Science!: Who’s Happier – by Ideology, of Course

Adventures in Cargo Cult Science. The sometimes interesting website FiveThirtyEight has an article up titled Maybe Conservatives Just Think They’re Happier Than Liberals. Before we get into the laughable excuses for science – Science! – that the credential-hunting grad students will sink to in order to add a couple semi-lucrative letters to the ends of their names, (1) let’s look at the absurdity of the question and the curiously delicate selectivity and, well, hypocrisy in the way it is framed up.

Because, really, who, exactly, is so deeply interested in how ideology relates to human happiness? The Lover of Science, in his moments of pure desire for Knowledge? Or maybe more likely an ideologue who needs the world to conform to his ideology? Because that turns out to be the problem: survey data indicates, and has long indicated, that ‘conservatives’ are, as a group, more happy than liberals as a group.

And that Just Won’t Do. All the sudden, people who generally can’t be bothered to worry about petty details such as how survey data might not be the simple truth about things but is just what somebody who is willing to take a survey is willing to say under such and such conditions at such and such moments, or that ‘Conservative’ and ‘Liberal’ are not clearly understood or defined groups, or that ‘happiness’ is a pretty broad and vague term as well, find they urgently need to exercise their scientific training and ask some questions about all this. Of course, when we’re surveying about sexual behaviors or attitudes toward marriage or any of a million things where the results are easy to spin as suggesting that more of whatever we’re selling is exactly what is needed, none of these issues come up, but when survey results suggest that those insufferable closed-minded, bigoted people over there are *happy* in their ignorance – well, Something Must Be Wrong.

Thus, the irony of the title of the piece: Maybe conservatives just think they’re happy? What would that even mean to say that, under modern modes of thought? If I were to use the classical idea of happiness being the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, with activity, soul and virtue terms of the philosopher’s art, then at least theoretically you could maybe measure happiness somehow (2). But happiness in the modern sense seems to mean little more than freedom to exercise the will with as little constraint as possible. Happiness would then tend toward two polar opposites – a Libertarian version where happiness lies somewhere in the land where I get to do whatever I want as long as I stay out of your face, and a Totalitarian view where happiness is conformity to Right Thinking, which all good people by definition agree with, is imposed on all because it’s what they ought to want even if they don’t know it. That’s the fundamental idea behind every leftist reformation since the French Revolution.

The classical idea of happiness falls nowhere on the plane defined by the Libertarian/Totalitarian axes. Yet, even in these crepuscular times, the classical idea is the one that most corresponds to real happiness in the world, in so far as it appears that people doing good for others tend to be the most happy (3).

Thought experiment: imagine any of the favored groups self-reported as being happy, and substitute them into the title: Maybe women just think they’re happy.  Maybe gays just think they’re happy. And so on. Now, do you imagine grad students (who want the degree) writing long serious-sounding papers on why these people who self-report as happy are WRONG. Doesn’t really work, does it?

So, on to the science, such as it is. We have the usual problems with survey data, many of which the study author acknowledges, although clearly she still thinks what she’s doing is Important:

1. Self-reporting: what people say is nothing more than what people say;

2. Definitional problems: how are people classified into ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’? Is this classification consistent and meaningful? How is happiness defined? How would we know what the term means to the people we’re surveying?

3. Methodological problems: the authors of every survey study claim it is state of the art according to the well-tested rules of sociology and administered and evaluated in a totally scientific manner. (Hope you weren’t drinking coffee right then – should have a spit-take warning on stuff like this). Let’s just say that a field of study wherein the likes of Margaret Mead and Kinsey are not only not held up as objects of ridicule and egregious and blood-chilling cautionary tales, but instead are honored founders, fails the laugh test when they call ‘science’ on what they are doing.

4. Because surveys don’t give the result we need to get, we must cook up another scientific sounding way to get our message out. In an ultra-scientifilicious move, the authors used the website in order to gather ‘data’ from the kinds of people who think it a cool idea to go to a website to take surveys on morality. Suuure! Can’t imagine any selection problems with such an approach, nor any problem with having anonymous people say whatever they want or whatever they think they should say. It’s data, damn it! I’m trying to imagine any mature adult taking those surveys, just waking up one day and thinking: in the 30 or so free minutes of time I’ve got today, instead of speaking with my spouse or children, calling up a friend, or working on a hobby, or reading a book, I’m going to go take surveys on a site put together by a bunch of over-serious phrenologists so I can learn, as a mature, functioning human being, what my morals are. What could be more fun than that?

SW: All of the data on the happiness gap relies on self-reports, and when we measured it in a different way, we got a different result. What we did in our study is look at differences in the way that liberals and conservatives evaluate themselves in general — not just on happiness, but on all kinds of traits and abilities. For this part of the study, we recruited over 1,400 participants from, a psychological research website that I and several of my co-authors help run. We asked people to evaluate their life satisfaction using the most commonly used measure in psychology. We also assessed their self-enhancement tendency in other domains.

What we found is that conservatives evaluate themselves in a more favorable way across the board. In psychology, we call this “self-enhancement,” and most people engage in some degree of it. There’s a study from the 1980s that asked Americans to rate their driving ability compared to other Americans, and something like 91 percent of the people say they are above-average drivers, which is impossible.

I’m not saying that conservatives are the only ones doing this, but they did show more self-enhancement in our study, and that tendency seemed to explain why they were reporting greater happiness.

I hope they copied the Nobel committee on this. Notice in this case claims of happiness are explained away by the tendency to overrate ourselves against an unknown (and often unknowable) average. Two issues: it is never entertained that these evaluations might be correct, that perhaps conservatives are in fact more competent  at certain things (and more happy!) than some mean level of competence (or happiness). Are they in fact slightly more competent so that their slight greater tendency toward “self enhancement” might be a side-effect of reality? Nope, they are just lying to themselves in compliance with the Lake Wobegon Effect; and that this kind of analysis is never applied to studies where the results conform to expectations – nobody digs this deep into studies that show Liberals are wonderful.

And do keep in mind that these conservatives are the kind of people who would go to a web page to learn about their morality.

5. In addition to the hard-headed, no nonsense science based on, we’re going to measure happiness by how sincerely politicians smile and whether they use more happy words. No, really:

SW: We looked at two things — smiling behavior and linguistics. We assessed smiling through something called the Facial Action Coding System or FACS, which looks at the two muscle groups associated with smiling.

For the linguistic analyses, it was just counting words, and we used software called LIWC [Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count] that has a ton of support in the psychological literature. (Well, there you go! Who could argue with that?) Basically, it’s a word-counting program that comes with dictionaries of words related to important psychological characteristics and emotions. We used LIWC to count the frequency with which people used words from the positive and negative emotion scales.

CA: And you did this facial and linguistic analysis on members of Congress?

SW: Yes. In the second study, we assessed the emotional content of speech for each of the members of Congress in the year 2013, and we observed more frequent positive emotional language among liberal politicians than among conservatives. We thought maybe there was something peculiar about the year 2013, so we also looked at the ratio of positive and negative emotionality for each party over the past 18 or so years in the congressional record. What we found was that Democrats used a higher ratio of positive to negative emotion words over that span of time.

We also assessed the smiling behavior of members of the 2013 Congress by looking at the congressional pictorial directory, which is a little booklet of official-looking photos of every member of Congress. I don’t know if anyone but me reads it, but we had a FACS-certified coder go through and analyze smile intensity in every photograph. We found that liberal politicians smiled more intensely than conservatives overall and this was especially true in the muscle orbiting the eye, which indicates more genuine smiling, often calledDuchenne smiling. Both of those together suggest that liberal politicians express more positive emotionality than conservative politicians.


How about a couple itsy-bitsy things dubious with this analysis? First, who says that the utterly manufactured *public* personas of politicians has anything to do with happiness in general?  Second, *politicians* are the representative subset of Liberals and Conservatives upon which we will base our analysis? Really?

6. But wait, there’s more!

CA: You also analyzed non-politicians. What did those studies show?

SW: In study three, we did a linguistic analysis of Twitter status updates, and we identified close to 4,000 participants. We found that tweets by people who followed the Democratic party had more positive and less negative emotional content than tweets by people who followed the Republican party.

In study four, we also wanted to try and replicate the smiling analysis, so we analyzed photos of people on LinkedIn who were associated with liberal and conservative organizations like Planned Parenthood and the Family Research Council. We found almost the exact same pattern that we observed in Congress, where liberals smiled more intensely than conservatives did — especially in the muscles orbiting the eyes — which indicates genuine happiness and enjoyment.

Twitter. ‘nough said. Yep, I’m imagining the ‘intense’ smile of the publicity shots of Planned Parenthood folks, and marveling at the level of happiness we can, using the stone certain tools of Science! conclude that they enjoy.

But the point is made:

CA: Your study was picked up all over the place. People obviously care, but why? Why does it matter whether liberals or conservatives are more happy?

SW: If people really care about being happy and promoting happiness, it’s important to understand what is and is not associated with it.

But since that’s a little transparently partisan, we’ll give it another coat of varnish and scuff it up a bit to give it that patina of TRVTH:

As I’ve talked to the media, I’ve almost felt that there have been some interviews where people seem extremely resistant to this. I’ve tried to understand where it’s coming from, and I think there’s a perception that our research is picking a winner and a loser.

But we’re not saying that liberals are happier than conservatives. We’re saying they behave happier, but conservatives report being happier, and we don’t know which of those is more important or more valuable or more predictive of the things that ultimately matter. It’s kind of a nuanced finding, and that doesn’t always translate as well. It would be great to just say this group is happier and this group wins and that group loses, but that’s not what this is about.

Yes, the troglodytes are resistant to the obvious truth that Liberals are *really* happy while Conservatives only pretend to be happy. Turns out that the target audience for this study can now go back to sleep.

1. Dr. Boli, as is so often the case, has made the definitive statement on this topic here. He’s talking about education degrees, but the same dynamic applies to all ‘soft science’ degrees, where the supply is required to go out and create its own demand, or die trying:

…One Web site counts 257 graduate programs in botany in America, and 11,141 graduate programs in education. In other words, there are roughly forty-three times as many educators as botanists. If there is enough useful work for all the botanists (which assumes that no significant numbers of those who hold advanced degrees in botany are actually working as dishwashers at the Eat’n Park), then there is probably enough useful work for one educator in forty-three…

…. But our educational traditions demand that graduate students come up with some original idea in their field. If knowledge in the field is new or rapidly changing, as (for example) it is in theoretical physics, then this insistence on coming up with new ideas may drive knowledge forward at a prodigious rate. If, however, the field is oversaturated with graduate students, then the inevitable result is that most of the new ideas—say, forty-two out of forty-three—are wrong.

How does one come up with original wrong ideas? It is not as easy as it sounds, but one good way is to follow a fad to the bitter end, exploring every dark corner of a blind cavern that is already mostly mapped by equally deluded spelunkers.

2. As Fr. Barron points out, Christ dying in agony on the cross is the very definition of a happy man. I’d assume that would be disputed by moderns, at least in so far as they would not be willing to test it personally.

3. Must make the neighbor/mankind distinction: doing good for your neighbor is the sort of activity of the soul from which happiness springs; helping mankind is more problematic in this respect. Anecdotal evidence suggests that helping mankind via eco-fanaticism or various Marxist theories, for example, do not tend to make anyone happy.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

3 thoughts on “Science!: Who’s Happier – by Ideology, of Course”

  1. something like 91 percent of the people say they are above-average drivers, which is impossible.

    Imagine a class of 100 students. Of these 91 score an A. The other eight score F, D, C, or B. The mean will necessarily be less than A, but 91% will score above that mean.

    1. Good point. That would be a case where, in addition to not specifying what they mean by ‘average’, they fail to take into consideration the possible uneven distribution of competence. Let’s imagine that being objectively competent at some tasks is related to reporting happiness to people giving surveys. Let’s also suppose that that *kind* of competence – say, being able to do the math, fix a car, build a house, punch a doggie, whatever – is more highly concentrated in populations outside major cities than inside them. (This is not entirely far-fetched, but one just so story deserves another. I’m imagining for my own evil purposes and according to all anecdotal evidence that being a more competent bureaucrat or paper pusher is not the sort of thing, in itself, that tends towards greater happiness.) Then, perhaps higher self-reported competence might result in higher self-reported happiness not as a measure of self-delusion, but as a measure of underlying reality. At least, a competent and honest researcher would have to rule such things out more convincingly than just some hand waving.

      But that’s asking for a lot when there’s a degree on the line.

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