Sam Uretsky

Fear Makes Conservatives Happy

There have been several studies showing that conservatives are happier than liberals, regardless of personal economics or even social condition.

In the June 2008 edition of Psychological Sciences, a team of researchers from New York University published a paper entitled “Why are conservatives happier than liberals?” They found that conservatives really do seem to be happier than liberals, and beyond that, “...increasing economic inequality (as measured by the Gini index) from 1974 to 2004 has exacerbated the happiness gap between liberals and conservatives.”

While liberals and progressives are upset by the concentration of wealth in the topmost 1% of the population, it just makes conservatives happier.  “Apparently” the authors wrote, “... conservatives (more than liberals) possess an ideological buffer against the negative hedonic effects of economic inequality.”

Psychology is a soft science, so soft that it sometimes feels absolutely squishy. One of the common study subjects for graduate students of psychology is the topic of what makes people liberal or conservative. There have been lots of studies, and a typical example was a 2003 paper from Stanford University, published with the title “Political conservatism as motivated social cognition.” While the NYU study concluded that conservatives are happy people, not bothered by a world that isn’t fair, the West Coast research paints them differently. They described conservative traits: “several psychological variables predict political conservatism: death anxiety, system instability, dogmatism-intolerance of ambiguity...”

The NYU study describes conservatives as protected from the consequences of their actions by a lack of conscience, but this is balanced out, in the Stanford report, by a well stuffed fear closet, a collection of terrors hiding under the bed. One of the most important aspects may be the “intolerance of ambiguity,” fear of anything that’s difficult to understand. This explains the conservative position on global warming and fiscal stimulus (spending your way out of a recession.) Conservatives are afraid of death, afraid of social change, and afraid of anything they don’t understand. Keynes, after all, called the natural response to an economic downturn, rushing to cut back on spending, which only makes things worse, “the paradox of thrift.” Paradox is hard to understand, so of course conservatives are afraid of it.

So, psychology can pretty well explain the Republican Tea Party politicians and the people who voted them in. To be sure, most of the people who voted for Republicans in 2010 probably weren’t analyzing the entire party platform, they were just responding to a lousy economy, and hoping that the other guys might do better than the ones who were elected two years before – but some people did line up to support Sarah Palin, Paul Ryan et al.

At the same time, the economic downturn, the rash of home foreclosures and layoffs, did make many people feel legitimately insecure, and insecurity leads to fear. This may also explain some of the focus on firearms and the right to carry weapons for self-protection. Generalized fear is a terrible thing, and no matter how complex the problem, the far right had a simple solution. 

In short, the Republican Party has become an institutionalized version of one of those comic book monsters that feeds on fear. By offering non-solutions – layoffs of teachers and police, cutting essential social programs for the poor, sick and elderly – they have the means to perpetuate the problem. At a time when consumer spending is beginning to increase, which is the prelude to an economic recovery, the Republicans are demanding major cuts in government spending which may reverse any economic revival.

When there’s hope that the job market may be improving, they’re ready to force more layoffs – and while a major part of the budget deficit could be fixed by simply asking the rich and super-rich to pay a fair share of the costs of operating the country, the Republicans were willing to hold benefits for the unemployed hostage to protect the Bush tax cuts for the rich.

There will always be some people who are, by nature, conservative, but there will be far more who are drawn to simplicity and security during times of stress. Understanding how this happens is the first step to correcting what is, ultimately, a real social problem. Franklin Roosevelt understood that, and with the benefits of scientific investigation, we should too.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email him at

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2011

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