Does politics give people the blues?

A clever cartoon in The Economist, depicting how young people seem to feel about politics. (Click for source.)

A clever cartoon in The Economist, depicting how young people seem to feel about politics. (Click for source.)

During the 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign, one YouTube video that went viral showed four year old Abigael Evans crying as she tells her mother, “I’m tired of Bronco Bamma and Mitt Romney”. The video was still getting views in 2015, when a commenter left a message on the site telling Abigael not to feel bad, as politics could make grown-ups cry as well.

Both she and the commenter were far from alone. A mid-May Economist article noted that young people are so turned off by politics that to even discuss such topics in a social setting is “deemed distasteful” and that it “kills the mood”.

Within a couple of weeks, I stumbled across further information about why that might be while reading Measuring Happiness: The Economics of Well-Being, the English translation of a book written by German authors Joachim Weimann, Andreas Knabe and Ronnie Schöb.* In Chapter 7, they discuss the results of an experiment carried out in a 2009 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index study in which one random sample of Americans were asked to rate their satisfaction with life, while another random sample were first asked about their political views and then about their satisfaction with life:

Beginning January 9, 2009, half of the respondents were asked political questions as usual, whereas the other half were no longer asked any political questions but were asked about their life satisfaction right away. For the latter group, the average life satisfaction skyrocketed immediately after January 9, indicating very strong context effects. (pp. 95-96)

The source of this information was a 2012 paper by Angus Deaton of the Center for Health and Well-Being at Princeton University, who noted that:

People appear to dislike politics and politicians so much that prompting them to think about them has a very large downward effect on their assessment of their own lives . . . [T]he effect of asking the political questions on well-being is only a little less than the effect of someone becoming unemployed, so that to get the same effect on average well-being, three-quarters of the population would have to lose their jobs.

Three months later, another change was made to insert a buffer between the political and life-satisfaction questions for all respondents. Immediately, this showed up as an increase in how well people rated their overall life satisfaction compared to the answers they gave when there was no buffer. As Deaton observed, the jump in reported life satisfaction was equivalent to the expected effects of “a more than doubling of per capita GDP”.

While this says something about the risk that one set of questions in a survey could accidentally influence how people respond to the questions that follow, it also says something about why Canadians and others around the world are tuning out on politics: if having politics on their mind makes them feel worse about life, and not thinking about it makes them feel better, the sensible thing to do is to give politics no more attention that necessary.

Politicians who wish to make the societies they govern happier places to live, and to keep the dreaded it’s-time-for-a-change sentiment at bay until a later election, might find that their best bet is to simply stay out of their constituents’ faces. And as for the large numbers of politically disengaged people, about which there has been much hand-wringing in recent years, the best policy might be to simply leave them in peace.

* – Available at the Millennium Library in Winnipeg at 306 WEI 2015.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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