Why Are Conservatives Happier Than Liberals ?

Why Are Conservatives Happier Than Liberals?

Jaime L. Napier and John T. Jost (2008)

ABSTRACT—In this research, we drew on system-justification theory and the notion that conservative ideology serves a palliative function to explain why conservatives are happier than liberals. Specifically, in three studies using nationally representative data from the United States and nine additional countries, we found that right-wing (vs. left-wing) orientation is indeed associated with greater subjective well-being and that the relation between political orientation and subjective well-being is mediated by the rationalization of inequality. In our third study, we found that increasing economic inequality (as measured by the Gini index) from 1974 to 2004 has exacerbated the happiness gap between liberals and conservatives, apparently because conservatives (more than liberals) possess an ideological buffer against the negative hedonic effects of economic inequality.

In 2006, a public-opinion survey addressing the relation between political orientation and happiness inspired headlines and editorials around the world. Specifically, according to the Pew Research Center, 47% of conservative Republicans in the United States described themselves as ‘‘very happy,’’ as compared with only 28% of liberal Democrats (Taylor, Funk, & Craighill, 2006, p. 16). The conservative columnist George Will relished these statistics, writing that ‘‘liberalism is a complicated and exacting, not to say grim and scolding, creed. And not one conducive to happiness’’ (Will, 2006).

There are several reasons why conservatives might be happier than liberals, and only a few of these were considered by the Pew researchers. The least interesting of these, from a psychological perspective, involve demographic differences between liberals and conservatives with respect to income, age, education, sex, religiosity, and marital status. The results of the Pew survey suggest that the happiness gap associated with ideology is not entirely due to demographic factors, although religiosity does seem to play a significant role (Haidt, 2006). Nevertheless, at least two psychologically intriguing possibilities remain.

First, there is a sizable research literature documenting robust differences between liberals and conservatives in terms of cognitive styles and motivation (e.g., Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003). To the extent that liberals tend to enjoy thinking more and to prolong cognitive closure, whereas conservatives tend to prefer relatively simple, unambiguous answers to life’s questions (Kruglanski, Pierro, Mannetti, & De Grada, 2006), liberals might become less satisfied with their current situation because of the deleterious effects of rumination and introspection (e.g., Wilson, Kraft, & Dunn, 1989). If this is the case, then one would expect that ideological differences in the need for cognition (Petty & Jarvis, 1996) would account for the gap in subjective well-being.

A second possibility arises from system-justification theory (Jost & Banaji, 1994). Research shows that political conservatism is a system-justifying ideology in that it is associated with the endorsement of a fairly wide range of rationalizations of current social, economic, and political institutions and arrangements (Jost, Nosek, & Gosling, 2008). Previous work reveals that the endorsement of system-justifying beliefs is generally associated with high personal satisfaction, as well as increased positive affect and decreased negative affect (Lerner, 1980; Major, 1994; Wakslak, Jost, Tyler, & Chen, 2007); this is referred to as the palliative function of system-justifying ideology (Jost & Hunyady, 2002).

[…] Given that equality — at least with respect to opportunities, if not always outcomes — is something of a cultural ideal and that most people (especially liberals) view equality as desirable and just (Rawls, 1971/1999), the presence of inequality poses a potential threat to the legitimacy of the status quo (Jost & Hunyady, 2002). Accordingly, Alesina, Di Tella, and MacCulloch (2004) found that there is a general tendency (stronger among Europeans than among Americans) for people to report less happiness as economic inequality in society increases. To the extent that political conservatives are more likely than liberals and moderates to accept and justify the existence of unequal outcomes and to see them as fair and legitimate (Jost, Glaser, et al., 2003), it follows that they should be less adversely affected by inequality. Conversely, liberals may be less happy than conservatives because they are less ideologically prepared to rationalize (or explain away) the degree of inequality in society.

It is well known by economists that the degree of inequality in the United States and other industrialized societies has been increasing over the past three decades (Milanovic, 2002; Saez & Piketty, 2006). If conservative ideology, as we have argued, serves a palliative function and buffers its adherents from discontent arising from societal inequality, then as inequality has grown, the gap in subjective well-being between liberals and conservatives should also have grown. In other words, the negative hedonic consequences of increasing inequality should have been felt more strongly by liberals, who lack ideological justifications for disparities, than by conservatives.



We constructed a five-step linear regression model predicting life satisfaction with political orientation in the first step; demographic variables in the second step; church attendance in the third step; and the explanatory variables, need for cognition and rationalization of inequality, entered in the fourth and fifth steps, respectively. Because the dependent variable contained only three response categories, we used robust standard errors to correct for nonnormality of the residuals. As Table 1 shows, there was a significant positive relation between political orientation and life satisfaction, replicating the results of the Pew survey. In Step 2, we found that this relation persisted even after we adjusted for demographic variables. Furthermore, adjusting for church attendance in Step 3 and need for cognition in Step 4 brought about no change in the relation between conservatism and happiness. After adjusting for rationalization of inequality in Step 5, however, we found that the effect of conservatism on life satisfaction was no longer reliable.

To test for the hypothesized role of rationalization of inequality as a mediator, we ran a regression model with liberalism-conservatism predicting rationalization of inequality. After adjusting for other variables in the model, we found that conservatism was significantly associated with rationalization of inequality, b = 0.29, SE = 0.02, p < .001. A Sobel test (Baron & Kenny, 1986) confirmed that, as hypothesized, rationalizing inequality significantly accounted for increased life satisfaction among conservatives, Sobel statistic = 2.22, p < .03.


There were some clear limitations to Study 1. First, we used a fairly broad measure of the tendency to accept and rationalize inequality. According to system-justification theory, however, people (and especially conservatives) not only accept inequality in society, but also are motivated to see inequality as being caused by fair procedures and legitimate systems, such as meritocracy (e.g., Jost & Hunyady, 2002; Jost, Pelham, Sheldon, & Sullivan, 2003; Major, 1994). Second, it is at least conceivable that conservatives’ greater satisfaction in the 2000 NES was due to the fact that the Republican party had recently won the presidency. Third, Study 1 examined the palliative effect of conservative ideology in a single cultural context. We could not know whether the same effect would be found in other cultural contexts, and whether the relation between ideology and well-being would be more pronounced in countries with greater economic hardships. In Study 2, we addressed these issues using data from the World Values Survey.


Nation-Level Predictors

In a multilevel model involving respondents from the 10 countries, we adjusted for several macroeconomic indicators that relate to national happiness levels, including inflation and unemployment rates (Di Tella, MacCulloch, & Oswalk, 2001) and real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita (Diener & Oishi, 2000).


Subjective Well-Being Among Left- and Right-Wingers in the United States

We first constructed a stepwise linear regression model to predict subjective well-being in the United States. Political orientation was entered in the first step, adjustment variables were entered in the second and third steps, and endorsement of meritocracy was entered in the fourth step. As Table 2 shows, political orientation was again a significant predictor of subjective well-being in Steps 1 and 2, even after we adjusted for demographic variables. [1] It remained significant in Step 3, after adjusting for church attendance. In Step 4, we found that the endorsement of meritocratic beliefs was, as hypothesized, positively related to subjective well-being. More important, adding this variable reduced the effect of right-wing orientation on well-being to the point of marginal significance. A mediational analysis revealed that right-wing orientation predicted endorsement of meritocratic beliefs, b = 0.12, SE = 0.04, p < .001, and that this endorsement accounted significantly for the relation between right-wing orientation and subjective well-being, Sobel statistic = 2.49, p < .02.

[1] We also examined the notion that the palliative effect of ideology is strongest for those persons who are most disadvantaged. In Study 2, we observed a significant interactive effect of ideology and income on well-being in the U.S. sample, b = 0.12, SE = 0.06, p < .05; conservatives were relatively happy regardless of income level, whereas poor liberals were significantly less happy than wealthy liberals. However, this interaction was not replicated for the other countries examined in Study 2, nor did it attain significance in Study 1 or Study 2.

Subjective Well-Being Among Left- and Right-Wingers in All 10 Countries

We also constructed a multilevel model, adjusting the intercept of each nation for GDP, unemployment rate, inflation rate, and the HDI. The results for Model 1 in Table 3 show that right-wing orientation was positively and significantly related to well-being after we adjusted for country-level variations in economic and other circumstances. Furthermore, in Model 2, meritocratic beliefs were significantly and positively associated with subjective well-being. A mediational analysis revealed that right-wing orientation predicted endorsement of meritocratic beliefs, b = 0.13, SE = 0.02, p < .001, and that this endorsement mediated the relation between ideology and well-being, Sobel statistic = 5.82, p < .001. [2]

2. There was no significant random variation in the slope of the regression of subjective well-being on meritocratic beliefs (σ² = 0.00, p > .40), so we fixed the variance of this slope to zero in order to test for mediation (e.g., Kenny, Korchmaros, & Bolger, 2003).

In Models 3 and 4, we also examined interactions between ideological variables and quality of life (as measured by the HDI). As Table 3 shows, there was a marginally significant interaction between right-wing orientation and HDI, but no interaction between meritocratic ideology and HDI. Simple slopes analysis revealed that political orientation had a somewhat stronger effect on well-being in low-HDI countries, b = 0.13, SE = 0.03, p < .001, than in high-HDI countries, b = 0.04, SE = 0.02, p < .02, but that the effect of political orientation on well-being was significant in high-HDI countries as well.


[…] In Study 3, we used data from the General Social Survey and the U.S. Census to test the hypothesis that as economic inequality in society has increased in recent decades, self-reported happiness has decreased, especially among liberals. We expected that conservatives’ ideological beliefs have provided an emotional buffer against the negative hedonic consequences of inequality in society.



We constructed a two-level model using robust standard errors to predict individual-level happiness. On the year level, the intercept was adjusted for unemployment, inflation, party in power, and the Gini index. At the individual level, we used political orientation and demographic adjustment variables to predict happiness. We also allowed political orientation to interact with the Gini index and with the party-in-power variable.

As Table 4 shows, with the notable exception of the Gini coefficient, the year-level variables had relatively slight influence on happiness scores. We found that happiness was inversely related to economic inequality; thus, increased inequality was indeed associated with decreased subjective well-being. There was again a significant effect of political orientation on happiness, indicating that conservatives tended to be happier than liberals, even after we adjusted for other variables. This effect was qualified by a two-way interaction between political orientation and the degree of economic inequality, b = 1.52, SE = 0.36, p < .001. As Figure 1 illustrates, inequality exacerbated the happiness gap between liberals and conservatives. That is, increasing inequality was associated with a steeper decrease in happiness among liberals than among conservatives. 3 Analyses of simple slopes (Preacher, Curran, & Bauer, 2006) revealed that for liberals, happiness was significantly related to increasing inequality, b = -2.57, SE = 0.79, p < .01, whereas for conservatives, it was not, b = -1.06, SE = 0.69, n.s.


In addition, our work offers a theoretical framework that could help to explain why the negative relation between inequality and happiness is stronger in Europe than it is in the United States. Alesina et al. (2004) proposed that the American emphasis on meritocratic ideology renders economic inequality less aversive to Americans than to Europeans (see also Hartz, 1955). […]

There is no reason to think that the effects we have identified here are unique to economic forms of inequality. Research suggests that highly egalitarian women are less happy in their marriages compared with their more traditional counterparts (Wilcox & Nock, 2006), apparently because they are more troubled by disparities in domestic labor (Coltrane, 2000). System-justification theory provides a powerful means of analyzing and appreciating the palliative effects of rationalizing various forms of inequality in social relations, as well as the costs of failing to do so.