Are Socialists Physically Weak?

An intriguing new study has provoked the right-wing blogosphere, but this line of research presents more questions than answers.

People in a demonstration carry posters with images of Lenin and Stalin.
Gregory Bull / AP

A couple weeks ago, a study bubbled up through the muck of the The Red Pill subreddit: “Physically Weak Men More Likely to be Socialists (Unless They’re Poor),” the Redditor posted, next to a tag that says “Science” and, for good measure, a picture of an atom.

“Lifting doesn’t just make you stronger and fitter, it also makes you less of a cuck,” the Redditor proclaimed, using a term coined by the men’s rights movement to signify a spineless beta male.

The study was also fodder for right-wing bloggers, some of whom wrote it up with the natural corollary: “strong men more likely to be capitalist.”

Sure, if you’re a free-market enthusiast, it may be satisfying to think of men who tweet “Bernie would have won” as wimpy weaklings. But is it true?

For the study, which was recently published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, researchers recruited 171 men and measured their shoulders, chest, and flexed biceps. The men were asked to squeeze a dynamometer to measure their grip strength.

The researchers also gauged how much the men valued redistributive economic policies, based on how much they agreed with statements like “High incomes should be taxed more than is currently the case.” They then measured how much the men had a “social dominance orientation,” or a preference for hierarchies—those who thought things like “Inferior groups should stay in their place” rank highly on this scale.

When the researchers compared the men’s measures of physical strength with their economic values, they found that the less musclebound men were both less socially dominant and more likely to support socio-political egalitarianism. In other words, yes, the strong men were less likely to be “socialist,” if you can call it that.

After controlling for time the men spent in the gym, the relationship between strength and social dominance—that belief in a “dog-eat-dog” world—remained. So it’s not just that gym rats are more socially dominant. However, after controlling for gym time, the association between physical strength and economic redistribution didn’t hold up.

So, what could be going on here?

The lead author of the study, Michael Price, a senior psychology lecturer at Brunel University London, chalks this up to evolutionary theory. In our ancestral past, men’s physical size determined their status and resources, so bigger men would have been fine with a survival-of-the-fittest type system.

In the study, the relationship between strength and an aversion to redistribution was especially robust among the wealthier men. Among the poorer men, support for economic redistribution was not related to strength. This partly, but not entirely, replicated an earlier study, which found that strength and cut-throat capitalism were correlated among wealthy men, while the poor, strong men actually supported redistribution—suggesting that the poorer men were just looking out for their self-interest. They might be strong, the thinking goes, but they would still need redistributive policies to get ahead in the world.

Colin Holbrook, an anthropology researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, says plenty of research supports the idea that status and prestige are linked to size and strength—as evidenced by the fact that tall men make more money than shorter ones do. If your big body earns you lots of privileges—as it likely did, in past millennia—it’s only natural that you don’t want to give these privileges away to others.

What’s more, these big dudes might have been, historically, more likely to prevail in a fist-fight, Holbrook says. “Imagine a world in which there are no tasers or handguns,” he told me. “Physical muscularity and size are the primary determinants of who is going to win in a conflict.” Hoarding resources for yourself is exactly the kind of thing that will invite conflict—just ask Czar Nicholas II—but if you’re beefy and strong, you don’t much care, since you’ll win anyway.

For people who aren’t satisfied by the evolutionary explanation, there could be a different connecting factor for today’s men: narcissism. “If you’re a very self-centered, self-interested person, you might be very motivated to work out in the gym and be less egalitarian,” Price said.

Though some studies have found that narcissism has little to do with physical strength, others have indeed found that narcissists, for whatever reason, are less egalitarian. In Price’s current study, support for egalitarianism wasn’t related to attractiveness—perhaps because strength is a more important quality than beauty for men—but some past research has found that people with attractive faces and bodies are also less likely to support economic redistribution.

In that case, the explanation might be even simpler: Privileged people like inequality. “People are more likely to form beliefs that coincide with their self-interest,” the Stanford University sociologist Jeremy Freese told me. “I don’t see much specific value in trying to project our intuitions about musclebound bullies versus weaklings back onto the savanna.”

There are a lot of potential explanations for the association Price’s study and others have found between strength and economically conservative impulses. Maybe it does come from our ancestors, who duked it out for mammoth meat long before the idea of universal basic income was a thing. Or perhaps kids from left-leaning families just don’t put as much effort into sports and workouts. If so, the “general question then becomes why would left-leaning guys not value working out as much,” Price said. “Perhaps they subscribe to a value system that emphasizes collectivism and mutual support over individualism and competitiveness.” But that’s just speculation.

Either way, the messy connection between strength and socio-political ideology resembles the complicated way we come by our political beliefs. Your level of conservatism or liberalism is a product of your experiences, the socialization you received from your parents, and even your genes. It’s tempting to think that a young Democrat could never quite get his chin over the pull-up bar, so he gave up on the free market forever. But there are, more likely, lots of invisible forces that both shape and result from our political values. Physical strength could be one of them. “People have no idea where their beliefs come from,” Price told me, “so we are trying to illuminate some of the sources.”