Are Conservatives Healthier Than Liberals?

Greater personal responsibility may give conservatives a health advantage.

Posted Feb 28, 2019

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Probably not conservatives, I'm guessing.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Political psychology has long been interested in psychological differences between people with conservative and liberal orientations. A recent paper provides evidence that people with conservative political attitudes tend to have better health than their liberal counterparts because of the former place greater value on personal responsibility (Chan, 2019). This may also be a reflection of higher conscientiousness among conservatives.

The author of this study suggests that it might be possible to increase conservatism as a way to improve health-related behavior. However, this seems rather unlikely and might have unintended and undesirable consequences even if it were possible.

A recent series of studies aimed to test whether conservatives tend to be healthier than liberals (Chan, 2019). The author argued that conservatives tend to value personal responsibility more highly than liberals, and as a consequence engage in more health-related behaviors (e.g., not smoking, exercising more, etc.) that lead to better health.

The author defined personal responsibility as the extent to which people regard themselves, rather than forces outside themselves, as being in charge of what they do. To test this, the author performed three studies assessing how liberal or conservative someone was, how much they value personal responsibility, and some aspect of health or health-related behavior.

In the first study, people recruited from Reddit rated their own political orientation on a 1–9 scale ranging from “very liberal” to “very conservative,” rated their own general health on a scale ranging from “extremely poor” to “extremely healthy,” and completed a measure of personal responsibility.

As predicted, all the measures were positively correlated, so that those who were more conservative rated themselves as having better health, and placed a higher value on personal responsibility. Using a statistical procedure called mediation analysis showed that the relationship between conservatism and self-rated health became non-significant when controlling for personal responsibility. This suggested that the relationship between conservatism and health may occur because people who are more conservative value personal responsibility more highly, and in turn personal responsibility leads to better health.

Obviously, the first study has some caveats. First, as a correlational study, it cannot directly show that there are any causal relationships between the variables. For example, does being conservative lead to taking more responsibility, or is it the other way around?

Additionally, conservatism was not defined, so participants in the study could interpret it in any way they preferred. A previous study suggested that self-ratings of conservatism tend to be more strongly related to attitudes to social rather than economic issues (Kemmelmeier, 2008), so if this is true, then the results of the study are probably more related to social conservatism (i.e., adherence to traditional mores) rather than economic policies (e.g., advocacy of free markets).

Additionally, health was rated by a single item. However, there is considerable evidence that single-item self-ratings of health are actually a reasonably good predictor of a person’s objective health status (Kööts‐Ausmees et al., 2016), so this study does provide valid information about the participants’ health.

In the second study, conservatism vs. liberalism was assessed with political party affiliation. Specifically, participants, who were Australian students, were recruited who supported either of Australia’s two major political parties, the left-leaning Labor Party, or the right-leaning Liberal/National Coalition.[1] Health-related behavior was assessed with a behavioral measure.

As part of the experiment, participants were told they would need to go up to the next floor of the building to get course credit, and were given the choice of using the stairs or the elevator. Using the stairs was considered the healthier choice. Participants also completed a brief measure of personal responsibility.

Again, as predicted, conservative participants placed a higher value on personal responsibility and were more likely to use the stairs than the elevator than their liberal counterparts. Mediation analysis also suggested that party affiliation was related to health-related behavior (i.e. taking the stairs vs. the elevator) via the value placed on personal responsibility.

Considering that the first two studies were correlational, the third study took an experimental approach to try to establish a causal relationship between conservatism and health-related behavior. (To those who are unfamiliar with how things are done in social psychology, this might seem rather peculiar. To others, this might seem all-too-familiar.)

This experiment involved attempting to manipulate participants to become temporarily more conservative or more liberal through a priming procedure. To do this, participants completed a word-scrambling task in which they had to rearrange presented words into a meaningful sentence.

As the author explains, ‘To prime conservatism, words such as “traditional” and “conventional” were used; to prime liberalism, words such as “free” and “left-wing” were used.’ Apparently, merely reading these words is supposed to “prime” certain kinds of automatic thoughts outside one’s awareness that somehow influence one’s subsequent behavior. All participants in this study were smokers, and after the priming, they were asked about their intentions to quit smoking in the next three months. Additionally, they completed a brief measure of personal responsibility.

Amazingly, those primed with conservatism indicated greater intentions to quit smoking and greater value of personal responsibility than their counterparts primed with liberalism. As in the two previous studies, mediation analysis indicated that personal responsibility accounted for the relationship between whether participants were primed to be liberal or conservative and their intention to quit. Based on these findings, the author concluded that because the intention to quit is a strong predictor of giving up smoking, the “results may explain why smoking is less common among conservatives than liberals.”

Although I’m reasonably satisfied with the first two studies, I find the third one to be rather far-fetched. The author acknowledges that “priming effects are transient and some concerns have been raised about their replicability.” Despite this, the author actually claims that “if a conservative political orientation can be primed, it might be a viable way, alternative to priming personal responsibility, to promote healthy actions.”

On the contrary, I think it is unlikely that priming conservatism would be of much help, considering that, even if there is a real effect of priming – which is rather doubtful, considering that priming effects are notoriously difficult to replicate – it is unlikely to last more than a few minutes and therefore would have no lasting impact on one’s health-related behavior.

Honestly, if it were true that unscrambling a few words could influence one’s attitudes like this, then there would likely be a host of things one encounters in everyday life that also influence one’s behavior in conflicting ways — advertising being a stark example — negating any effects of such experimental priming.

Furthermore, many people find it difficult to maintain changes in health-related behaviors, such as smoking cessation, even when they want to change (Minkler, 1999), so a transient priming experience hardly seems likely to make much of a difference.

Additionally, the idea of priming people to be more conservative might seem rather on-the-nose to people who are not already conservatives themselves. That is, deliberately inducing people to be more conservative, assuming it was possible, might have all sorts of effects that might not be as clearly desirable as improving health-related behavior, such as increased intolerance of non-traditional lifestyles.

Despite these concerns, I think the study raises some interesting issues. Previous research has found that people who self-identify as conservatives tend to be somewhat higher on the personality trait of conscientiousness than those identifying as liberals (Fatke, 2017). This relationship tends to be stronger for social conservatism but also applies to some extent to economic conservatism. Conscientiousness is related to the extent to which one tends to follow socially prescribed norms concerning impulse control, follow rules, be self-disciplined and task-focused, plan ahead, and be willing to delay gratification (Roberts, Walton, & Bogg, 2005).

Perhaps not surprisingly, conscientiousness is related to longer life expectancy and to health-related behaviors. Specifically, people high in conscientiousness are less likely to smoke, tend to drink in moderation or to abstain, eat healthier foods, avoid taking recreational drugs, and are less likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors (Bogg & Roberts, 2004), all of which can enhance one’s health. On the other hand, people low in conscientiousness are more likely to engage in hazardous behaviors, including risky driving and violence.

While conscientiousness is considered a broad factor of personality, it comprises several narrower, more specific facets. These include self-control, traditionalism (conventionality), industriousness, order, virtue (adhering to moral principles), and responsibility.

As the name suggests, the responsibility facet is related to valuing personal responsibility. A meta-analysis of studies on the relationships between conscientiousness-related traits and health behaviors found that the most consistent predictors of health-related behavior were traditionalism and self-control, followed by responsibility and virtue, while industriousness and order had weaker and less consistent relations. Interestingly though, industriousness, which is related to achievement and persistence, was more strongly related to doing more exercise, healthy eating, and being less likely to smoke than the responsibility facet. On the other hand, responsibility was somewhat more strongly related to avoiding both excessive alcohol use and drug use than industriousness.

Based on this, one might say that in conservatives, valuing personal responsibility is probably a feature of their higher conscientiousness. In addition to valuing personal responsibility, conservatives are also more likely to value adhering to traditions. Traditionalism is a facet of conscientiousness, which is also prominently related to healthy behavior, so health-related behavior in conservatives might be related to traditionalism in addition to personal responsibility.

Conservatives might also be higher in self-control, which increases one’s ability to avoid the temptation to engage in enjoyable yet unhealthy activities like taking drugs and drinking too much. It is likely that personal responsibility, self-control, and traditionalism share a common core of socially prescribed impulse control, which might help explain why these are all consistently related to healthy behavior. That is, such behaviors are socially prescribed as things that virtuous people should do, so highly conscientious people are more motivated to do them and find it easier to avoid temptations to indulge in hedonistic vices.

It has also been suggested that the relationship between conscientiousness and healthy behavior may be two-way (Bogg & Roberts, 2004). That is, people who decide to quit smoking, eat well, etc., may become more conscientious as a result.

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I've heard of party animals, but this is getting ridiculous
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Considering that conscientiousness appears to be beneficial for health, one might ask whether interventions to increase conscientiousness might have a beneficial effect on health-related behavior?

There is evidence that people tend to become more conscientious with age, although such changes occur slowly over periods of many years (Roberts, Walton, & Viechtbauer, 2006). This is not likely to be of much help to people who have a serious need to change their lifestyle though.

However, there is some evidence that therapeutic interventions might have the effect of increasing conscientiousness in the short-term, although the effects tend to be modest (Roberts et al., 2017). For example, one study found that a social-skill training program led to moderate increases in conscientiousness as well as other personality traits, including agreeableness and emotional stability, in recovering substance users.

However, whether such interventions have substantial effects on health-related behavior is not yet known. Additionally, whether increases in a person’s conscientiousness lead to greater political conservatism does not seem to have been explored either.

In passing, it may be worth noting that there is some controversy in the field of public health about the merits or promoting personal responsibility to improve people’s health-related behavior relative to promoting socially responsible changes to the environment to make it easier for people to make healthier choices. Health professionals agree that personal responsibility plays a very important role in health, as behaviors such as smoking, excessive drinking, overeating, and so on, play major roles in all of the leading causes of premature death, such as heart disease, stroke, and cancer. One reason for this is that encouraging individual behavior change only has a limited effect on public health because many people find it really hard to change their lifestyles to any great extent and often need considerable support in doing so (Minkler, 1999).

Additionally, over-emphasis on personal responsibility may lead to stigmatization of vulnerable groups based on an association of illness with guilt. For example, it has been noted that conservatives are more likely than liberals to believe that “unhealthy and indulgent people are lazy, gluttonous, and undisciplined” (Chan, 2019). This might have a great of truth, but sometimes it is unfair and does not seem particularly constructive if one’s aim is to actually help people.

It has also been argued that over-emphasis on personal responsibility may “risk establishing a ‘tyranny of health,’ in which personal health goals are substituted ‘for more important, humane, societal goals’” (Minkler, 1999). Hence, some health professionals have suggested that social responsibility is also needed, which aims to create a healthier and more supportive environment that makes it easier to engage in healthy behavior.

On the other hand, too much emphasis on social responsibility could deny people’s agency, so it is also important to acknowledge that even in adverse environments, some people do exercise sufficient personal responsibility to change their behavior, e.g. some people manage to quit smoking even when their environment is full of temptations to light up. Hence, a balanced approach would be one that encourages individuals to “do their best” to take responsibility for their behavior, while providing them with environmental support to do so (Minkler, 1999).

[1] One of the peculiarities of Australian politics is that the major conservative party is called the “Liberal Party,” a frequent source of confusion regarding people call themselves “liberals.”

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.


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