Want to be happy? Believe life is fair (btw, it’s not)

I’m definitely a very happy person.  I honestly attribute it to the luck of the genetic lottery more than anything (of course I have a great family and great friends, but we all know that’s just not enough for some people).  Of course, given my belief in the arbitrariness and randomness of life, this suggests I should actually be less happy.

After closing my recent post with speculation about ideology, happiness, and just world beliefs, I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue.  Of course, one of the very frustrating things about Brooks‘ Op-Ed is that he entirely ignores the correlation/causation issue.  I.e., how much of the fact that conservatives are happier is the greater marriage rates and religiosity, rather than ideology, per se.  It’s not like we don’t have basic statistical techniques to deal with this.  As it happens, I’ve already been spending the last week plugging away with General Social Survey data (for parenthood research, of course), and it was quite easy enough to find the “happiness” measure and substitute it for my dependent variable.  Results?  The impact of being politically conservative remains statistically significant on happiness when you add in religiosity, marriage, and a fewer others, but it is much diminished in size of impact.  And, of course, since I already had parenthood in there, I can report that even with a whole bunch of other controls, parents are less happy (wow– imagine how happy I’d be without kids 🙂 ).

Since I  was already playing with GSS I spent some time trying to find if there are any decent “just world” measures in the dataset.  Not really.  But it did eventually lead me back to the Jost article that Brooks so off-handedly disposes of.   It’s good stuff.  Makes a pretty compelling case that “rationalization of inequality” is related to happiness.  That said, I also took a good look at the piece that Brooks suggests undermines the Jost case.  Brooks:

So conservatives are ignorant, and ignorance is bliss, right? Not so fast, according to a study from the University of Florida psychologists Barry Schlenker and John Chambers and the University of Toronto psychologist Bonnie Le in the Journal of Research in Personality. These scholars note that liberals define fairness and an improved society in terms of greater economic equality. Liberals then condemn the happiness of conservatives, because conservatives are relatively untroubled by a problem that, it turns out, their political counterparts defined.

And, by the way, to simply determine the  problem “inequality” as if it something only liberals choose to care about is quite dishonest.  How about seeing the problem as the fact that lots of people are born into poverty and suffering and face a society with not near the social mobility conservatives think there is.  Here’s the conclusion of the Chambers’ study:

Conservatives score higher than liberals on personality and attitude measures that are traditionally associated with positive adjustment and mental health, including personal agency, positive outlook, transcendent moral beliefs, and generalized beliefs in fairness. These constructs, in turn, can account for why conservatives are happier than liberals and have declined less in happiness in recent decades.

Here’s the thing: life is not fair!  Look around.  Just watch one of those commercials about the starving kids.  They deserve that?  Ask why I am able to spend my morning blogging about this  in my comfortable home while some 8 year old somewhere is ending a 12-hour shift and hoping they’ll be enough food for him.   Or on a more basic level that my kids have a home with two well-educated, caring parents, and many kids don’t have a home with  a single caring parent.  Or that wonderful (and healthy people) die at 40 from pancreatic cancer while some life-long mean-spirited smokers die at 80 of old age.  Obviously, I could go on.

So, because I researched this way more than I should, here’s a little bit more so it doesn’t all go to  waste:

Fist, Jonah Lehrer with a really nice explanation of how the Just World bias works.  And this conclusion:

The moral of the Just World Hypothesis is that people have a powerful intuition that the world is just and that people get what they deserve. While I’m sure this instinct makes all sorts of social contracts possible, it also leads to one very troubling tendency: we often rationalize injustices away, so that we can maintain our naive belief in a just world. This, I believe, is what happens when we read about innocent people getting sent to Guantanamo, or the wrong immigrant getting waterboarded, or why it’s so easy to brush aside calls for prison reform. We might acknowledge the awfulness of the error, but then quip that he shouldn’t have been hanging around with the Taliban, or that the guy who got sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit was still a creep, or that the Madoff victims should have known their money manager was a fraud.

Second, a nice summary that relates to ideology:

Zick Rubin of Harvard University and Letitia Anne Peplau of UCLA have conducted surveys to examine the characteristics of people with strong beliefs in a just world. They found that people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more conservative, [emphasis mine] more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but still significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to “feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims.”

And third, a couple papers I came across that show from various angles that lack of concern about the poor is related to just world beliefs.

So, even if we cannot make a 100% causal claim, we certainly do know that just world beliefs are significantly associated with A) being happier, B) less concern for poor or people suffering, C) political conservatism.   And I would add D) just world beliefs are a cognitive bias.  If you actually think the world is fair, you really need to open your eyes.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

3 Responses to Want to be happy? Believe life is fair (btw, it’s not)

  1. Stefan Haag says:

    I found this paragraph in Andre and Velasquez’s piece interesting:

    “Neither science nor psychology has satisfactorily answered the question of why the need to view the world as just exerts such a powerful influence on human behavior and the human psyche. But the research suggests that humans have a need to bring their beliefs about what is right into conformity with the objective reality they encounter–and that they will work to achieve consistency either by modifying their beliefs or attempting to modify that reality. By becoming more conscious of our own tendencies, we may be more inclined to take the latter approach.”

    So cognitive dissonance can make people more likely to work to achieve more justice in the world, but that’s only if they’re conscious of their tendencies. I’m an optimist and hope people who encounter injustice attempt to modify reality.

    BTW, shouldn’t it be “know” and not “not” in the first sentence of the last paragraph. Also, is Livingston incorrect: Are conservatives happier than liberals even in the most recent GSS surveys?

    • Steve Greene says:

      1) Thanks for catching the typo. Fixed.
      2) There is no relationship between ideology and happiness in the 2010 (most recent) GSS data. The r=.004. Whereas ideology is a robust predictor of happiness (with many controls) over the whole 2000-2010 period, it is nowhere near significant for 2010 alone. Interesting indeed.

  2. Mike in Chapel Hill says:

    I think there needs to be a distinction between beliefs about the correlation between individual-agency and individual outcome (i.e, efficacy) and moral notions of “fairness”. The fact nice people die from cancer should not be used to assess the validity of just world beliefs. For the most part no one has much control over this outcome. And I would say that for the most part, life is fair, but it depends on what you mean by “life”. Do you mean the scope of human history? All people living on earth right now? Or the link between individual agency and individual outcomes in the US or other developed countries? If you’re studying the link between JWB and ideology in modern US politics then I have a hunch that most respondents in the GSS survey (and others) are thinking about the link between individual agency and individual outcomes more than they are about the philosophical question of the living conditions of humans everywhere or for all time. I bet a question ordering experiment would show the percentage of people endorsing a JWB is dependent on whether general questions about fairness are asked before or after specific questions. This is similar to what you find when trying to measure life or work satisfaction, Presidential or leader performance evaluations, or self-reports of interest in politics.

    I have long been irked that any article on this topic almost always includes the lament that the JWB allows adherents to “often rationalize injustices away” but rarely talks about the consequences of what happens when people believe that you hardly ever get what you deserve because the world is so random and unfair. This produces a self-fulfilling fatalism that exacerbates the social inequities that are often cited as evidence for an unfair and unjust world. To take an example: a kid in a neighborhood rife with drug dealers, unemployment, high school dropouts, pregnant teenagers and so on is taught that she can’t succeed because the deck is stacked against her. So she is an inattentive student who drops of out of high school and gets pregnant. Surprise. Her chances of improving her situation is pretty dim — but is this because the deck is stacked against her (and her group) or because she is a functionality illiterate single mother under the age of 25? I could change the social setting to kids from a poor rural mining community, or a poor rural farming community and the lesson is the same: if you think you efforts are futile then what’s the point of trying?

    Finally, you ought to look again at Robert Lane’s book “Political Ideology”. At least one if his subjects is a blue collar worker who feels that his future is limited by his skills, education and social background, and that the system favors people from his boss’ class. Nonetheless, he seemed to believe in the underlying fairness of the system and in the adage that you get what you deserve. How could this be? I think it was partly a defensive posture that made his effort seem worthwhile, and it maintained the hope that his children would do better than he did, under the assumption that upward mobility was possible. Even though the interviews were from the late 1950s in an urban East coast city, many of the insights are relevant today.

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