Is Being Conservative Really the Ticket to Happiness?

I can see it in your eyes. I can see it in your smile. 

Back in 2015, David Brooks wrote a scathing review of the Republican Party in The New York Times. Following “a long chain of rhetorical excesses, mental corruptions and philosophical betrayals,” Brooks wrote, the GOP has “abandoned traditional conservatism for right-wing radicalism” and “the jaw-dropping incompetence” of figures like Donald Trump and Ben Carson. The turn away from true conservative principles has been accompanied by a disavowal of cool-headedness and an embrace of a “rhetorical tone [that] has grown ever more bombastic, hyperbolic, and imbalanced.”

Brooks’ portrait of Republicans is deeply grim. Yet its central contention might be a touch hyperbolic itself. Is it really the case that Rush Limbaugh is responsible for ushering in an era of hotheaded radicalism and sweeping out measured, austere, true conservatism? Were conservatives ever such dependable purveyors of wisdom and gravitas?

However we construe the meaning of conservatism, one data point has been rather consistent across the past couple of decades: Conservatives are happier than liberals. Brooks’ hand-wringing misery to one side, surveys consistently find that the political is personal: Your politics can have a measurable effect on your happiness. A Pew research survey in 2006 found that 47 percent of conservative Republicans reported being "very happy," compared to 28 percent of liberal Democrats. In a 2007 study, for example, Jaime Napier and John Jost found that “right-wing (vs. left-wing) orientation is indeed associated with greater subjective well-being.” They attributed the ideological happiness gap to “the notion that conservative ideology serves a palliative function” to soften the bad news that constantly erupts. Conservative ideology may be a balm to the soul.

When researchers report that conservatives are happier than liberals, they base that claim on survey respondents’ self-reported happiness levels. But there are a number of reasons to worry that this data is not perfectly dependable. As Rob Hoskin writes, self-report data could be tainted by a number of factors: outright dishonesty or image management, limited “introspective ability,” misunderstanding of the questions, and artificial rating scales, to name a few.

Still, one might say that these problems apply to everybody across the board and thus are no reason to think they would skew data out of shape in any systematic way. When we consult self-reported happiness levels, then, we might be getting noisy or imprecise data, but we shouldn’t expect the noise will result in gross errors one way or another.

That assumption may be wrong. A study published a few months ago suggests that political happiness research may contain a fundamental flaw that does, in fact, color the results. The typical finding that conservatives are happier "is fully mediated by conservatives’ self-enhancing style of self-report." In short, conservatives may be lying — or, more charitably, might be mistaken — when telling researchers they’re happy. Liberals might misrepresent their happiness, too, but in the other direction: lefties are happier than they say they are.

How do we know this? By watching how liberals and conservatives actually behave. It turns out that in their smiles and their language, liberals show signs of greater well-being than do conservatives. Sean Wojcik, a researcher in social psychology (and, by the looks of things, a happy guy) conducted several studies that bore out this conclusion. Here Wojcik explains his study to Christie Aschwanden at FiveThirtyEight:

What we found is that conservatives evaluate themselves in a more favorable way across the board. In psychology, we call this “self-enhancement,” and most people engage in some degree of it. ... We looked at two things — smiling behavior and linguistics. We assessed smiling through something called the Facial Action Coding System or FACS, which looks at the two muscle groups associated with smiling. For the linguistic analyses, it was just counting words, and we used software called LIWC [Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count] that has a ton of support in the psychological literature. Basically, it’s a word-counting program that comes with dictionaries of words related to important psychological characteristics and emotions. We used LIWC to count the frequency with which people used words from the positive and negative emotion scales.

So conservatives smile less often (and less genuinely) and use glum words more often when they talk. The trends are evident in the behavior of members of Congress:

In the second study, we assessed the emotional content of speech for each of the members of Congress in the year 2013, and we observed more frequent positive emotional language among liberal politicians than among conservatives. We thought maybe there was something peculiar about the year 2013, so we also looked at the ratio of positive and negative emotionality for each party over the past 18 or so years in the congressional record. What we found was that Democrats used a higher ratio of positive to negative emotion words over that span of time.

We also assessed the smiling behavior of members of the 2013 Congress by looking at the congressional pictorial directory, which is a little booklet of official-looking photos of every member of Congress. I don’t know if anyone but me reads it, but we had a FACS-certified coder go through and analyze smile intensity in every photograph. We found that liberal politicians smiled more intensely than conservatives overall and this was especially true in the muscle orbiting the eye, which indicates more genuine smiling, often called Duchenne smiling. Both of those together suggest that liberal politicians express more positive emotionality than conservative politicians.

The same holds for regular people, if you consider people who use Twitter “regular.” Liberals are sunnier in their 140 characters than are conservatives, and their smiles are broader and more genuine. Although all of his studies point in the same direction, Wojcik warns that the matter is deeper than either self-reporting or smile-observing can plumb: “[W]e’re not saying that liberals are happier than conservatives,” Wojcik says. “We’re saying they behave happier, but conservatives report being happier, and we don’t know which of those is more important or more valuable or more predictive of the things that ultimately matter.”

Steven V. Mazie is Professor of Political Studies at Bard High School Early College-Manhattan and Supreme Court Correspondent for The Economist. He holds an A.B. in Government from Harvard College and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan.

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.