Cartoon of Red elephant and blue donkey from 900 x 760

Remember Mitt Romney? Ah…how fast we forget. Well, one of his pronouncements that stuck in my mind is “I am a severe conservative.” He said this when he tried to (unsuccessfully) persuade his party’s right wing that he is one of them. What struck me most was not the craven pandering as that is a standard MO for politicians, nor the lack of credibility of this country club Republican posing as a Tea Party wingnut. Rather, it was the adjective he chose to describe his conservatism: severe! He did not say he was a cheerful conservative, or a messenger-of-hope right winger (sounds incongruous), but a severe one.

We usually use this adjective to describe unfortunate or unpleasant circumstances, such as severe weather, severe punishment, severe admonition. To attach it to a political conservative ideology actually sounded quite appropriate to me. Some view conservatism, by its very nature, to be negative at its core. It clings to the old “values” and is suspicious of change, be it social or economic.


Here’s a surprise! Academic studies beg to disagree

7591d7e9-ba64-45e8-9b67-cddd135ad1b9Several academic studies show exactly the opposite: conservatives are, by and large, happier people. A recent meta-analysis of these studies has confirmed that it is a small but reliable effect (r = 0.12).

As Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist has shown, happiness is notoriously hard to pin down, and trying to define it is an exercise in futility. It could possibly be best described by the phrase, “I know it when I see it.”

If you suspect that something must wrong with studies, that these studies don’t fit the common perception of conservatives and conservative ideology, you may be right. The studies purporting to show happiness associated with political conservatism are all based on self-reporting. And as any epidemiologist, sociologist, psychologist, or statistician would tell you, studies based on self-reporting are fraught with, well, severe problems.


What’s wrong with self-reporting?

In a word: self-enhancement. What does that mean?

Self-enhancement is a type of motivation that works to make people feel good about themselves and to maintain self-esteem. This motive becomes especially prominent in situations of threat, failure or blows to one’s self-esteem. Self-enhancement involves a preference for positive over negative self-views.

But if self-enhancement is common to all self-reporting subjects then the effect should cut across all political ideologies, not just conservatives. Well, not quite. Self-enhancing tendencies are not evenly distributed across populations, and there are reasons to suspect that liberals and conservatives may self-enhance to differing degrees. Conservatism has been characterized as an ideology grounded in ego defensiveness and enhanced sensitivity to negativity. Self-enhancement is also associated with a number of factors related to politically conservative ideologies. It is more pronounced among individualistic cultures, religious people, and competitive, hierarchically oriented groups.

All this suggests that conservatives may tend to report a greater degree of happiness than in reality, but a seminal study in Science from Peter Ditto’s group at University of California Irvine provides the most compelling evidence. The researchers ran three studies, each one using a different data set and examining a different aspect of the conservative-liberal happiness issue.

In study 1, they examined whether conservatives’ reports of greater subjective well-being, relative to liberals, could be attributed to self-enhancing tendencies. Visitors to, a psychological research Website, reported their political ideology and completed the Satisfaction With Life Scale, the most frequently used measure of subjective well-being, as well as the Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding, a well-validated measure of the tendency to engage in self-deceptive enhancement. As expected, increasing political conservatism predicted greater reported life satisfaction. This happiness gap (“the happier-than-average” effect) was similar in magnitude to that found in past research. Importantly, they also found that self-deceptive enhancement was higher among conservatives than liberals. Statistical analysis revealed that, as hypothesized, self-deceptive enhancement fully accounted for the ideology—life satisfaction association. Each of the findings of this study was highly statistically significant. So much for self-reporting studies. This study showed that they do not distinguish between genuine and superficial presentations of happiness.


How do we get around this problem?

Fortunately, actual behavior rather than subjective reporting can give clues that are more reliable. Study 2 looked at two behavioral indicators.

By way of explanation, greater happiness can be quantified using unobtrusive measures of happiness-related behavior—for example, in the emotional content of liberals’ and conservatives’ speech, or in the frequency and intensity of their smiling behavior. Assessing smiling behavior also allows us to distinguish between genuine and superficial expressions of happiness. As Paul Eckman’s studies have shown, intense, genuine smiling, known as Duchenne smiling, involves the muscles lifting the corner of the mouth (the zygomatic muscles) as well as those orbiting the eye (the orbicularis oculi). Non-Duchenne (also known as social, deceptive, or standard) smiling involves only the muscles lifting the corners of the mouth and is less often related to genuine feelings of happiness or enjoyment.

Duschenne vs. non-Duschenne, or genuine vs. fake
Duschenne vs. non-Duschenne, or genuine vs. fake

In study 2, they examined happiness-related behavior among the United States’ most salient liberals and conservatives: members of the U.S. Congress. They assessed two behavioral indicators of happiness within this group—the use of positive and negative emotional language from a text analysis of the 2013 U.S. Congressional Record and the smiling behavior exhibited in their publicly available photographs.

This study revealed no evidence of greater emotionally positive behavior among conservative elected officials. Instead, it was liberal politicians who tended to more frequently express positive emotional language, smile more intensely, and smile more genuinely. These effects were modest in size but in the opposite direction of the previously observed self-report–based happiness gap.

 Hubert Humphrey, the "happy warrior"
Hubert Humphrey, the “happy warrior”

Of course, elected political leaders are not representative of liberal and conservative individuals more generally, and it is unclear how well speech and facial expressions occurring within the confines of Capitol Hill reflect similar happiness-related behaviors in less overtly political contexts. For this, the investigators went to a massive database.

In study 3, they assessed the linguistic content of 47,257 Twitter status updates from liberal and conservative members of the general public. They analyzed the statuses of individuals who subscribed to (“followed”) the official Twitter pages of either the Democratic or Republican Party, excluding those following both, under the assumption that users who followed one party exclusively were likely to share that party’s political views. They assessed the emotional content of each tweet using word lists from a validated word list, and lists of “happy” and “sad” emoticons. Relative to Democratic Party subscribers’ updates, Republican Party subscribers’ updates were significantly less likely to contain positive emotion words, joviality words, and happy emoticons, and significantly more likely to contain negative emotion words.

Can Bill O'Reilly ever smile?
Can Bill O’Reilly ever smile?

Study 4 looked at smiles in a different database. They analyzed 457 publicly available photographs of individuals from LinkedIn. They selected participants who publicly self-identified as employees at organizations strongly associated with ideologically liberal or conservative values (e.g., Planned Parenthood versus the Family Research Council), under the assumption that the majority of employees at these organizations were likely to share the organizations’ ideological views. As was found among Democratic and Republican Congress, members in study 2, smiles were marginally more intense among employees at ideologically liberal organizations.


What did we learn?

First and foremost, be wary of self-reporting studies. This goes not only for social studies. We should view with great skepticism nutritional studies using the same methodology.

Some economists, sociologists, and politicians have recently proposed measures of economic satisfaction and social happiness. As the authors of this study caution, self-reporting studies can be deceptive; they should be supplemented with behavioral and other objective measures.

This study, published in a premier scientific publication, is bound to become the definitive study on the subject. A veritable tour-de-force. I am smiling a big, Duchenne smile.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.



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