Research Gone Wild: Happiness on the Hill

Are conservatives more miserable than liberals?
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(Photo: Brandon Bourdages/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Brandon Bourdages/Shutterstock)

WHAT WAS REPORTED

According to NBC News, “A new study finds that when you look at objective criteria, liberals look happier than conservatives.” The New York Times and many other publications covered the research, led by the University of California–Irvine doctoral candidate Sean P. Wojcik and published in Science, and noted that this is a reversal of a decade’s worth of surveys in which conservatives said that they were happier than liberals.

WHAT THE STUDY ACTUALLY SAID

Using the Facial Action Coding System, a system developed by psychologists to categorize human facial movements, the researchers analyzed the smiling behaviors of the 113th United States Congress. They concluded that Democrats were slightly more likely than Republicans to display smiles that signal genuine happiness, but averred that “this did not reach statistical significance.” They also found that the language of liberal politicians “tended to more frequently express positive emotional language,” but “[t]hese effects were modest in size.” Looking at photos from the social media pages of political organizations, they found that smiles were “marginally more intense among employees at ideologically liberal organizations.”

SO?

Don’t go changing your voter registration just yet. When social scientists use words like “small,” “marginally,” “modest,” and “slightly,” you can take them at their word—and then some. Even the authors of the study caution that it would be “a mistake to infer from our data that liberals are ‘objectively’ happier than conservatives.” The study itself also lays out numerous shortcomings in its research methods, such as not directly testing for “previously proposed mechanisms for the ideological happiness gap, such as differences in ideological values.”

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