October 21, 2012

Forget Atlas Shrugged. Republicans should quote Charles Atlas.

Research concerning the biological basis of political behavior rarely enters the public discourse of campaigns and elections. Yet the evidence suggests a genetic basis for political ideology, turnout, and leadership as well as a relationship between brain functioning and behavior (for example, increased levels of oxytocin seem to increase political trust).*

Add to this list "The Ancestral Logic of Politics: Upper Body Strength Regulates Men’s Assertion of Self-Interest over Income Redistribution," an article (forthcoming) in the journal Psychological Science by Michael Bang Petersen and Daniel Sznycer. Their main finding is that weaker men are more likely to support income redistribution while stronger men are less likely to do so. A summary of the article in the Economist reads:

The two researchers came to this conclusion after looking at 486 Americans, 223 Argentinians and 793 Danes. They collected data on their volunteers’ strength by measuring the circumference of the flexed biceps of an individual’s dominant arm. (Previous work has shown that this is an accurate proxy for strength.) They then measured people’s status with questionnaires about their economic situation. And they determined a person’s support for redistribution by asking the degree to which he or she agreed with statements like: “The wealthy should give more money to those who are worse off”; and “It is not fair that people have to pay taxes to fund welfare programmes.” They also asked about participants’ political ideologies.

Dr Petersen and Dr Sznycer found that, regardless of country of origin or apparent ideology, strong men argued for their self interest: the poor for redistribution, the rich against it. No surprises there. Weaklings, however, were far less inclined to make the case that self-interest suggested they would. Among women, by contrast, strength had no correlation with opinion. Rich women wanted to stay rich; poor women to become so.
I find their research worth noting because they articulate an underlying theory that explains their findings. Without a good theoretical foundation for their research, the observation would simply fall in the category of interesting coincidences. Because there is a compelling theoretical story, I'm suddenly reconsidering all the push-ups and pull-ups we had to do in boys gym class. Is there a link between physical education requirements in elementary schools and partisan control of state government? Do states with traditional political subcultures have different gym classes than those with moralistic political subcultures? A good theoretical foundation leads to a number of interesting questions!

Of course, the link between strength and support for income redistribution might help us better understand the role of debates in presidential elections.


If you're in the 47%, President Obama offering to step outside with Governor Romney might be cause for concern!

* See Alford and Hibbing 2008 for a good review of the subfield of biopolitics.

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