Thursday, February 13, 2020

Ideology and Mental Illness

Via Slate Star Codex, I found this simple comparison of ideology and mental illness, based on the US General Social Survey:
Percent having had a mental illness
Extremely liberal 30.0
Liberal 11.5
Slightly liberal 12.1
Moderate 4.7
Slightly conservative 7.8
Conservative 5.6
Extremely conservative 5.1
I strongly suspect that this is real, and not just an artifact of the survey, but there are some things to say about it.

First, the results are self-reported, and I am pretty sure that American conservatives have a stronger bias against mental illness than liberals do. In some of the leftist groups I have known you would feel left out if you didn't have a mental illness to talk about. So I think some of this result comes from leftists being more willing to call common sorts of mental troubles "illness" than conservatives are.

I doubt that explains the whole thing, though. I think that statement applies to liberals nearly as much as it does to leftists, and liberals show much less mental illness; I suspect the size of this effect is about the difference between liberals and conservatives, or at any rate no bigger than that.

I think there is a real relationship between far left views and mental illness. The far left people I know are motivated by a sense that life in our society is unsustainable. Our world is too cruel, too unfair, too unsupportive of real human needs, besides which we are trashing the planet and headed for ecological catastrophe.

I think this outlook is strongly correlated with depression and anxiety. The more sensitive you are to human suffering, the sadder you will probably be, and, maybe, the more you long for some kind of radical change to fix things.

That being said, leftists might be functioning as the canary in the coal mine here, at least as regards the psychological trauma of living in our world. If our world were too cruel and unfair for human flourishing, you would expect the effects to show up first in highly sensitive people with a tendency to mental problems.

Plus, crazy people gets votes, too, so in a democracy you can't write off the views of people you think are crazy.

But I also wonder about the relationship between mental illness and politics in other, broader ways. To what extent are political beliefs psychological coping mechanisms? Or, to put it differently, to what extent can political beliefs serve as psychological coping mechanisms?

Consider the ML King/Obama belief that the long arc of history bends toward justice. Might this be a way of remaining hopeful about the future despite current troubles? And wouldn't it motivate you to act, politically, in certain ways? The reverse sort of nostalgic, things-used-to-be better conservatism also seems to me to often function as a psychological mechanism, upholding the possibility of good in a fallen world.

Some people really want to believe that the world is just and not merely randomly good or bad, and I wrote here back in 2015 about the political implications of this attitude:
People who strongly believe in a just world have been shown to be prone to blame sexual assault victims, more willing to malign people suffering from minor illnesses, less compassionate towards victims of spousal abuse. A 1975 study found BJW correlated with a tilt towards authoritarianism, an admiration for political leaders, and contempt for the underprivileged.
A case could be made that tribalism of every sort is a mechanism that protects psychological health. After all we did a lot of our evolution in small groups surrounded by hated outsiders, and I think a sense of belonging to a group that is good and opposed by enemies who are bad does a lot for many people. When I confront people who hate whole groups of others, I often feel that I am staring into an abyss of pain, which has been turned outward to protect a wounded self.

What we do, day to day, is struggle to feel good within a particular technological and social world. Politics, I am convinced, is one of the ways we do that.


David said...

I don't disagree with what you say, but in addition to the self-reporting aspect, I think there's also a bias in reporting that derives from folks channeling a very specific, but widespread in America, quasi-Laschian understanding of mental health. This view clearly distrusts, and finds unhealthy, qualities like self-reflection, fear, despair, guilt, hesitation, and all other forms of inward-turned aggression. Meanwhile, the contemporary Right is about unreflection and what it regards as good, healthy, outward-turned aggression (displayed by the sort of people Chuck Colson called "Right-wing exuberants").

I'm not sure that's a very convincing understanding of mental health, nor do I think it's the one that most psychiatrists work with. For example, my experience as both patient and relative of psychiatrists is they tend to understand narcissism as some variation on the Trump personality--shamelessly grandiose, aggressive, selfish in a crude, "you lose!" kind of way. Whereas, it seems to me, a lot of Americans think it means self-preoccupation in a worried, whimpy, tiresome kind of way (thinking "brainsickly of things," as Lady Macbeth says).

I've come to think more and more that, if there is any identifiable thing that lies at the heart of the current divide in Trump's America, it may lie in attitudes toward aggression. Liberals have their targets of outward aggression, and in some leftist circles you hear a lot about the virtue of anger. However, the stereotype of educated white liberals (which is a lot of what the Right is really against) is that they practice inward-turned aggression. Meanwhile, the Right has embraced outward-directed aggression, "exuberantly," as a kind of principle. (Note that aggression in the psychological sense is not the same as violence.)

G. Verloren said...


Very good points - I think conservatives are less likely to even comprehend that their thoughts or behaviors might be worrying on some level, and instead just treat things as "normal" and "natural" and expect them as standard.

One example that comes to mind is the historical mistreatment of soldiers suffering from PTSD - abused, called cowards, physically assaulted by their commanding officers (Patton himself got in hot water for exact that), sometimes even jailed or executed. Despite doctors as early as World War I arguing that "shell shock" was far more than simple cowardice or malingering, the military command was unable to even conceive of it as a legitimate illness for decades. It was seen as the product of individual failings and wickedness, and those suffering from it weren't seen as victims but as troublemakers and criminals.

The same sort of thinking also feeds into the classic notion that "The Poor are just lazy!", which is insidiously pervasive even today. Ditto for concepts such as "Homosexuals are evil!", or "Woman are hysterical!", or countless other failures of comprehension and empathy.

When you lack the awareness to recognize an injustice or failing of some sort, you instead think "This is normal, this is proper, everything is fine" and go about your day. And that will certainly influence both your self-reporting of mental illness (since you don't think there's anything wrong with your own personal expressions of paranoia or abusiveness or whatever else) and your political choices.

szopeno said...

Does te relation hold after controlling for a gender? There are more women on the left and they are more probe to depression, more anxious etc