Study suggests lower levels of neuroticism explain why conservative states are happier

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Conservative states tend to have higher levels of life satisfaction because they have lower levels of neuroticism compared to liberal states, according to new research from a psychologist at Cape Breton University.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Reports, helps explain why there is a correlation between higher conservatism and higher life satisfaction.

“I have had longstanding interests in social, personality, and political psychology,” explained study author Stewart J. H. McCann. “My special interest in personality and its state-level correlates was sparked in 2008 when Dr. P. Jason Rentfrow of the University of Cambridge and his colleagues produced average scores for each of the 50 states on each of the five main personality dimensions—openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—based on the responses of 619,397 residents of the USA to a widely used 44-item personality questionnaire.

“Since that time, I have published 17 research articles showing relations between state-levels of these personality variables and various other important differences between states such as political attitudes, work satisfaction, illness, mortality, residential mobility, creativity, volunteering, emotional health, smoking, and obesity.”

“Previous research by others had shown that conservatives generally were happier and more satisfied with their lives than liberals. But why?” McCann told PsyPost. “Three different explanations had been put forward by others. However, I thought that there might be a fourth and more convincing explanation.”

“Existing research demonstrated that there are associations not only between higher conservatism and higher life satisfaction but also between lower neuroticism and higher life satisfaction and between lower neuroticism and higher conservatism. Perhaps if neuroticism was statistically controlled or effectively held constant, the association between higher conservatism and higher life satisfaction would vanish.”

“The relation between conservatism and life satisfaction might be dependent upon neuroticism levels. The present study was conducted to test this possibility in a state-level analysis.”

McCann analyzed data from Rentfrow’s study, Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, U.S. Census Bureau, CBS News and the New York Times polls, and the presidential election results from 2000 to 2008.

He found that differences in the levels of neuroticism in each state could account for the state-level association between higher conservatism and higher life satisfaction. Other factors he examined, including socioeconomic status, did not account for the association.

“The results of the present study strongly suggest that there is nothing inherent in a conservative worldview as opposed to a liberal worldview that promotes greater happiness and life satisfaction,” McCann explained. “Rather it is the underlying higher neuroticism that tends to be more likely in liberals and the underlying lower neuroticism that tends to be more likely in conservatives that accounts for the greater happiness and life satisfaction in conservatives.”

“For example, higher neuroticism is characterized by higher levels of vulnerability, self-consciousness, depression, tenseness, moodiness, angry hostility, impulsiveness, nervousness, anxiety, worry, emotional instability, and poor stress management. Clearly, such a constellation does not bode well for happiness and satisfaction with life.”

The study used a cross-sectional methodology, meaning McCann cannot make inferences about cause and effect. He believes, based on previous research, that higher neuroticism fosters lower life satisfaction and that lower neuroticism promotes higher conservatism — but the reverse could also be true.

His study has another caveat as well.

“Readers must understand that this was a study carried out with the 50 states rather than a sample of individuals as the cases,” McCann explained. “What was found is that state levels of resident neuroticism can account for the relation between state levels of conservatism and state levels of life satisfaction.

“I am assuming that the state-level relations are dependent upon parallel individual-level relations. Caution must be exercised in making such cross-level extrapolations. However, some comfort is taken from the fact that other researchers (Burton, Plaks, & Peterson, 2015) also have found the same dynamics in an individual-level analysis and reached the same conclusion regarding why conservatives tend to be happier and more satisfied with life.”

The study was titled: “State Resident Neuroticism Accounts for Life Satisfaction Differences Between Conservative and Liberal States of the USA“.