Study: Men's Biceps Predict Their Political Ideologies

Positions on economic redistribution correlated with upper-body strength.
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Valentin Flauraud/Reuters

PROBLEM: The pre-societal, animal model of conflict resolution is simple, brutal, and effective. Leaving aside political gambles, moral considerations, and the like, the strong are more willing to fight for their self-interest, while the weak find it more advantageous not to assert themselves. Extrapolated to a fairly simple conflict of interest -- wealth redistribution -- do modern humans operate under the same logic?

METHODOLOGY: Researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark and UC Santa Barbara collected from several hundred men and women in Argentina, the U.S., and Denmark. They categorized the subjects by socioeconomic class, their upper-body strength, or "fighting ability" (as measured by the "circumference of the flexed bicep of the dominant arm"), and their responses to a questionnaire gauging their support for economic redistribution.

RESULTS: Rich men, who would benefit least from redistribution, were more likely to be opposed to it -- but only when they also had large biceps. There was a negative correlation between the two, so that rich men with less muscle strength were more open to redistribution. In men of lower socioeconomic status, the correlation was reversed: stronger men were more in favor of redistribution, while men with smaller muscles were less likely to support it.

These associations remained significant even once the researchers controlled for political party. No relationship between strength and ideology, however, was seen in women.

IMPLICATIONS: Evolutionarily speaking, write the authors, "it is a fitness error for weaker contestants to attempt to seize resources when they cannot prevail and for stronger ones to cede what they can cost-effectively defend," at least in men. For women (again, in terms of evolution), physical conflict is rarely worth it. Regardless of the high-minded ideas we may have about how our ideologies are formed, their findings suggest, whether we argue in favor of the common good or our own self-interest is to some degree influenced by who would win should it come down to an arm wrestle.


The full study, "The Ancestral Logic of Politics: Upper-Body Strength Regulates Men's Assertion of Self-Interest Over Economic Redistribution," is published in the journal Psychological Science.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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