Why The Little Engine That Could was a Conservative

Why are left-wingers less happy than right-wingers? According to psychologists Jaime Napier and John Jost, it’s because of the way they interpret inequality. American right-wingers are more likely to believe that hard work leads to success. As a result, they find inequality less troubling because they are less likely to see it as unfair.

In a recent post, Andrew Norton suggests another theory — one that doesn’t rely on ideological justifications for inequality:

… both lower average happiness and leftism have a common link to a weaker sense of personal control and optimism. Both these attributes are strongly correlated with happiness; and one of the tasks of the ‘positive psychology’ movement (the clinical side of subjective well-being research) is to try to enhance these senses.

But are these two theories really so different? After all, a person who believes that there’s a strong link between how hard they work and how successful they are, is a person who feels that they are in control of their economic destiny. In an effort-based meritocracy, success would be a matter of choice.

Andrew’s theory seems consistent with what we know about subjective well-being. But if he is arguing that leftists could be happier if only they believed in themselves a little more, he’s stepping well beyond what the research will support.

It seems likely that there is a relationship between self-efficacy and subjective well-being. A study on the self-efficacy and subjective well-being of low socio-economic status college students in China found that general self-efficacy "was positively correlated with General Affect, Life Satisfaction, and Index of Well-Being." But, as any statistician will tell you, correlation doesn’t imply causation.

Using other data they gathered from the subjects in their study, the researchers suggested that "low SES college students’ general self-efficacy and SWB decrease because they are unable to receive timely and necessary psychological support when confronting stress."

Self-efficacy is a subjective measure. It would be interesting to see the results of a study which managed to come up with an objective measure of efficacy — a measure of how much control an individual really did have over their prospects for success and failure. Perhaps it’s the reality of not having control over their lives that makes people unhappy. And maybe what left-wing voters really want are policies which would give individuals, families and communities more control.

Just chanting "I think I can" isn’t much help if the mountain really is too steep to climb.

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15 Responses to Why The Little Engine That Could was a Conservative

  1. Ken Parish says:

    Maybe it has to do with the fact that happiness research also shows a strong correlation between things like marriage and religion and happiness. I’m not sure that lefties are any less likely to be married, but they’re almost certainly less likely to be religious. Perhaps that has more to do with it than either the perception or reality of lack of control over one’s life.

    And maybe it even relates to Jonathan Haidt’s stuff about conservatives having a more broadly based moral sense:

    In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. Its not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.

    And this:

    Conservatives generally have a more pessimistic view of human nature than do liberals. They are more likely to believe that if you stand back and give kids space to grow as they please, theyll grow into shallow, self-centered, undisciplined pleasure seekers. Cultural conservatives work hard to cultivate moral virtues based on the three binding foundations: ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity, as well as on the universally employed foundations of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity. The beehive ideal is not a world of maximum freedom, it is a world of order and tradition in which people are united by a shared moral code that is effectively enforced, which enables people to trust each other to play their interdependent roles. It is a world of very high social capital and low anomie.

    It might seem obvious to you that contractual societies are good, modern, creative and free, whereas beehive societies reek of feudalism, fascism, and patriarchy. And, as a secular liberal I agree that contractual societies such as those of Western Europe offer the best hope for living peacefully together in our increasingly diverse modern nations (although it remains to be seen if Europe can solve its current diversity problems).

    I just want to make one point, however, that should give contractualists pause: surveys have long shown that religious believers in the United States are happier, healthier, longer-lived, and more generous to charity and to each other than are secular people. Most of these effects have been documented in Europe too. If you believe that morality is about happiness and suffering, then I think you are obligated to take a close look at the way religious people actually live and ask what they are doing right.

    Dont dismiss religion on the basis of a superficial reading of the Bible and the newspaper. Might religious communities offer us insights into human flourishing? Can they teach us lessons that would improve wellbeing even in a primarily contractualist society.

  2. Don Arthur says:

    Ken – I think people often confuse the state with society.

    A society is made up of a complex network of institutions. Many of these are neither government or market institutions. For example, families, friendship networks, community organisations and churches.

    I find it impossible to imagine a decent society where adult family members didn’t have a special kind loyalty to their own family’s children. And it’s difficult to understand how families could work if young children refused to respect the authority of parents and other adults.

    It seems to me that it’s possible to have state institutions which are governed by liberal principles while, at the same time, having most of society’s institutions shaped by quite different ‘virtues’.

    What the ‘contractual’ political regime requires is that citizens subordinate their passions and loyalties when they are acting on behalf of state. For example, judges can’t show a special partiality for family members and bureaucrats can’t decide to make income support conditional on religious belief or practice.

    Liberal principles such as Rawls”difference principle’ could never apply to the conduct of individuals or families. These are principles for the state.

  3. Paul Norton says:

    Another possible explanation was put forward by the author of Ecclesiastes some millennia ago:

    “1:18 For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” :(

  4. Jeremy says:

    THERE’S a reason to believe that everything is fine – it’ll make you happier! Not the people who are doing badly, necessarily, but a stubborn insistence that your fortune is deserved can only make you feel less guilty, and consequently, better about yourself.

    Also, working to make things better for other people is time-consuming and banging your head against the wall of stubborn self-interest of the powerful is depressing.

    I’m converting to conservatism today.

  5. Gummo Trotsky says:

    This could easily turn into a protracted argument about chickens and eggs. A few quick, possibly disconnected points:

    (1) Haidt’s stuff (as I’ve read it), isn’t about conservatives having a more broadly based ‘moral sense’ – that’s a bit too normative:

    I hope youll accept that as a purely descriptive statement. You can still reject the three binding foundations normativelythat is, you can still insist that ingroup, authority, and purity refer to ancient and dangerous psychological systems that underlie fascism, racism, and homophobia, and you can still claim that liberals are right to reject those foundations and build their moral systems using primarily the harm/care and fairness/reciprocity foundations.

    But just go with me for a moment that there is this difference, descriptively, between the moral worlds of secular liberals on the one hand and religious conservatives on the other…

    I find that difference between the moral worlds of liberals and conservatives starkly illustrated every time I read Mark Richardson on the subjects of national identity and ethnicity.

    As for the strong correlation between marriage, religion and happiness – without going too far into that chicken/egg territory, I’d suggest that in any society, happiness is going to correlate strongly with how ‘normal’ your public and personal life is. Get outside the realm of the ‘normal’ – for whatever reason – and life becomes less comfortable.

  6. Ken Parish says:

    Having now read Don’s comment, I’m now not sure I understand what he’s getting at. I think most people (not just lefties) agree that improving general access to quality education and vocational training is desirable. That would certainly be the best way of achieving actual objective improvements to one’s “efficacy”.

    However, I gather (and Don says) that “self-efficacy” is a subjective concept: – a matter of one’s own perception of one’s ability to master tasks and control one’s own life. It isn’t obvious to me from the description of self-efficacy I just linked that governments would have any major role in fostering it through policies or programs at the macro level, although individual educational institutions and teachers might well have a key role.

    However, none of that really explains why lefties have a lower sense of “self-efficacy” than conservatives. It seems a little unlikely that they in fact have less actual control over their lives than conservatives, which seems to be Don’s implicit point at the end of his post. Left-leaning beliefs (and to a large extent any clearly differentiated ideological belief system) seem to be a province of highly educated people: most people don’t have any ideologically coherent set of beliefs, as Don would know from political science research. Thus lefties probably have greater potential for control of their lives and careers than the average less well educated person. if their subjective sense of “self-efficacy” is lower on average than Tories, it is presumably either because of the sorts of factors that Napier and Jost or Andrew Norton suggest, or because many of them end up making stupid career and other choices that reduce their levels of “self-efficacy” and thus happiness. It isn’t obvious how governments could feasibly impact those choices/psychological characteristics.

  7. Stephen Hill says:

    “I think most people (not just lefties) agree that improving general access to quality education and vocational training is desirable.”

    If only the previous government (who aren’t exactly lefties) had done something about this maybe we could have some more accurate means of determining the links to this lack of success, determining how much of the influence is the result of structural barriers and individual indifference, but it is a long, long, long, long way from an even playing ground to really offer a fair contrast between individuals to work out what were the influential factors.

    I mean, this is how I remember the last twelve years of the previous g’ment, postgrad scholarships cutting in at high firsts (95%) (this obviously didn’t apply to Alexander Downer’s third-class honours awarded daughter), abolishing Austudy for postgrads, a threshold of only 27K to apply for Austudy (my father was unemployed for about a year and i still couldn’t get Austudy as my Mum was earning a staggeringly enormous wage of 28.5K), a recollection of a postgrad student who completed a PhD who wanted to get a DipEd to work in secondary schools but was prevented by those GEE-KNEE-USes Kemp, Nelson and Bishop who ensured that anyone who had postgraduate qualifications would be disallowed from getting Austudy (and nearly anyone who has completed the ordeal of graduate school is dead broke, as similar to any other apprenticeship you are functioning at the very bottom rung of the institution until you have your ticket/qualification)

  8. JC says:

    Stephen

    Sorry to hear about the plight of your parents.

    Did you ever consider the possibility of a part time job during your studies to help them along? There are/were plenty around.

    and nearly anyone who has completed the ordeal of graduate school is dead broke, as similar to any other apprenticeship you are functioning at the very bottom rung of the institution until you have your ticket/qualification)

    and you find this surprising? I would have thought its is quite self evident that kids starting out are on the light side in terms of cash in their pocket.

  9. Stephen Hill says:

    “possibility of a part time job”

    I worked full-time in all the gaps (Nov-late Feb) between undergrad years (and the work was boring as bat-shit, as my father would say it offered a strong incentive to make sure you released the importance of getting your qualification and getting Distinctions in all your subjects to avoid such unchallenging work in the future. Also while working for a few months there is the knowledge that there was an end-point at the end of February when you went back to uni (that this wasn’t going to last forever) which was a powerful motivator in seeing a light at the end of the tunnel (even if the funding cuts to education made the tunnel a lot longer) making the work seen in the base of the goal of completed my education, making sure I didn’t just see myself as a wage-slave who would be do the same thing forever.

    But in Honours when you knew required a grade-avage in the 90s to get a scholarship I was obviosuly spending every second I could trying to get out of the high eighties (low high-distinction) and into the ninety percentile band, and narrowly missed out on an APA. So it is important to remember there is also an opportunity cost to working while you are studying, when you are working, you are not studying – it reminds me of those people doing part-time PhDs that are due in 2014/15/16, who would have preferred to get thier qualification completion over and done with in their mid-late twenties, where a small amount of institutional support at the beginning would have halved the length of time it required to get the qualification (its the sort of thing that makes you sleepless, worrying that once you’ve completed your degree you’ll be considered too old to move into any another career path outside of academia and all the knowledge you have acquired will go to waste.)

  10. Stephen Hill says:

    Sorry about that JC, It was written in a bit of a rush, I have to prepare some lessons for some HSC students I’m tutoring, $20 an hour (and an extra hour unpaid when you are preparing lessons, reading HSC texts). There is so much in the altruism in the pursuit of knowledge that allows for wide-scale exploitation, I really should just turn up to these lessons without any preparation (as I’m not paid for any preparation) but I feel personally embarrassed and feel sorry for the students that they aren’t getting value for money.

  11. “Self-efficacy is a subjective measure. It would be interesting to see the results of a study which managed to come up with an objective measure of efficacy a measure of how much control an individual really did have over their prospects for success and failure. Perhaps its the reality of not having control over their lives that makes people unhappy.”

    Don – I’m sure real-world events do have an impact. But it’s not just that. There is some research (started by Australians Bruce Headey and Alex Wearing) that suggests a relationship between events and personality types. They found that similar events kept happening to the same people, because of the way those people interacted with the world around them. Also different personality types react very differently to the same events. An optimist will see a setback as a chance to try something different, a pessimist as confirming that all is indeed hopeless and future effort pointless.

  12. Paul Norton says:

    Also different personality types react very differently to the same events. An optimist will see a setback as a chance to try something different, a pessimist as confirming that all is indeed hopeless and future effort pointless.

    Which poses the interesting question of how this difference in outlook would map onto different positions in current debates about policy responses to global warming.

  13. FDB says:

    Paul – at each and of the optimism/pessimism continuum are the terminal points, both marked ‘delusional’.

  14. Just Me says:

    Well said, FDB. It is not a simple binary division. Where is the line between optimism and dangerous over reaching? Between pessimism and justified caution? Very slippery stuff.

    Those who preach the simplistic optimism/pessimism divide, and all that it supposedly implies, also need explain and take account of the solid research finding that the ‘pessimists’ are also considerably better than the ‘optimists’ at predicting the outcome of real world events. An important finding, that at the very least seriously tempers the silly claim about optimism being innately superior in all situations.

    Following on from that, they also need to explain why ‘pessimism’ persists in the population if it is so deleterious to health and life.

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