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Just getting hungry may change your politics

Nov. 12, 2013
Courtesy of Aarhus University
and World Science staff

Peo­ple are more sup­port­ive of a wel­fare state and of help­ing the poor when they them­selves get hun­gry, a study sug­gests.

The re­sults hint, the re­search­ers say, that when peo­ple sup­port such left-wing poli­cies, they’re ac­tu­ally look­ing out for their own fu­ture selves.

“We asked a group of test sub­jects to fast for four hours af­ter which we gave them a Sprite or a sug­ar free Sprite Ze­ro. One group had high blood sug­ar lev­els, while the oth­er group had low blood sug­ar,” said re­search­er Lene Aarøe of Aar­hus Uni­vers­ity in Den­mark.

A sur­vey of par­ti­ci­pants’ po­lit­i­cal views fol­lowed. “The group with low blood sug­ar lev­els were more in­clined to sup­port a left-wing wel­fare pol­i­cy,” Aarøe said. “This chal­lenges the tra­di­tion­al no­tion of what in­flu­ences us when we take a stance” on such is­sues.

In or­der to un­der­stand the find­ings, she said, we must look to the or­i­gin of our spe­cies. Pol­i­tics al­so ex­isted in the com­mun­i­ties of our an­ces­tors, the hunters and gath­er­ers who roamed the East Af­ri­can sa­van­nah. Their ways of han­dling things have probably left a mark on us to­day.

“A crit­i­cal is­sue has al­ways been to se­cure enough food. We hu­man an­i­mals, who live in groups and are ex­cep­tion­ally skilled at man­ag­ing so­cial situa­t­ions, al­ways have one ex­tra­or­di­nary op­tion if the hunt should fail: we can ask the more for­tu­nate peo­ple to share their spoils with us. And if we are we to be­lieve a num­ber of an­thro­po­log­i­cal stud­ies, this is pre­cisely what peo­ple do across the globe,” said co-researcher Mi­chael Bang Pe­tersen, also of the uni­ver­sity.

The wel­fare sys­tem is a con­tem­po­rary equiv­a­lent to the an­ces­tral cus­tom. But when hun­gry peo­ple are more in­clined to sup­port the wel­fare sys­tem it is not so much a re­flec­tion of their con­cern for the poor, he said; it’s a strat­e­gy for se­cur­ing fur­ther re­sources for them­selves.

The re­search­ers first asked the test sub­jects to state their po­si­tion re­gard­ing the wel­fare state – and then they gave them mon­ey, which they could choose to keep for them­selves or share with a fel­low test sub­ject. De­spite the fact that the hun­gry sub­jects had just con­firmed the im­por­tance of help­ing oth­ers, which is in­deed char­ac­ter­is­tic of the wel­fare state, they were no more in­clined to share their loot with oth­ers when giv­en the chance.

The study is pub­lished in the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.


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People are more supportive of a welfare state and of helping the poor when they themselves get hungry, a new study finds. The results suggest, the researchers say, that when people support such left-wing policies, they’re actually looking out for their own future selves. “We asked a group of test subjects to fast for four hours after which we gave them a Sprite or a sugar free Sprite Zero. One group had high blood sugar levels, while the other group had low blood sugar,” said researcher Lene Aarøe of Aarhus University in Denmark. A survey of participants’ political views followed. “The group with low blood sugar levels were more inclined to support a left-wing welfare policy,” Aarøe said. “This challenges the traditional notion of what influences us when we take a stance” on such issues. In order to understand the findings, she said, we must look to the origin of our species. Politics also existed in the communities of our ancestors, the hunters and gatherers who roamed the East African savannah. Their ways of handling things have probably left a mark on us today. “Over the course of human evolutionary history, a critical issue has always been to secure enough food. We human animals, who live in groups and are exceptionally skilled at managing social situations, always have one extraordinary option if the hunt should fail: we can ask the more fortunate people to share their spoils with us. And if we are we to believe a number of anthropological studies, this is precisely what people do across the globe,” said Petersen and proceeds: “The point is that our political opinions are determined by rationality, but it is a rational impulse that has been passed on to us from our ancestors.” The welfare system is a contemporary equivalent to the ancestral custom. But when hungry people are more inclined to support the welfare system it is not so much a reflection of their concern for the poor, she said; it’s a strategy for securing further resources for themselves. The researchers first asked the test subjects to state their position regarding the welfare state – and then they gave them money, which they could choose to keep for themselves or share with a fellow test subject. Despite the fact that the hungry subjects had just confirmed the importance of helping others, which is indeed characteristic of the welfare state, they were no more inclined to share their loot with others when given the chance. The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.