Why are conservatives healthier than liberals? Personal responsibility, study suggests.

An emphasis on personal responsibility might explain why conservatives tend to be in better physical health than liberals.

  • A growing body of research suggests there's some relationship between our measurable personality traits and our political beliefs.
  • A recent study examined the relationship between political beliefs, personal responsibility and overall health.
  • The results suggest that an emphasis on responsibility might explain health differences between liberals and conservatives.

It's fairly well documented that conservatives tend to be healthier and than liberals, but what's less clear is why? Some say it's because conservatives tend to have higher incomes, and therefore have access to better health care. Others suggest it's because conservatives participate in more religious activities, which helps them build healthy social relationships.

A recent study offers a new hypothesis: Conservatives place greater value on personal responsibility, and therefore they take better care of themselves.

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, defined personal responsibility as "the degree to which individuals see themselves, not external agents, as accountable for their own behaviors, which can be in a variety of domains," including health. They don't suggest that personal responsibility is the only explanation for health differences between liberals and conservatives, but rather that it can play a role.

"Political ideology is interesting, but terribly difficult to study. Causation is almost impossible," Eugene Y. Chan, the author of the study and senior lecturer at Monash University, told PsyPost. "Most work, including mine, relies on correlational studies, so we can't conclusively say that conservatives are healthier because of personal responsibility, just that the findings indicate a relationship between them."

This relationship implies that we don't always reason our way into a political party, or vote a certain way just because our family and friends do. Rather, our measurable personality traits seem to be, in some way, pulling us to the left or right.

"I've always been interested in people's political beliefs, and always believed that such a trenchant way of seeing the world doesn't simply affect people's votes at the ballots but can influence how they live their lives, including how they see and maintain their health," Chan told PsyPost.

Politics, personal responsibility, and taking the stairs

In the study, the researchers asked 194 people to self-report their political ideology, overall physical health and emphasis on personal responsibility, as measured by how strongly they agreed with statements like "I pay my bills immediately" and "I put a seat belt on when I enter a car." The results showed conservatives tended to place greater emphasis on personal responsibility, which was positively correlated with better physical health.

A second study tested whether conservatives were more likely to take an opportunity to engage in physical activity. The researchers had participants fill out some surveys, and then asked each individual to take a piece of paper up one floor to another experimenter.

"An elevator was located right next to the behavioral lab but there was also a stairway that could be assessed through a hallway around the corner," the researchers wrote. "Signed were posted along the walls. To induce participants to take the stairs, the experimenter informed them that, 'Hey, if the elevator is taking too long, you can use the stairs just by following the signs.'"

Conservatives were more likely to take the stairs, suggesting they're more likely to engage in physical activity than liberals. Of course, other factors might explain why this was the case.

"A concern might be that we simply measured conformity in that conservatives may be more acquiescent or respond in a socially-desirable manner," the researchers wrote.

Priming people to "think conservatively"

In a third study, the researchers primed cigarette smokers with words conceptually related to conservative or liberal political ideology — e.g. "traditional" for conservative, "free" for liberal — and then rated their desire to quit smoking. The idea was that priming smokers with political conservatives would increase the accessibility of "personal responsibility that would then increase smokers' intentions to quit." And that seemed correct: Smokers primed with conservative terms expressed a stronger desire to quit — a finding that implies "it may be possible to prime people to think 'conservatively.'"

The researchers cautioned that their study observed correlations among political beliefs, personal responsibility and health, and didn't establish any causal factors. Still, they wrote that it's a "potential explanation" for health differences between liberals and conservatives.

"We now know that conservatives may (emphasize may!) be healthier because they feel more personally-responsible for their own health. It's all very similar to the Protestant Work Ethic, the idea that you need to be responsible for your own self," Chan told PsyPost.

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