Friday, February 01, 2013

Response to Soc. Images. Re: Are Conservatives Happier than Liberals?

Yes, it's again with Soc. Images. This time, though, it's on the post entitled, "Are Conservatives Happier than Liberals?" Let's just gloss over the inherent difficulties in defining what happiness actually is, let alone measuring it in any meaningful manner. Let's just assume that there is some sort of objective metric that can be pulled together, like in this post:
In the New York Times, Arthur Brooks argues that conservatives are happier than liberals.

Brooks starts with a reference to Barack Obama’s remark four years ago about “bitter” blue-collar Whites who “cling to guns or religion.” Misleading, says Brooks. So is a large body of research showing conservatives as “authoritarian, dogmatic, intolerant of ambiguity, fearful of threat and loss, low in self-esteem and uncomfortable with complex modes of thinking.”

Despite that research, it’s conservatives, not liberals, who identify themselves as happy. And, Brooks adds, the farther right you go on the political spectrum, the more happy campers you find.


Sure enough, by about 10 percentage points, more conservatives identify themselves as “very happy” than do liberals. The difference is even higher among the extreme conservatives. As Brooks says, “none, it seems, are happier than the Tea Partiers, many of whom cling to guns and faith with great tenacity.”


Maybe conservatives were happy because until recently, they didn’t have much to be bitter about. The US was their country, and they knew it. Then Obama was elected, and ever since November 2008 conservatives have kept talking about “taking back our country.” (See my “Repo Men” post from 2 1/2 years ago.)

What if we look at the data from the Obama years?

Maybe that bitter Tea Party image isn’t such a distortion. ...

For all I know, Brooks’s general conclusion may be correct, but the recent data do at least raise some questions and suggest that the political context is itself a relevant variable.
I looked at the article and thought, hmmm... I see something like a cross-correlation going on here, based on the political context, much like the author is indicating when he writes, "Maybe conservatives were happy because until recently, they didn’t have much to be bitter about. The US was their country, and they knew it." After doing a little recollection of recent presidential political history, I wrote a confirmatory comment:

I feel that this sort of study is potentially missing the massive social correlation of prevailing political climate. It's not surprising that conservatives have felt happy during the period of 1972-2008, since most years during that time were under conservative political climates. For example, if you look at the presidencies from 1972-2008, you'll notice that 25 of the 37 years (67.6% of those years) were under a conservative president:

Nixon (1969-1974; 3 years if counting from 1972; conservative)
Ford (1974-1976; 2 years; conservative)
Carter (1977-1980; 4 years; not conservative)
Reagan (1981-1988; 8 years; conservative)
Bush (1989-1992; 4 years; conservative)
Clinton (1993-2000; 8 years; not conservative)
Bush (2001-2008; 8 years; conservative)

Therefore, if one assumes (and it's an assumption, but I think it's rather valid) that non-conservatives feel "happier" under non-conservative government and conservatives feel "happier" under conservative government, then it's a valid argument that you're not measuring the same sort of environment. Indeed, if you look at the 2009-2010 graph, you can see what appears to be evidence that (partially) supports my assumption: conservatives are less "happy" under this non-conservative government (non-conservatives do not appear to be any more or less happy).

I suspect that this isn't so much a measurement of "conservatives are happy in general" but more a measurement of "conservatives were happier under conservative political climates," which shouldn't be too surprising.
It all reminds me of a (relatively) recent XKCD comic:

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