Are liberals more neurotic than conservatives?

At our recent meeting of social psychologists, I had a few conversations about a particular facet of our data, the fact that liberals in our dataset score higher on measures of neuroticism than conservativism.  The effect in our data is small, but not insignificant (d=.24 of the standard deviation).  This surprised some people in that there is a fair amount of research about conservatives being fearful that people are aware of, even as there is some contradictory evidence.  A recent meta-analysis + study yielded mixed results, with some research and samples showing liberals as being more neurotic (including the lone non-student sample, though with a very small effect size), and some research showing conservatives as being more neurotic.  One conclusion might be that this is all statistical noise.  An alternative possibility is that it depends on the types of questions being asked or that it depends on the group being sampled.  I thought I’d explore this in our yourmorals data.

First, you can see that within the yourmorals dataset, liberals appear more neurotic than conservatives regardless of the question that is asked.

This even extends to asking about symptoms in the recent past.  The questions here are how often the participant has experienced “Being suddenly scared for no reason”, “Spells of terror or panic”, or “Feeling fearful” in the past 7 days, though the effect is tiny.

It appears that the effect is robust across questions.  Our sample is not representative of the broader US, but in this instance, this may be instructive.  Liberals may be more neurotic than conservatives within certain groups.  Our data is a large enough sample that it likely represents a sizable group of people, and it is possible that there is something peculiar to the kind of people who visit yourmorals that makes our liberals more neurotic than our conservatives.   As a broader test of this idea, I thought I’d examine those participants who visit yourmorals from sites like the New York Times or Edge, versus those who find yourmorals.org via search engines (e.g. searching for ‘morality quiz’), with the idea that the NY Times and Edge readers are more like our core audience (people especially interested in social science).

Here is the graph by question for those who find us via search engines:

And here is the graph for those who find us via the New York Times and Edge.org.

It may be self-evident from the graphs, but put another way, the correlation between neuroticism and liberal-conservative identification (1-7) is -.03 (n=1634, p=.22) for those who find us via search engines, -.08 (n=7129, p<.001) in New York Times readers, and -.13 (n=2382, p<.001) for those who find us via Edge.org.  Overall, the correlation is -.08 (n=35,793, p<.001).

To me, this supports the idea that there is something peculiar about the kind of liberal that reads the New York Times or visits Edge.org or a site like YourMorals.org.  Perhaps the common thread here is the idea that these are people who are searching for answers in life.  It somewhat converges with this paper by Napier & Jost, where they find that liberals are less happy than conservatives, a finding that replicates in our data and has been found by others, and they found that this relationship is explained by the liberal un-acceptance of inequality.  It seems somewhat implausible that liberals walk around consciously thinking about inequality a lot.  But perhaps the inability to accept inequality is part of a general questioning of the way things are and what the larger meaning of things is, which inevitably leads to anxiety about why things are not ‘better’.  I cannot show that with data, but I can say that, as a liberal, this rings true for me.  My search for meaning and desire to create change inevitably lead me to anxiety producing situations when I try to swim against a tide.  And yet it’s a tradeoff I continue to be willing to make.

- Ravi Iyer

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