Skip to content

1.5 million people were told that extreme conservatives are happier than political moderates. Approximately .0001 million Americans learned that the opposite is true.

A Brooks op-ed in the New York Times (circulation approximately 1.5 million):

People at the extremes are happier than political moderates. . . . none, it seems, are happier than the Tea Partiers . . .

Jay Livingston on his blog (circulation approximately 0 (rounding to the nearest million)), giving data from the 2009-2010 General Social Survey, which is the usual place people turn to for population data on happiness of Americans:

The GSS does not offer “bitter” or “Tea Party” as choices, but extreme conservatives are nearly three times as likely as others to be “not too happy.”

Livingston reports that the sample size for “Extremely Conservative” here is 80. Thus the standard error for that green bar on the right is approx sqrt(0.3*0.7/80)=0.05.

So how could Brooks have made such a mistake? I can think of two possibilities:

1. Brooks has some other data source that directly addresses the happiness of supporters of the Tea Party movement.

2. Brooks looked at the cumulative GSS file from 1972, averaging over the last forty years, and attributed this aggregate pattern to the Tea Party, which has only existed since 2009. I’d hate to think Brooks did this, but he did mention the GSS in his op-ed, and Livingston does provide this helpful graph:

If you look at the cumulative file you indeed see some of the patterns Brooks discusses in his article. But the data during the Tea Party period look much different.

I wouldn’t be too hard on Brooks, though. He seems to have made a mistake, but I’ve made this sort of mistake myself. It can be tricky working with survey data, especially in a high-visibility, low-rigor place such as the NYT op-ed page. In contrast, when we publish in scholarly journals, we have many chances for revision and peer review (more chances to catch the mistakes) and not too many people read what we write in any case!


  1. Jonathan says:

    Yeah but I doubt this gets corrected any time soon if at all. The damage is already done, which just sucks.

  2. Total says:

    David Brooks misread data to support his conclusion? Say it ain’t so!

  3. K? O'Rourke says:

    > cumulative GSS file from 1972, averaging over the last forty years, and attributed this aggregate pattern to the Tea Party

    Simpson’s (Pearson’s) paradox does slip people’s minds…

  4. Wonks Anonymous says:

    When I use the GSS, I tend to use every year. Larger sample sizes are good, and it avoids the issue of year-by-year fluctations throwing things off. But of course its then a mistake to talk about a more temporally limited phenomenon like the Tea Party.

  5. AJ says:

    Not having any respect for Brooks I’m not surprised by any errors he makes. On another subject, were any control variables applied that we know affect happiness? Income, marital status, etc. How do we know its not explained by other variables?

  6. Smile Citizen says:

    Competitive happiness seems like a pretty sketchy field in general. If you are a person with an extreme agenda and someone asks if you’re happy, you’re going to say YES because it supports your agenda. It really isn’t that hard to cheat personality quizzes. People do it on dating sites all the time because they think it will get the person they desire.

    Moreover, if Tea Party people are claiming the country is going to Hell and everything is so awful and they’re _happy_ what does that really say? That they’re lying about how bad things are or that they really really like watching people suffer or that they’re better off than other people? If that’s their brand of happiness, for God’s sake let them have it because they must be truly miserable.

    FWIW as a liberal, I do think it’s true that liberals on average will never be as ‘happy’ as conservatives. It’s pretty hard to feel good when you’re aware others are not as fortunate as you. What must it be like to sit down to a meal and not wonder if the field workers were paid a fair wage, if the animal lead a comfortable life, if the homeless man you saw on the street had a good meal and found shelter for the night. Ignorance (the ability to ignore) is bliss, they say and I think it must be. Ditto for the religious conservatives. It must be comforting to believe there’s someone who loves you no matter what and that you are unequivocally one of the ‘good people’ and all of the ‘bad people’ will get the punishment you believe they deserve and that somehow that punishment will balance out all the harm they’ve done in the world.

    There are moments when I truly envy that state and wish I could be like them if only for a few moments. There are times I sincerely wish I could simply not care. But it’s not my nature. I can’t even objectify conservatives enough to believe it is their nature. I imagine most of them must also care which is why I believe that the happiness ‘contest’ can’t really be reliable. I’m pretty certain that the ONLY difference between ‘them’ and ‘me’ is that they define ‘family’ as their immediate tribe and I define ‘family’ as everyone. That’s it.

  7. Michael B. says:

    It looks like Brooks is relying largely on this 2006 Pew Center report, which uses interviews conducted in 2005 along with GSS data from 1972 – 2004.

  8. Eli Rabett says:

    Or 4. someone from a lobbying group/think tank/party HQ fed him this stuff.

  9. eugenie says:

    When was the op-ed article published? It is worth summarising your points in a letter to the NYT if it hasn’t
    already been a long time.

  10. John of Indiana says:

    Well, of *COURSE* Teabaggers are happier. Haven’t you heard the saying “Ignorance is Bliss”?
    There are few people as ignorant (or just plain stupid) as Teabaggers, ergo, Teabaggers are blissful, thus happier…