Reading John Ray's September 4, 2007 critique of the Pyszczynski et al. claim that fear of death is behind conservatism, I couldn't help but analyze data from the NORC General Social Survey, one of the most respected databases of U.S. public opinion in existence, to further explore the matter. In fact, the GSS data completely support Dr. Ray's conclusion that there are no meaningful differences whatsoever in how liberals and conservatives view death. Again, the received "wisdom" concerning the psychology of conservatism espoused by Pyszczynski and academic social science in general, is shown to be speculative and fails to survive even moderate scrutiny.
For decades, the GSS has asked respondents about their political orientations under the variable name POLVIEWS and whether they believe in life after death under the variable name POSTLIFE. I recoded the variable POLVIEWS into the following categories:
* Extremely liberal/Liberal =1,
* Slightly Liberal = 2,
* Moderate/Middle of the Road = 3,
* Slightly Conservative = 4, and
* and Conservative/Extremely Conservative = 5.
POSTLIFE was recoded into the following categories:
* Believe in life after death =1,
* Unsure = 2, and
* Don=t believe in life after death = 3.
Conservatives were much more likely than liberals to believe in life after death, with approximately 80% of conservatives/extreme conservatives reporting that they believe in life after death and only 66% of liberals/extremely liberals reporting the same. (All percentages are rounded upwards.) While a person's belief in life after death is not necessarily predictive of whether he fears death, the results are suggestive and weaken Pyszczynski's paradigm. The Pyszczynski et al theories would seem to imply that belief in life after death is a cognitive defensive mechanism but a sizable proportion of individuals with liberal orientations clearly exhibit the same phenomenon, so it is as least not a peculiarly conservative defence mechanism. And in any event, the number of people who absolutely reject the possibility of an afterlife is very small, only about 9% in this database.
To further explore whether conservatives might harbor more fear than liberals regarding death, I analyzed how respondents answered an additional set of questions asked between 1983-1987. Each respondent who reported a belief in life after death was asked a further series of questions, prefaced as follows:
Of course, no one knows exactly what life after death would be like, but here are some ideas people have had. How likely do you feel each possibility is? Very likely, somewhat likely, not too likely, or not likely at all?
Among the various alternatives were the following descriptions of an afterlife: (1) A life of peace and tranquility (POSTLF1) and (2) A life like the one here on earth, only better (POSTLF3). There was very little meaningful difference between liberals and conservatives regarding their views on the matter. With respect to the first variable, POSTLF1, eighty-five percent of liberals/extreme liberals thought it somewhat or very likely that an afterlife would be a life of peace and tranquility, while an even greater 95% of conservatives/extreme conservatives held similarly positive views of life after death. Regarding the second variable, POSTLF3, 57% of liberals/extreme liberals thought it somewhat or very likely that an afterlife would be better than life on earth, and 59% of conservatives/extreme conservatives reported it somewhat or very likely that an afterlife would be better than life on earth. Again, all percentages are rounded.
Insofar as there is a discernable difference between liberals and conservatives in how they view death, if anything conservatives might appear to face the prospect with less fear and anxiety than those who lean leftward politically. Note that similar results are obtained when comparing respondents who are slightly liberal versus those who are slightly conservative.
If in fact conservatives have a more positive view of existence after death than that held by liberals, perhaps it explains why they seem to be at least as happy and as satisfied with life as liberals. The GSS asks respondents, "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?" (HAPPY). Eighty-eight percent of liberals/extreme liberals reported being very happy or pretty happy, and approximately 90% of conservatives/extreme conservatives reported being very happy or pretty happy. Again, the same trend is found when comparing slightly liberal respondents with slightly conservative respondents.
And on the prospects of future generations, conservatives appear to be at least as optimistic, if not more so, than liberals. The GSS asks respondents whether they agree or disagree with the following statement: "It's hardly fair to bring a child into the world with the way things look for the future." Forty percent (40%) of liberals/extreme liberals and 34% of slightly liberal respondents agreed with the statement, while 36% of conservatives/extreme conservatives and 33% of slightly conservative respondents agreed with the statement.
These findings represent yet another piece of evidence that conservatives suffer from no greater existential anxiety or dread than do liberals. The claims of a relationship between psychological maladjustment and social/political conservatism, posited by classical authoritarianism theory, are simply inaccurate.
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