Friday, October 28, 2011

Occupation and nihilism

General Social Survey (GSS) participants were asked if they agree that life serves no purpose. Answers range from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5). I calculated the mean by occupation and list below the top and bottom five:

Nihilism--Top Five Means 

Farm workers 2.20
Health aide 1.91
Construction laborers 1.89
Sewing machine operator 1.88
Farmers 1.86
Machine operator 1.86

Nihilism--Bottom Five Means

Sales supevisor 1.30
Other finanical officers 1.25
Financial managers 1.20
Managers 1.19 
Real estates sales 1.17

The difference between farm workers and real estate sales is large--1.3 standard deviations.  Evidently, a sense of meaningless is more of a problem for people with low status, repetitive occupations. Jobs with power and money are correlated with less nihilism.  Perhaps powerlessness is a major source of thinking that life serves no purpose.


  1. The nihilists are all occupied with producing the fundamentals of life. Food, medicine, shelter, clothing, and tools. The mechanics of sustaining the body. Work in those occupations, and you'll be very aware of the transience of life and the material means required to sustain it. Particularly in farming and medicine, you see how fragile and capricious life is. Malformed offspring, crops ruined by weather, disease. This person or animal gets the medical attention they need in time, and is cured. That one doesn't, and dies. There's no plan, simply effort, or lack thereof, and sometimes no amount of effort is enough. Sometimes the crop is ruined or the calf or the baby is stillborn despite your best efforts. You take the loss, and move on. You eat or you starve, you build shelter or you get wet, you make clothes or you get cold. You work or you die. There are no days off for good behavior. No plan from above to come to your rescue.

    The bottom five are all removed from these essential facts. They deal in symbols, high-level abstractions, or at best, in trading products made by others. Meat comes from a grocery store, not a living creature you killed. A home is a consequence of a mortgage, a financial instrument, not lumber and nails. Insulated from the day-to-day struggle, making so many plans yourself, it's easier to believe in an abstract plan on some other level too.

  2. bjdubbs2:22 PM

    I read this the exact opposite way, ie farmers as least nihilist. I really have trouble believing that farm workers, many of whom probably go to church and live in rural towns, are nihilists. Same goes for helping professions like health aide.
    And real estate agents are the biggest cynics around, so this whole question smells, or my intuitions are totally off. RE agents over kindergarten teachers? I don't buy it.

  3. bjdubbs2:27 PM

    Unless they're saying that this life serves no purpose - but there's another world. It looks like many of these occupations may be peopled by fatalistic Christians.

  4. Anonymous3:16 PM

    Remind me again why high status, high IQ atheists think that selling atheism to the masses will improve society.

  5. Try controlling for gender.

  6. Men are slightly more nihilistic.

  7. "Particularly in farming and medicine, you see how fragile and capricious life is."

    True, but the nihilists were aides, not doctors or even nurses. I'm inclined to go with Ron's status theory.

    The farmer thing does surprise me.

  8. If we assume causality points in the other direction, then this just indicates that nihilists don't make good salesmen.

    I find that explanation satisfying.

  9. "If we assume causality points in the other direction, then this just indicates that nihilists don't make good salesmen."

    But they make good farmers?

  10. "But they make good farmers?"


    Sales rewards an enthusiastic mindset and farming rewards a materialistic mindset.

    I'm making this up as I go, but at first glance my guess fits reality.

  11. Real Estate salesmen are the ultimate optimists. I know, I was one for a while. Cynical, yes, but personally optimistic. That may have changed recently, I got out shortly after the bubble burst.

  12. Anonymous4:25 PM

    Rather it could be that it's less with people who have power and money because those people are more narcissistic and sociopathic. Predators have more fun.


Smart people are more varied than other people

I showed in an earlier post that, according to the General Social Survey (GSS), the smartest category of people are also the most diverse i...