1960. 

Another energetic proponent of that view is Van Hiel.  But nobody has managed  to prove what Mooney believes.  See here for Van Hiel and here for problems in the work of Rokeach. 

Rokeach in particular might be something of an embarrassment to Mooney in that he argued that closed-mindedness is  equally found on both the Left and the Right.   And research with general population samples using  Rokeach's methods bears that out.  Given the problems in Rokeach's measurement methods, however, the question is best regarded as unresolved.  Mooney would be wise to forget the whole idea.

Since Mooney mentioned it, perhaps a brief comment on the Napier & Jost paper is in order.  They conclude that "the relation between political orientation and subjective well-being is mediated by the rationalization of inequality".  You could, however, quite reasonably replace the quite loaded psychological term "rationalization" with "acceptance" and get a rather different impression.  Once again you find that conservatives are well adjusted to the world as it is and Leftists are not.

Mooney ends up concluding that conservatism is "somnambulant"  -- i.e. that conservatives are happy only because they are sleepwalking through the word, unaware of the realities of it. I myself once tried to assess that proposition by constructing a measure of "realism" but gave up because I could see no way of doing it in a non-ideological way.  If Mooney has any evidence for his assertion, I would therefore be delighted to see it.
Conservatism makes you happy

In general, political conservatives haven’t been very pleased with a slew of scientific attempts — sometimes dating back well over a decade — to psychoanalyze their beliefs and behavior. Indeed, some on the right wrongly interpret these analyses as implying that conservatives have “bad brains” or a “mental defect.” Yet if psychology-of-politics research is really a veiled attack on the right, then why does it contain so many findings that cast conservatives in a positive light?

Chief among these, perhaps, is the discovery that conservatives, across countries, tend to be just plain happier people than liberals are. That’s not bad news for the right — it’s seriously bad news for the left.

Indeed, the left-right “happiness gap” is no small matter. In a 2006 Pew Survey, for instance, 47 percent of conservative Republicans said they were “very happy,” compared with just 28 percent of liberal Democrats. Furthermore, the Pew Survey found that this result could not simply be attributed to the seemingly obvious cause: differences in income levels between the left and the right. Rather, for every income group in the study, conservative Republicans were happier than Democrats.

The fascinating question is why this is the case. The left-right happiness research was recently singled out in a New York Times op-ed by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, who suggested that conservatives’ subjectively greater sense of personal happiness may be attributable to factors like marriage and religious faith. In other words, married and religious people tend to be happier, and conservatives are more likely to be both. That seems to make a lot of sense … or does it?

In truth, this analysis fails to peer very far beneath the surface. There is every reason to suspect that there may be something deeper, inherent to political conservatives, that makes them more likely to be married, religious, happy and a great deal of other things besides.

What might it be? Well, let’s start with the body of well-documented personality differences between people who opt for the political left, and people who opt for the political right. Using the well-established “Big Five” personality scale, conservatives and liberals differ on at least three out of five major personality traits that have implications for their personal happiness.

First, one striking finding is that conservatives tend to be less neurotic — or, more emotionally stable — than liberals. It is part of the inherent definition of neuroticism that one is less happy — more fretful, more depressed.  Liberals, then, don’t just worry about the poor, and the rights of those different from themselves — it appears that they worry more, period, than conservatives do.

Although it has a smaller effect, conservatives also tend toward more extraversion in some personality studies. That means they probably make more friends and feel more comfortable in groups and communities. They’re more sociable. Once again, this probably helps confer a subjective sense of greater happiness.

But perhaps most significant, personality research shows that conservatives tend to be less open, exploratory people than liberals are. Indeed, based on a large body of research by University of Maryland social psychologist Arie Kruglanski, conservatives tend to have a higher “need for cognitive closure,” meaning that they are uncomfortable with ambiguity and prefer to seize on and hold fixed beliefs and views. And if you think being more closed-minded makes you less happy … well, think again. Instead, it appears that the relationship runs in the opposite direction.

The need for closure is often interpreted very negatively — understandably so. But if it has an upside, it may well be the happiness and peace of mind that it confers. Conservatives tend to be more assured in their views and confident in them; thus, they have less need to agonizingly question them. They know their place in the world and aren’t troubled over it. “It’s kind of a peaceful bliss, cognitively speaking,” explains Kruglanski.

Furthermore, the need for closure — for certainty, fixity — may underlie much else about the right. Kruglanski notes, for instance, that there’s a known relationship between closure and religiosity. “Religion or any comprehensive belief system is one that provides you answers to everything — and therefore belief and happiness,” he explains.

Finally, there is the related argument that the conservative tendency to rationalize politically or economically unequal social systems — to overlook how the other half is forced to live, either through simple dismissiveness, or affirmation of the fairness of free markets and meritocracies — also confers happiness. In his New York Times op-ed, Brooks dismissed this argument, associated with New York University social psychologist John Jost, but that’s not so easy to do. In a 2008 study in the journal Psychological Science, Jost and Jaime Napier showed that conservatives were happier than liberals in nine countries beyond the United States (including Germany, Spain and Sweden) — and further demonstrated, through statistical analyses, that the rationalization of inequality was a key part of the explanation. “Meritocratic beliefs account for the association between political orientation and subjective well-being to a signi´Čücant degree,” wrote Napier and Jost.

The upshot of this research, to my mind, is that it provides a huge wake-up call to liberals who would dismiss conservatism, and their conservative brethren, without understanding this ideology’s appeal or what its adherents are getting out of it. Overall, the happiness research suggests that conservatism is giving something to people that liberalism is not — community, stability, certainty, and perhaps, in Jost’s words, an “emotional buffer” against all the unfairness in the world.

Knowing this, one still may not want the type of somnambulant happiness that conservatism conveys (I certainly don’t). But it would be foolhardy to mistake its appeal. The world is hard and cruel and perhaps, as predominantly liberal atheists suspect, ultimately meaningless. In this context, it appears, political conservatism is doing much more than political liberalism to get people through the day.


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