MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Aaron W. Lukaszewski, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology
Oklahoma State University
Medical Research: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?
Dr. Lukaszewski: A large body of evidence from multiple social science fields indicates that physically formidable men tend to attain positions of leadership and prestige within cooperative groups (e.g., communities, businesses, nations). The most common explanation for this phenomenon is that strong men ascend hierarchies by aggressively intimidating their rivals and fellow group members into submission — much like chickens use physical contests to establish “pecking orders” that define rank.
The current research advances a different explanation for why formidable men attain high status. Specifically, we propose that members of cooperative groups willingly confer high status upon physically strong men, because they are perceived as possessing specific leadership capacities. To test this, we had people view photographs of men and women whose physical strength had been previously measured, and evaluate them along specific dimensions. As predicted, stronger men (but not women) were seen as deserving higher status, and this was explained by the fact that such men were seen as being better leaders (as defined by their apparent ability to enforce group policies and represent the group to outsiders). Moreover, physically strong men who were seen as being likely to aggressively intimidate others were projected to acquire less status than their apparently gentler counterparts.
Taken together, the findings support the idea that strong men are given higher status by others because they are perceived as being likely to use their strength to benefit the group by cost-effectively providing valuable leadership services.
Medical Research: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?
Dr. Lukaszewski: Many mental health problems ultimately stem from negative self-evaluation and related emotions. For example, recent evidence supports the idea that the emotion of shame functions to reduce the threat of being socially devalued by others. Despite this potentially beneficial function, though, the experience of shame can lead to depression and related problems.
In this context, two points about our findings are worth noting.
- First, for men, physical formidability enhanced social value in the eyes of others — which suggests that people afflicted with feelings of low self-worth might benefit from training to increase strength and muscularity.
- Second, valuation in the eyes of others is determined by their perceptions of an individual’s apparent ability to provide benefits for groups — whether due to physical strength or some other characteristic. Thus, individuals suffering from feelings of worthlessness might benefit from any action that serves to increase their apparent possession of traits valued by others or communicate that others already value them for what they have.
Medical Research: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?
Dr. Lukaszewski: It is interesting to note that we found the strength-status effect within the context of a white-collar business consultancy, wherein physical contests are very unlikely to occur (much less influence promotion outcomes in a positive way). Why? From the vantage point of our hypothesis, this is because the psychology of status allocation and leader selection evolved within the context of small-scale subsistence societies without the formal rule of law — within which physical contests would have been relatively common and socially consequential. Thus, it is possible that our findings represent an “evolutionary mismatch,” which occurs when an evolved mechanism produces an output that is no longer reproductively advantageous in a later environment. However, it is entirely possible that physically strong leaders actually do enhance the effectiveness of group cooperation, insofar as others are more likely to defer to them and stay on their best behavior.
Determining whether formidable male leadership actually does continue to enhance cooperation in the modern world is therefore a promising avenue for future research.
Medical Research: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Dr. Lukaszewski: We are in a Presidential election year. Given that our findings demonstrate a role for physical formidability in leader selection and status conferral, I would note that Donald J. Trump physically towers over his competitors on the debate stage while touting his own strength and routinely calling others “weak.” And, as he reminds us frequently, he is winning — by a lot.
J Pers Soc Psychol. 2015 Dec 14. [Epub ahead of print]
The Role of Physical Formidability in Human Social Status Allocation.
Lukaszewski AW, Simmons ZL, Anderson C, Roney JR.
Aaron W. Lukaszewski, Ph.D. (2016). Strong Men Given Higher Status By Others In Hopes of Group Gain MedicalResearch.com