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Are Conservatives Happier Consumers?

Researchers tie their reluctance to make a fuss to the fact that they are more invested in the status quo.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Jelle/Flickr)

So, that used car that was billed as being “like new” broke down within a month of your purchase. And to make things worse, the bank where you got the loan to purchase it charged you hidden fees.

Did you demand satisfaction? File a complaint? Surprisingly enough, the answer may depend on your political leanings.

That’s the conclusion of newly published research, which finds “ideology has a robust effect on consumer complaint behaviors.”

“More politically conservative counties are less likely to file complaints, and less likely to dispute complaint resolution efforts,” a research team led by Kiju Jung of the University of Sydney writes in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Jung and his colleagues argue this reflects conservatives’ “need to justify the appropriateness and rights of the existing system, even if it leaves you at a disadvantage.”

That impulse is known as “system justification,” and it has been linked to opposition of everything from climate-change mitigation policies to Barack Obama’s health-care overhaul. New York University psychologist John Jost, who coined the phrase, explains that many people “are motivated to justify and rationalize the way things are,” rather than deal with the implicit uncertainty of change.

Since they tend to be more heavily invested in the status quo, conservatives are more prone to this way of thinking than liberals. With that in mind, Jung and his colleagues decided to explore whether this impulse would dampen the desire to complain about shoddy consumer practices.

They examined the consumer complaint databases of three government agencies: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Federal Communications Commission. They looked at the number of complaints, and the percentage of proposed resolutions that were accepted. They then compared those figures with the ideological make-up of each American county (as reflected in its vote in the 2012 presidential election).

“Consumers in more conservative counties are less likely than those in less conservative counties not only to report a complaint,” they write, “but also to dispute the proposed resolution.” This equation held true after taking into account such variables as income, education, gender, and age.

You may ask: Could this simply reflect the fact conservatives don’t trust the government, and thus are less likely to file an official complaint? Perhaps so, but the researchers also took an online survey of 182 Americans, who were queried about their ideological beliefs and asked how they would respond to an unexpected bank charge.

They found people who scored higher on a system-justification index “were also more likely to perceive the bank’s policy regarding the fee charge to be fair.”

This is not the first study to link political ideology with consumer behavior. A 2013 study found conservatives, being more risk-averse than liberals, are more likely to choose “established national brands” than either new or generic products.

Altogether, the study provides more evidence that our political preferences and consumer choices both grow out of, and reflect, our deeper psychological make-up. It also offers a rare piece of good news for Ivanka Trump. If conservatives follow Kellyanne Conway’s ethically questionable advice and buy her products, they’re highly unlikely to ask for their money back.