We know it from the schoolyard. The strong boy in the class is prepared to put up a fight to wring the ball away from the bullies, while the smaller boys would rather stay out of trouble.
It sounds silly, but we see the same pattern when grown men make political decisions.
A new study shows that large muscles and strong attitudes go hand in hand.
“In modern politics, it makes no rational sense to base your opinions on your own physical strength,” says Michael Bang Petersen, an associate professor at Aarhus University’s Department of Political Science and Government.
“Yet our study has shown that men modulate their attitudes in accordance with their physical strength. So we’re seeing that our evolutionary baggage still affects the way we think today.”
Humans once lived in small groups on the African Savannah. Here it made sense for a strong man to fight another man to get his tools or his prey, or fight to protect the tools or prey if they were his own.
For the weak men, there was an advantage in staying out of conflicts if they wanted to survive.
These physical fights over resources have now been replaced by politics.
Petersen’s study shows that strong men still choose the conflict, while the weaker men give in. And that this affects men’s decisions in politics.
Petersen and co- author Dr Daniel Sznycer of the University of California, Santa Barbara, studied an old psychological system that has evolved through natural selection.
It’s about how animals and humans find the best strategy in situations of conflict.
”We took a well-known theory from evolutionary biology on how animals act in conflicts over resources,” says Petersen.
“Simply stated, the model predicts that if you are in conflict with another organism to which you are physically superior, you should intensify the conflict and try to grab the resource in question. If you’re physically inferior, you should withdraw.”
In the study, Petersen and his co-authors transferred the logic of animal conflicts about prey and territory to today’s mass politics, which often revolves around whether or not we should redistribute resources.
And according to the study, the strong man is more likely to go for the conflict in politics rather than staying out of it.
The scientists collected data from 1,502 participants from Denmark, the US and Argentina.
They were asked to fill in a questionnaire, from which the researchers could infer the respondents’ socioeconomic status and their political leanings.
The participants also had their flexed biceps measured.
Not surprisingly, the survey showed that rich people were against redistribution, i.e. high taxes, while poor people were in favour of it.
More startling was the fact that physical strength still has an influence on whether or not a man is willing and able to go for the resources.
“The more physical strength a rich man has, the more he will oppose redistribution of wealth,” says Petersen. “A physically weak rich man is a lot less opposed to such redistribution.”
This is surprising as modern politics are played out in highly developed, large-scale societies without any obvious links between muscle mass and how much one benefits from redistribution.
For poor men, strength has the same effect as for rich men, but the effect goes the other way round. The strong poor man will favour comprehensive redistribution of wealth, while the weak poor man will typically place more moderate demands on redistribution.
The survey thus shows that men’s physical strength generally has an effect on their willingness and ability to pursue their personal interests.
Women’s strength, on the other hand, has no bearing on whether they pursue their interests or not.
The rich women in the study were against redistribution, while the poor were in favour of it. The size of their biceps had no effect on that.
The explanation could be that from an evolutionary perspective, strength has less of an effect on women’s survival than on men’s.
On the Savannah – just like today – women were more likely to come up against a stronger opponent because men generally have more physical strength than women. Other researchers have shown that women’s tendency to be assertive is influenced by their physical appearance instead, so that beautiful women behave like physically strong men.
So men perform a subconscious calculation of whether it’s worth it for them to engage in a conflict.
But it’s still unclear whether this calculation changes if you train to gain more muscle or if you lose muscle mass.
Petersen’s study is a so-called correlation study, which demonstrates a correlation between two variables – physical strength and the desire to fight to get hold of more tax money or to hold on to one’s money. The study does not establish the direction of the causal link between the two factors.
So the study does not show whether physical strength alone affects the desire to compete, or whether the desire to compete also compels people to go to the gym to build up bigger muscles.
It does, however, show that we are still controlled by ancient evolutionary survival strategies.