August 17, 2008
Ability To Rationalize Inequality Increases Happiness

If you can't stand for some people to have more than others then you'll be miserable. Sure glad I'm tolerant of rich people.

To add some ammo to these explanations, Napier and Tost conducted a series of surveys on political attitudes of Americans and citizens of 8 Western countries, using previously collected data. Their results affirmed the "conservatives are happy, liberals are mad" findings of previous polls, but income, education, religion and other demographic variables couldn't explain the happiness gap.

However, when the authors instead grouped people by their "rationalisation of inequality," the differences between conservatives and liberals dissolved. Republican or Democrat, people not bothered by social or economic disparities tend to be happy.

This trend held for non-Americans, as well. Right-wingers in the Czech Republic, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland were all happier than liberals, on average.

My guess is that genetic differences account for a substantial fraction of the observed difference. Maybe the resistance to inequality was selected for because for most of human evolution having more stuff upped the odds that a person would create offspring who would create offspring. Nowadays the reproductive fitness advantage of having more stuff is much less or non-existent. Poorer people are creating more progeny than richer people. Yet this trait remains in some people.

My guess is that when we know far more about how our genetic differences cause cognitive differences we are going to discover that many of our political differences flow from our genetic differences. This could make disagreements stir up stronger passions because people will lose faith in an important (and incorrect) idea that helps legitimize the institutions of society: The idea that most policy disagreements can eventually be resolved by reaching consensus as a result of debate. If the opposing side holds their views because they are wired up by their genes to have ethical preferences that differ from one's own then one can always expect to disagree with one's opponents on key issues.

Even though people will know that certain of their preferences and beliefs come as a result of their genes my guess is that people will still cling strongly to those preferences and beliefs. Knowing that one can never convince the opposition of the rightness of one's viewpoint could make people less willing to argue and more willing to just try to seize more power to get one's genetic preferences turned into policy.

Update: My subject title is not meant to imply that rationalization was required to accept inequality while not being required to object to it. Whether one needs to do more rationalization to accept inequality than to object to it remains an open question. But even if one requires more cogitating to accept inequality that does not imply that inequality is bad. It could be that accepting inequality is wise. After all, the countries that tried to stamp it out impoverished themselves. But seeing acceptance of inequality as the correct choice requires creating a pretty sophisticated mental model of the world.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 August 17 12:19 AM  Brain Ethics Law

HellKaiserRyo said at August 17, 2008 3:59 AM:

"My guess is that genetic differences account for a substantial fraction of the observed difference. Maybe the resistance to inequality was selected for because for most of human evolution having more stuff upped the odds that a person would create offspring who would create offspring. Nowadays the reproductive fitness advantage of having more stuff is much less or non-existent. Poorer people are creating more progeny than richer people. Yet this trait remains in some people."

I do not know if I hate poverty more or inequality more. However, I am surprised that not many liberals dislike the fact the poor people are having more children. That seems to cause more inequality and more poverty.

aa2 said at August 17, 2008 5:03 AM:

This study explains a lot. I am a happy person including very happy with what I do have.. from the medicines available, to the amazing variety and quality of food I can afford, to my 17 year old car which I can travel all around.

I think a lot of liberals would be happier if they stopped worrying about relative differences and instead looked at absolute standard of living.

Phil said at August 17, 2008 5:34 AM:

"Republican or Democrat, people not bothered by social or economic disparities tend to be happy."

To each his sufferings: all are men,
Condemned alike to groan,
The tender for another's pain;
The unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.

- Thomas Gray, "On a Distant Prospect of Eton College"

Chokk said at August 17, 2008 7:30 AM:

This can be looked at in another angle "people not bothered by social or economic disparities tend to be happy."
So are people entertained by inequality or are people depressed about inequality? The latter is more philanthropic but any cynic would go for the first explanation and would go better with your historical fitness increase to such individuals.

Black Sea Pirates said at August 17, 2008 8:52 AM:

People don't mind inequality so much in an ethnically homogeneous society. If wealth stratifies by ethnic group in a multiethnic society, inequality becomes a big problem in democracies. Affirmative action is a society's way of sweeping differences under the rug, only to come back later with a vengeance.

Russians and Serbs understand that ethnicity trumps all. Ethnic cleansing may have failed in Serbia, but Russia is going to make sure it works in the rest of Eastern Europe.

Randall Parker said at August 17, 2008 9:24 AM:


Good question. A few thoughts:

Did the selective pressure against inequality act to prevent the leader of a tribe from hogging a disproportionate share of the resources the tribe captured while hunting?

Or did the selective pressure act to cause the poorest to take things that they didn't do anything to earn?

Gregory Clark argues that in England up until the industrial revolution the upper classes left many more progeny than the lower classes. I think that selective pressure would have tended to select against the genes that hate inequality. My guess is it takes an extended period of time where the lower classes managed to survive for genes that resent the upper classes to develop.


But many liberals are probably genetically incapable of stopping their resentment of inequality. It is like people who can't control their weight because their mind thinks about food all the time. They feel compelled to think about what they think about and to react as they do.

Free will is an illusion.

HellKaiserRyo said at August 17, 2008 10:53 AM:

People will take from others if it increases their inclusive fitness. I do not see how inequality aversion will cause parasitic behavior.

I also wonder what will happen if the UN World Government in the future bans natural births and requires those who will be born will be genetically engineered. Maybe they will mandate genes that are against inequality.

James Bowery said at August 17, 2008 11:08 AM:

First of all, the perception that being wealthy confers no reproductive advantage is highly questionable -- particularly in an era of serial polygyny (aka "serial monogamy") and sexual and women's "liberation". The data you have to look at is the reproductive rate of the wealthiest .01%, .1% and 1% of men -- not the wealthiest 10% of households.

Secondly, if it is happiness you're after, then I can think of a lot more direct routes than rationalizing one of the largest extinction events in the geologic record.

Thirdly, if you insist on rationalization, why not promote conversion to belief systems involving reincarnation and karma? They've an impressive track record of maintaining caste systems.

HellKaiserRyo said at August 17, 2008 11:54 AM:

I do not think stamping out inequality is bad... for developed nations, "gini targeting" seems to be a better way of managing inequality. Of course, a target gini coefficient of .25 (like in the Scandinavian countries) would piss too many people off. I suppose anti-immigration policies are necessary for this too along with redistribution. Maybe .30 is necessary here; .25 seems too low for a country that isn't ethnically homogenuous.

aa2 said at August 17, 2008 12:28 PM:


Your thought on belief systems reminds me.. I've been arguing for several years that the European super wealthy old money people want to make the move to Islam in order to protect their property from socialism. Secular democracy seems to consistently lead to socialism and low birth rates. The low birth rates affect them because capital is mainly things like land and apartmnet buildings which become practically worthless as a population declines.

Now they can't come right out and say they want the nation to go Islamic, but they can stack the deck.

HellKaiserRyo said at August 17, 2008 1:19 PM:

I meant to say that trying to stamp out inequality is bad.

I wonder if this leftist multiculturalism in the United States is also the means for the elite to evade the redistribution of socialism.

TTT said at August 17, 2008 1:20 PM:

Leftists are miserable for exactly this reason - they can't stand the fact that they reside at the bottom of both the income and physical attractiveness scales.

K said at August 17, 2008 1:48 PM:

"I also wonder what will happen if the UN World Government in the future bans natural births and requires those who will be born will be genetically engineered. Maybe they will mandate genes that are against inequality."

Yep. A world government working toward equality by mandating how everyone should live and dictating what genes a baby can have. Sounds real equal to me.

Managing inequality is managing. And the managers never live by the same rules as the managed. By definition they do not because they manage.

Futurists are often eager to stamp out one thing or another. They are so much better equipped to know what is good.

Those who wish inequality should perhaps genetically stamp out those who don't. The universe is neutral.

Randall Parker said at August 17, 2008 2:20 PM:


I am not convinced that a world government will want to stamp out inequality. The elites will want to make their babies as smart and motivated and capable as possible. If the moneyed elites can bribe and control the world government they will use their influence in order to retain the power to make super babies.

I expect that the initial rounds of offspring genetic engineering will increase inequality because more affluent and smarter people will be the first to embrace this technology. The smart will become smarter while the dumber lag behind.

Jerome Cole said at August 19, 2008 9:57 AM:


Given our very, very limited understanding of human genetics and cognition I would say that your conclusions regarding political beliefs being significantly influenced by genetics are premature at best. However, let's stipulate that you are correct and that many of our beliefs are strongly influenced by genetics. Wouldn't giving people knowledge about their biases help them to become more rational and work harder at reaching rational conclusions instead of ones that merely feel correct? Humans already display a tremendous capacity for meta-cognition. We have been asking ourselves how and why we know what we know and if we really know it for thousands of years and our inquiries in this area have become much more diverse and fruitful with the birth of modern social science. I think that knowledge of how our genes affect our cognition will only accelerate this process. After all if you don't know that you have a bias or what it is you can't correct it.

Randall Parker said at August 19, 2008 7:19 PM:

Jerome Cole,

John Hibbing and John Alford have been studying the political views of twins and they find that genetics plays a big role in determining political leanings:

In a study reported in the May issue of the American Political Science Review, Alford and political science colleagues Carolyn L. Funk, associate professor with Virginia Commonwealth University, and John R. Hibbing, professor at the University of Nebraska, challenge the long-held assumption that our political orientations are shaped by our parents and upbringing. In reality, they argue, our political ideology is determined by our genes.

“Our analysis indicates that political ideologies are not formed by our parents and family at an early age,” Alford says. “The degree to which we are conservative or liberal is largely a function of our genes.”

Genetics plays a role in influencing one's views on property tax:

As reported in this week's issue of "New Scientist" magazine, research by Rice University professor of political science John Alford indicates that what is on one's mind about politics may be influenced by how people are wired genetically.

Alford, who has researched this topic for a number of years, and his team analyzed data from political opinions of more than 12,000 twins in the United States and supplemented it with findings from twins in Australia. Alford found that identical twins were more likely to agree on political issues than were fraternal twins. On the issue of property taxes, for example, an astounding four-fifths of identical twins shared the same opinion, while only two-thirds of fraternal twins agreed.

You can read their (along with Carolyn Funk) full 2005 paper Are Political Orientations Genetically Transmitted?

For MZ twins the issue of whether their parents agree or disagree on a particular item makes little difference (.65 without control versus .64 after partialing out the effect of parental agreement). In contrast, the correlation between DZ twins decreases modestly when the impact of parental agreement is removed (.43 without control versus .37 after partialing out the effect of parental agreement). Further, the tendency of assortative mating to deflate estimates of heritability while inflating estimates of the impact of shared environment is clear. Without controls, the estimate of heritability for the overall index is .43 and the average estimate of the impact of shared environment is .22. When the impact of parental agreement is partialed out, the average estimate of heritability rises to .53, and the average estimate of the impact of shared environment drops to .11. Note that the traditional socialization account of attitude formation is not at odds with this last finding. If the issue positions of parents are in conflict, then we would hardly expect this shared conflicted setting to yield sibling agreement.8
Randall Parker said at August 19, 2008 10:41 PM:

There are genes that influences voting behavior:

To join the dots in the argument, researchers next need to identify the brain areas and genes that shape political thinking. No one has yet identified a gene that correlates with liberalism or conservatism, for instance, but James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, thinks the decision to vote rather than stay at home on election day may be linked to individual genes.

The act of voting inevitably has an emotional dimension. Voters generally have a certain degree of trust in their chosen candidate, for example. That suggests that two well-studied genes may be involved: 5HTT and MAOA, which both help control the levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that also influences brain areas linked with trust and social interaction. People with versions of the genes that are better at regulating serotonin tend to be more sociable. According to Fowler's hypothesis, they should also be more likely to vote.

In a study currently under review at The Journal of Politics, Fowler confirms that his hunch was correct. Using data on 2500 adults from across the US, he shows that people whose version of the MAOA gene is efficient at regulating the brain chemical are 1.3 times more likely to vote than those with a version that is less efficient. By itself, 5HTT did not show such an effect. But Fowler found that this gene interacted with the environment in an intriguing way. Members of religious groups are known to be more likely to vote and, among this subset of subjects, those with a particular version of 5HTT were 60 per cent more likely to vote.

James Bowery said at August 21, 2008 6:32 AM:

That's interesting but the most critical point in political economy opinion is where homestead property rights meet more central property rights (property rights that would not exist in the absence of government or its equivalent social structures). In other words, can people distinguish between homestead assets, those assets required to make a household independent enough to securely raise children to reproductive maturity, and more centralized assets we normally associate with "civilization"?

Jerome Cole said at August 21, 2008 11:54 AM:

"For this set of political attitudes, the researchers found that genetics and early childhood influences accounted for about half of the differences in political attitudes. And, within that half, genetics was approximately twice as influential."

Pretty thin gruel. I read through the article summarizing the study and I am not impressed. It seems these people are exaggerating the significance and clarity of their findings. Again let's stipulate that the above statement is correct. This still leaves lots of room for social influences and reasoned political thought.

Also, a brief note on genetic studies that rely on identical twins. We don't fully understand how our genes and environment interact. Society will tend to treat people with similar cognitive abilities, personalities, and appearances in similar ways. Identical twins separated at birth, but both raised in Western societies would probably end up with very similar adoptive parents, similar living conditions, similar educations, etc. It thus becomes very, very difficult to tease out what is caused by social factors and what is caused by genetics. Throw in the human capacity to think about their own cognitive processes and then you have a real mess on your hands.

If researchers were to get similar results with twins raised in very different cultures and end up with the same results I would be much more sympathetic to your take on this. Controlling for the subjects level of political knowledge might also produce very interesting results. To take an extreme example I am sure that the way someone with an advanced degree in law or political science forms their political preferences is very different from the way a housewife or architect might. Informing subjects that their political opinions are largely determined by their genes and then seeing how that disclosure changes outcomes would also be quite informative.

In any event, this research would have a tough time explaining the sharp changes in political and religious beliefs that have occurred so many times throughout history. Unless of course you can uncover some kind of "revolution gene" in which case you then have the trouble of accounting for periods of ideological and religious stability that are also quite frequent.

Thank you for the interesting reading.

Randall Parker said at August 21, 2008 8:43 PM:

Jerome Cole,

I see no reason to expect twins at birth to be raised by very similar parents.

A lot of twins studies have been done and found strong genetic influences on intellectual ability and behavior. Check out how adopted Korean babies in the US did equally well regardless of the income of their adoptive parents. Also see here for more on that adoption study.

Jerome Cole said at August 22, 2008 8:29 AM:

Unfortunately, I am in China and the DNS servers here either have the sites with the studies blocked or they just aren't listed. Can you point me towards another link? I would like to take a look at the specifics. It would be foolish to comment any further by only reading summaries and articles about these studies.

As for not expecting twins adopted out to have similar parents you need to consider several factors. First, people who adopt, as a group, are (I hypothesize.) very likely to have many common characteristics and thus I suspect that they parent their children in a more uniform manner than the population at large. Second, twins, by definition, look very similar and there is a very large body of evidence that shows people are treated in significantly different ways according to how they look. So think about this for a second. You have a sample of children raised by parents more uniform than the total universe of parents who also happen to look quite similar. There seems to be a nasty issue with selection bias that I just can't see twin studies overcoming.

Luke Lea said at September 11, 2008 9:08 AM:

Late comment:

I confess that I am made unhappy by social and economic inequalities, especially here in the United States. And I would not be surprised if the cause is genetic. A gene for sympathy you might say.

But on a more optimistic note: it is not inequality of income or in material consumption, per se, that bothers me so much as the boring, monotonous, impoverished working lives of the working classes, and the effect this has on childhood happiness of their offspring, who spend the first few years of their lives in daycare, and then live in urban and suburban settings that allow little in the way of carefree, adventurous childhoods, such as I enjoyed when I was growing up (not counting urban gangs and ghetto life, which is socially and personally self-destructive).

In other words, it is the missed opportunities for human happiness inherent in our common human nature that I find sad, and the fact that the less-well-intellectually endowed among us have no real options in the matter. (Indeed, quite a few of the better endowed have few options either, in our over-centralized society.) If these people at least had the option to choose a way of life more in tune with their human nature, that would make me happy (damn that gene!) even if the vast majority chose not to avail themselves of that opportunity.

To adapt a Biblical metaphor: Many might be called, even if few make the choice -- a prospect that, no doubt, would bring about a kind of genetic winnowing in its own right. If our urban centers, in consequence, became centers of genetic extinction, that would not be so bad, necessarily, provided there were plenty of drugs, pain-killers especially.

For a concrete example of the kind of option I have in mind, see my personal google web page:

P.S. Your Future Pundit site is quite wonderful, Randall. I should spend more time here. How do you find all this stuff? Where do you find the time?

Randall Parker said at September 11, 2008 7:19 PM:


One way to reduce inequality would be to reduce the birth rate of poor people. Fewer poor babies means fewer poor people.

To create better environments we need fewer people and the people who are born should possess more of the genetic sequences that cause people to have the capacity to create more enriching environments. The very idea that some elite has to create better environments for poor people seems to me evidence that the poor people lack the innate abilities needed to improve their environments.

My site: Thanks for the complement. How I find the material: I use techniques with groups of browser bookmarks to go thru many richer sites quickly looking for promising new material. I keep hundreds of browser pages open at once and tend to remember and keep around pages that I can connect with other pages to build up suitable topics to post on. I also spend a lot of hours doing it.

Finding the time: sleep deprivation.

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