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Does your physical strength influence your politics?

May 19, 2013
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

Men’s upper-body strength pre­dicts their po­lit­i­cal opin­ions re­gard­ing how much the gov­ern­ment should spend on the poor, ac­cord­ing to new re­search.

Psy­chol­o­gists say the effect may re­flect psy­cho­log­i­cal traits that evolved in re­sponse to our early an­ces­tral en­vi­ron­ments.

“While many think of pol­i­tics as a mod­ern phe­nom­e­non, it has—in a sense—al­ways been with our species,” said Mi­chael Bang Pe­tersen of Aar­hus Uni­vers­ity in Den­mark, one of the re­search­ers. “Our re­sults dem­on­strate that phys­ic­ally weak males are more re­luc­tant than phys­ic­ally strong males to as­sert their self-in­ter­est—just as if dis­putes over na­t­ional poli­cies were a mat­ter of di­rect phys­ical con­fronta­t­ion among small num­bers of in­di­vid­u­als, rath­er than ab­stract elec­tor­al dy­nam­ics among mil­lions.”

The find­ings by Pe­tersen and col­leagues are pub­lished in Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, a jour­nal of the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based As­socia­t­ion for Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

Among our early an­ces­tors, de­ci­sions about re­source dis­tri­bu­tion weren’t made in court­hous­es or par­lia­ments, but through shows of strength. Thus Pe­tersen and col­leagues hy­poth­e­sized that upper-body strength—a proxy for the abil­ity to phys­ic­ally de­fend or ac­quire re­sources—would pre­dict men’s opin­ions about eco­nom­ic redis­tri­bu­tion.

The re­search­ers col­lect­ed da­ta on bi­cep size, socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus, and sup­port for eco­nom­ic redis­tri­bu­tion from hun­dreds of peo­ple in the Un­ited States, Ar­gen­ti­na, and Den­mark. In line with their hy­pothe­ses, they said, the data showed that wealthy men with high upper-body strength were less likely to sup­port redis­tri­bu­tion, while less wealthy men of the same strength were more likely to sup­port it.

“De­spite the fact that the Un­ited States, Den­mark and Ar­gen­ti­na have very dif­fer­ent wel­fare sys­tems, we still see that—at the psy­cho­log­i­cal lev­el—in­di­vid­u­als rea­son about wel­fare redis­tri­bu­tion in the same way,” said Pe­tersen. “In all three coun­tries, phys­ic­ally strong males con­sist­ently pur­sue the self-in­ter­est­ed po­si­tion on redis­tri­bu­tion.”

Men with low upper-body strength, on the oth­er hand, were less likely to sup­port their own self-in­ter­est. Wealthy men of this group showed less re­sist­ance to redis­tri­bu­tion, while poor men showed less sup­port, the re­search­ers found.

They saw no link be­tween upper-body strength and redis­tri­bu­tion opin­ions among wom­en, though. Pe­tersen ar­gues that this is likely due to the fact that, over the course of ev­o­lu­tion­ary his­to­ry, wom­en had less to gain, and more to lose, from di­rect phys­ical ag­gres­sion.

The re­sults sug­gest an ev­o­lu­tion­ary per­spec­tive may help to il­lu­mi­nate po­lit­i­cal mo­tiva­t­ions, at least those of men, he added. “Many pre­vi­ous stud­ies have shown that peo­ple’s po­lit­i­cal views can­not be pre­dicted by stand­ard eco­nom­ic mod­els… This is among the first stud­ies to show that po­lit­i­cal views may be ra­t­ional in anoth­er sense, in that they’re de­signed by nat­u­ral se­lec­tion to func­tion in the con­di­tions re­cur­rent over hu­man ev­o­lu­tion­ary his­to­ry.”


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Men’s upper-body strength predicts their political opinions, in particular on how much the government should spend on the poor, according to new research. Psychologists say the link may reflect psychological traits that evolved in response to our early ancestral environments. “While many think of politics as a modern phenomenon, it has — in a sense — always been with our species,” said Michael Bang Petersen of Aarhus University in Denmark, one of the researchers. “Our results demonstrate that physically weak males are more reluctant than physically strong males to assert their self-interest — just as if disputes over national policies were a matter of direct physical confrontation among small numbers of individuals, rather than abstract electoral dynamics among millions.” The findings by Petersen and colleagues are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Among our early ancestors, decisions about resource distribution weren’t made in courthouses or parliaments, but through shows of strength. Thus Petersen and colleagues hypothesized that upper-body strength — a proxy for the ability to physically defend or acquire resources — would predict men’s opinions about economic redistribution. The researchers collected data on bicep size, socioeconomic status, and support for economic redistribution from hundreds of people in the United States, Argentina, and Denmark. In line with their hypotheses, they said, the showed revealed that wealthy men with high upper-body strength were less likely to support redistribution, while less wealthy men of the same strength were more likely to support it. “Despite the fact that the United States, Denmark and Argentina have very different welfare systems, we still see that — at the psychological level — individuals reason about welfare redistribution in the same way,” said Petersen. “In all three countries, physically strong males consistently pursue the self-interested position on redistribution.” Men with low upper-body strength, on the other hand, were less likely to support their own self-interest. Wealthy men of this group showed less resistance to redistribution, while poor men showed less support, the researchers found. The researchers found no link between upper-body strength and redistribution opinions among women. Petersen argues that this is likely due to the fact that, over the course of evolutionary history, women had less to gain, and more to lose, from direct physical aggression. The results suggest an evolutionary perspective may help to illuminate political motivations, at least those of men, he added. “Many previous studies have shown that people’s political views cannot be predicted by standard economic models… This is among the first studies to show that political views may be rational in another sense, in that they’re designed by natural selection to function in the conditions recurrent over human evolutionary history.”