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Why Are Conservatives Happier? The Selflessness of Their Selfishness

2012 September 16
by Eric Horowitz

Research has consistently found that conservatives score higher than liberals on self-reported happiness measures. The standard explanations tend to involve differences regarding religion, marriage, openness, opportunity, and perceptions of fairness, but some new research hints at another, previously overlooked explanation.

Penn’s Jonathan Berman and Deborah Small were interested in how the conditions under which people engage in self-interested actions influence how happy the actions make them. Although people are driven by self-interested pursuits, we are social animals and thus we have a conflicting desire to act in a prosocial manner. Berman and Small reasoned that when this conflict is removed by externally imposing self-interested behavior, people would report more happiness than when they freely choose to engage in the behavior. In a series of three experiments that’s exactly what they found:

Study 1 shows that externally imposing an option of self-interest (a reward) increases outcome happiness compared with allowing choice, but externally imposing a prosocial option (a donation to charity) does not. Study 2 provides additional evidence for our hypothesis, showing that trade-offs between self-benefiting and prosocial options reduce outcome happiness more than trade-offs that involve the self only. In Study 3, we further revealed the mechanism driving our results by directly manipulating perceived agency. Participants indicated their preference for a self-benefitting or a prosocial option and eventually received their preferred option. However, some participants knew that they would receive their preference, whereas others were led to believe that the outcome was externally chosen by a computer. Participants were happier with self-interest when they believed that it was externally chosen.

Conservatives are more likely than liberals to believe that strong societies are made when people strive for individual greatness rather than concern themselves with collective well-being — i.e. the best way to increase society’s “sum of its parts” is for each part to focus on maximizing its own value. The notion that acting selfish will improve yourself and your society essentially “imposes” self-interested actions on people. If you’re a good person who cares about others you have no choice but to act in a self-interested manner. Because liberals are less taken with this view, they will perceive a real choice between self-interested and prosocial actions, and thus when they do engage in self-interested actions they will derive less happiness from them.

The study also illustrates the appeal of the “God wants you to be rich” churches that have been popping up around the country. When God himself is requiring you to make money there is no choice that needs to be made, and thus the self-interested actions you take to get rich will lead to more happiness.

Finally, the study also hints at a simple way people can increase each other’s happiness. When you know your friend is going to do something self-interested, you can help by giving them permission or theorizing about why they have to do it. For example, if a friend decides they’re going to go to a concert rather than give another friend a ride somewhere, telling them “You have to go — you never know when you’ll get another chance to see the Baja Men” will increase their enjoyment.

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Berman, J.Z., & Small, D.A. (2012). Self-Interest Without Selfishness : The Hedonic Benefit of Imposed Self-Interest Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612441222

7 Responses leave one →
  1. September 16, 2012

    Thanks for sharing. It is an interesting report.

  2. September 19, 2012

    Good explanation about the conservative happier.Keep on good work on the blog.I regularly visit your blog.

    tieguanyin

  3. Michael permalink
    September 21, 2012

    Eric, how do you reconcile your characterization of conservative beliefs with conservatives’ higher levels of charitable giving? I don’t know of any conservative thinker (as opposed to Randian libertarian) who is unconcerned with society’s collective well-being. Rather, the question is whether that is best improved through private/voluntary vs. public/involuntary action.

    Certainly there is a strain of pop conservative psychology that casually assumes that better-for-me = better-for-all, just as sloppy liberalism can assume that whatever helps one, hurts all. But you misrepresent conservatism to suggest that “selfishness” is a key concept.

    • Eric Horowitz permalink*
      September 30, 2012

      Michael, sorry for the delayed response. The notifications about all these comments got caught in my spam folder.

      I don’t think I was implying that selfishness is a key concept of conservatism, just that relative to liberals, conservatives are marginally more likely to to view an act that’s not inherently selfless as still contributing to social welfare. I also wasn’t implying that’s a bad thing. Social welfare may improve if society as a whole was marginally less concerned with selfless acts.

      As for higher rates of charitable giving, that’s interesting. Conservatives tend to be wealthier and more religious (about 1/3 or all donations are to religious organizations), and so I wonder whether the stats on giving would remain true if the numbers were controlled for those two characteristics.

  4. Cory Clark permalink
    September 22, 2012

    I see this study as showing that individuals are happier when they make decisions based on their own self-interest, rather than having decisions forced upon them. Self-interest is different than selfishness.

    Selfishness is when one is only concerned about one’s self, with no interest for others. Self-interest is when one acts in a way that is satisfying to one’s self, but also encompasses a compassion for others as well.

    For example, a conservative who see’s a person in need of money, and gives that person $20.00, will be happy because the act was self-satisfying due to doing something kind for another person. If the conservative were selfish, he/she would never even consider helping the person in need.

  5. July 26, 2013

    To put it in a nutshell: selfishness requires a metaphysical prop otherwise the ghost of Christmas past comes to visit you in the wee hours.

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