Upper-Body Strength, Economic Redistribution and The Ancestral Logic of Politics

MedicalResearch.com eInterview with: Michael Bang Petersen
Associate Professor, PhD
Department of Political Science
Aarhus University, Denmark

MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings of the study?

Answer: While many think of politics as a modern phenomenon, politics has – in a sense – been with our species always. Our ancestors have been group living animals for millions of years and it would be surprising if natural selection had not shaped our ancestors’ psychology to navigate core political situations including how to manage resource conflicts. In this article, we applied this insight to the study of attitudes towards economic redistribution and theorized about the kinds of factors that an evolved psychology of conflict navigation would consider important. Given that we evolved in small-scale groups and many conflicts would have to be settled face-to-face, one such factor – at least, for males – would be physical strength. Essentially, stronger males should be more likely to escalate conflicts and pursuit their self-interest. On modern political issues of economic redistribution, self-interest is determined by socio-economic status (SES). Individuals with high SES have an interest in decreasing redistribution, whereas individuals with low SES have an interest in increasing redistribution. On this basis, an adaptationist perspective on the psychology of redistribution attitudes predicts that for rich males upper-body strength should decrease support for redistribution. For poor males, in contrast, upper-body strength should increase support for redistribution. This is what we found in three highly different countries: the United States, Denmark and Argentina. Cross countries, physically strong males opted for the self-interested political position.
MedicalResearch.com: Were any of the findings unexpected?

Answer:  While this was a straight forward prediction from the underlying theory, we were still amazed about the cross-cultural consistency of the effect of male upper-body strength on the pursuit of political self-interest. Despite the fact that the United States, Denmark and Argentina have very different welfare state systems, we still see that – at the psychological level – individuals reason about welfare state redistribution in the same way. In all three country, physically strong males consistently pursuit the self-interested position on redistribution.

MedicalResearch.com: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Answer:  The study constitutes basic research within the social sciences and, hence, does not have direct implications for the work of health specialists. Still, one relevant implication of the study is that it provides a novel example of the failing of a dualistic approach to the mind and body. Our psychology is not something that clinicians can consider as disconnected from the body. Rather, our psychological responses – including our political views – are contingent on the conditions of our physiology.

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Answer:  In the paper we establish and provide independent replications of a correlation between political attitudes, pursuit of self-interest and male upper-body strength. In the analyses, we control for a large range of potentially confounding variables such as exercise patterns, BMI, age and occupation. Still, we don’t know much about the causal mechanism involved in establishing these associations. What is, for example, the role of hormones such as testosterone? And, more importantly, if you build upper-body strength in the gym does that have a causal effect on your personality and attitudes – that is, can you change your personality by working out?


The Ancestral Logic of Politics: Upper-Body Strength Regulates Men’s Assertion of Self-Interest Over Economic Redistribution

Petersen, M. B, Sznycer, D., Sell, A., Cosmides, L.,&Tooby, J. ‘The ancestral logic of politics: Upper body strength regulates men’s assertion of self-interest over economic redistribution’, Psychological Science doi: 10.1177/095679761246641

Last Updated on June 12, 2013 by Marie Benz MD FAAD