Previous research in political psychology has suggested that people with conservative political attitudes tend to have better physical health than their liberal counterparts (Chan, 2019) (which I discussed in more detail in a previous post ). A more recent study (Kirkegaard, 2020) found that political ideology may also be relevant to mental health, as people who are more liberal, especially those identifying as “extremely liberal,” are more likely to have mental health problems. The author suggested that this may be because political conservatism is associated with greater religiosity, which in turn is associated with better physical and mental health. However, the beneficial relationship between religiosity and health has only been found to apply in cultures in which religion is highly respected, and does not occur in more secular cultures (Stavrova, 2015). On the other hand, conservatism and liberalism are associated with the personality traits of conscientiousness and neuroticism, respectively, which are more robustly linked with mental health than religiosity.
Kirkegaard’s study used data from the General Social Survey, a large-scale survey of American adults age 18 and older that is conducted every few years. The survey includes several questions relevant to mental health, such as “Have you ever felt you had a mental health problem?” “Have you personally ever received treatment for a mental health problem?” and so on. Additionally, the survey includes two questions about happiness or life satisfaction: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days: Would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” and, “If you were to consider your life in general, how happy or unhappy would you say you are, on the whole?” Respondents also indicated their political ideology on a 1-7 scale from extremely liberal to extremely conservative. Kirkegaard’s analysis found that, overall, liberals tended to report poorer mental health than conservatives. This trend was particularly pronounced for those of both sexes self-labeled as “extremely liberal,” who tended to be noticeably worse off on several measures, not just compared to conservatives, but even compared to those identifying as “liberal” or “slightly liberal." On the other hand, those who identified as “extremely conservative” tended to have similar levels of mental health compared to those identifying as “conservative” and “slightly conservative,” with generally mild differences from “moderate,” “slightly liberal,” and “liberal” respondents. Similarly, in response to the two questions about happiness, conservative respondents in all groups tended to report being happier than liberal groups generally, with extremely liberal men but not women reporting the least happiness. Statistically, differences between the most extreme ideological categories tended to be moderate in size.
Kirkegaard suggested that the relationship between mental health and ideology might reflect that conservatives tend to be more religious, and being religious is associated with health benefits (Koenig, 2012), while admitting that a cross-sectional survey is not very informative regarding causality. However, other research has found that the apparently beneficial relationship between religiosity and health is not universal but appears to reflect the fit between the individual and their culture (Stavrova, 2015). That is, in cultural contexts where religiosity is well-respected, religious individuals gain social benefits that seem to improve their health. On the other hand, in cultural contexts where religion is not as well regarded, these benefits disappear . This finding applied not just between different countries but even within different regions of the US with high versus low levels of religiousness. Hence, it may be worth considering other factors, such as personality traits that are known to be related to both ideology and mental health.
Specifically, surveys on the “Big Five” traits of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness , neuroticism, and openness to experience have found that people identifying as politically liberal tend to be higher on openness to experience (complexity of mental life) and neuroticism (negative emotionality) and lower on conscientiousness (socialized impulse control) than their conservative counterparts (Fatke, 2017; Gerber et al., 2011). Furthermore, not only do these differences apply when considering liberalism vs. conservatism as a one-dimensional spectrum, differences have also been found when considering the economic and social dimensions of liberalism and conservatism separately. For example, one study (Gerber et al., 2009), using data from three nationally representative datasets, found that neuroticism was more strongly related to economic than social liberalism. That is, people who were higher in neuroticism tended to hold left-liberal positions on economic issues such as higher taxes and government funding for healthcare more strongly than they did on social issues such as abortion and gay rights. Similarly, people high in conscientiousness tended to hold more conservative views on both economic and social issues, although more so for the former kinds of issues. Importantly, these relationships held even when controlling for respondents’ religious attendance. This suggests that personality traits were substantially related to ideology regardless of religiosity. Gerber et al. consider at least two distinct reasons why neuroticism might be associated with liberal economic views: sympathy and self-interest. That is, highly neurotic individuals might be more worried about and feel guilt toward the less fortunate; alternatively, they could be more worried about their own ability to cope with adverse economic circumstances, such as having inadequate health insurance, and therefore support social welfare out of self-interest. And of course, it may be a combination of both.
I find this interesting because although religious individuals tend to be more conscientious than less religious people, they do not generally differ from others in neuroticism (Saroglou, 2009). Additionally, although high conscientiousness and low neuroticism are each associated with mental health and well-being, of the two traits, neuroticism generally has stronger effects (Malouff et al., 2005; Steel et al., 2008). Hence, rather than conservatives having better mental health because they are more religious, it may be that extreme liberals tend to have worse mental health because they are more highly neurotic. Of course, this would need to be tested with further research. In particular, it would be interesting to examine whether economic attitudes have a stronger relationship with mental health than social ones, considering that the former have a notably stronger relationship with neuroticism. Finally, let’s remember to treat mentally ill people with compassion regardless of their ideology.
© 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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Fatke, M. (2017). Personality Traits and Political Ideology: A First Global Assessment. Political Psychology, 38(5), 881–899. https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12347
Gerber, A., Huber, G., Ha, S. E., Dowling, C., & Doherty, D. (2009). Personality Traits and the Dimensions of Political Ideology (SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 1412863). Social Science Research Network. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1412863
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