Monday, July 16, 2012

Conservatives Happier than Liberals? So What's New?

According to Chris Mooney in a recent piece at,

 conservatives “enjoy life more than liberals” and the latter must reckon in a “happiness gap” when coming to terms with conservative pals, relatives or talking heads. Well, what’s new and what’s the big deal?
We’ve known for ages (based on much earlier research) that conservos hold the edge in detachment from reality, just look at their Faux News and see how facts don’t matter – whether to do with human-caused global warming, or the fell impact of tax cutting on our economy when we need to attend to its demand side (e.g. spending and hence raising taxes!), or the adverse nature of indiscriminate deregulation.

Mooney takes a lot of space to finally get to the key point, apart from citing a 2006 Pew Survey, for which 47 percent of conservative Republicans were found to be “very happy,” compared with just 28 percent of liberal Democrats. He then cites 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”.

The married contribution is debatable, I can’t see why conservos ought to fare any better – and one can do lots of speculation here. On the other hand, the faith aspect and contribution is well known, and that is because it registers high on eliminating existential uncertainty which we will get to a bit later.

Mooney next invokes “the body of well-documented personality differences between people who opt for the political left, and people who opt for the political right”. To do this, he references a “well-established "Big Five” personality scale for which conservatives and liberals differ on at least three out of five major personality traits that have implications for their personal happiness. (Conservos tend to more extraversion, liberals toward introversion.)

Well, hot clue, Sherlock! I still recall my first encounter with the Meyer-Briggs scale and registering as a solid INTJ. In fact, nearly 90% on the I or introverted side. But Mooney erroneously concludes from this that:

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.”

This is disputable. For one thing, Mooney seems to confuse shyness with introversion. Shyness is a problem because the person is inhibited from social interaction. Introverts, by contrast, are not inhibited, they simply choose to occupy themselves more with private pursuits - which is why areas such as scientific research, writing, etc, claim many more introverts than extroverts. Indeed, introverts are energized by these pursuits, whereas they are worn down by having to be in social situations, which is why they avoid them. The point is, it’s a matter of their choice.

More to the point, the introvert occupies a normal part of the human personality spectrum, and hence is emphatically not a 'disordered personality'. The unfortunate fact, however, is that in a sociophile culture such as the U.S.(which disproportionately rewards gregarious behavior expressed in 'networking' 'schmoozing' etc), the extrovert-type personality is generally favored as the more 'normal'. The introvert is erroneously looked on as an 'abnormal' type and the pejorative 'loner' often used, even unthinkingly.

It follows from this, that a consistent treatment of the introvert as a “loser- loner” by the extrovert side, will of course lead to some psychological issues! And if this happens, yes, his contentment is bound to take a hit to the extent his identity and self-esteem are dependent on social constructs, and artificialities! (Reinforced by a pseudo-science psychology that pathologizes a lot of non-social or asocial behaviors!)  But….if the introvert can extricate himself from this false societal image dependency…..he will be in a contentment position as good as the extrovert's and recognize it is the larger sociophile-addicted society as the dysfunctional one! (Indeed, a bit of thought will disclose that the true sociopath can function more easily in such a sham society, because by emulating the gregariousness so lauded, he can manipulate almost anyone!)
Ultimately, Mooney saves the most cogent factor for last, as he observes:

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

This, in my opinion, is what confers the larger proportion of their “happiness” which – let’s face it- can’t be genuine if predicated on fixed beliefs and views immune to reality update by new data, discoveries. The effect is to constrain the brain of the afflicted one in a bubble, which is detached from operating in reality. Lefties, by contrast, are not insulated in a false bubble, but openly engage the world even when they lack all the answers or have everything resolved.  This engagement will naturally lead to a larger universe of worry (which Mooney describes as "neurotic" or "unstable" but I describe as reality-based) , whether about over-population, Peak Oil, runaway greenhouse effect or whatever. Because they are open to the world, they are more likely to process its real problems as opposed to acting like ostriches with heads in the sand.

If the lefty is a scientist, or has been exposed to quantum mechanics – and hence the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, see e.g.

Thus, given uncertainty is “built in” to QM as it were, and one cannot obtain precise measurements for state variables (say momentum, p and position, x) simultaneously, one learns to live with it as opposed to whining. One then accepts that to the extent this principle operates all measurements are configured to represent not isolated systems but a kind of conjunction of the observed system with the observer.

The Principle of Complementarity is also tied in with this, so one cannot observe, for example, the photon as wave and particle at the same time. One gets to pick which apparatus he will use to observe, but that apparatus is self-limiting. If it is set up for the photo-electric effect, one will obtain particle properties but no waves. Conversely, if one sets up an interference experiment, one will get waves but no particle. We don’t whine and cry because we can’t see everything at one time! (And hence can't know everything about a system at one time)

The next theme, is that acceptance of something like the uncertainty principle makes one more likely to accept a “principle of tolerance” in human life and communities. As Jacob Bronowksi puts it in his Ascent of Man, (p. 232):

"The Principle of Uncertainty or, in my phrase the Principle of Tolerance, fixed once and for all the realization that all knowledge is limited."

Because knowledge is limited, and further - the human brain is limited in its processing of it- no absolutist propositions to do with morality or ethics can be entertained. One is therefore fooling oneself if he believes that accepting certain knowledge entitles him to a preferential grasp of reality. It doesn’t. That avenue is left to the one who lives with ambiguity and is functional in the ambiguous setting.

This lack of absolutism also translates into being more accepting of a wider array of human types, cultures….since they will not then be put down out of some false moral opprobrium that is really culture-based. To show that absolutism is a myth that can't work, one may begin by showing that truth statements cannot be inherently complete, non-contradictory or binding forever. I will not go over all this again, but point the interested reader to two of my past blog essays:

Part I:

Part II:

In Mooney’s words:

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

That may well be true, but it is also true that this world is a neural Potemkin village built on delusions and false assumptions. Then, when reality does come calling and breaks through – say in the global warming sphere by extensive 100-day heat waves that buckle roads and bridges, and crash power grids (on account of excess demand) leaving food to rot, and no water to use – it will be the reality anorexics, bubble occupiers and other Pollyannas who freak out and become permanently neurotic....or unstable!

Finally, let me recommend a book to these bubble-based, happy-go-lucky conservatives.

The Wisdom of Uncertainty by Alan Watts.

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