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UC SANTA BARBARA (US) — Upper body strength and socioeconomic status can predict men’s opinions on the redistribution of wealth, according to researchers.

“The link between body size and aggressiveness is everywhere in the animal kingdom,” says Daniel Sznycer, a postdoctoral researcher at University of California, Santa Barbara’s Center for Evolutionary Psychology and co-author of the paper. “It’s there among invertebrates, vertebrates, non-human primates, and human primates—us.”

At the level of individuals, redistribution involves a conflict over resources, so the human mind should perceive issues of economic redistribution through that lens, Sznycer continues.

“We humans are also primates and mammals and vertebrates—heirs to the selective regime on conflict. And so, this study predicts that our human minds will use estimates of fighting ability—in this case, upper body strength—to calibrate one’s own stance in such conflicts.”

In the days of our early ancestors, decisions about the distribution of resources weren’t made in courthouses or legislative offices, but through shows of strength. With this in mind, Sznycer colleagues hypothesized that upper-body strength—a proxy for the ability to physically defend or acquire resources—would predict men’s opinions about economic redistribution.

As reported in Psychological Science, the researchers collected data on bicep size, socioeconomic status, and support for economic redistribution from hundreds of people in the United States, Argentina, and Denmark. In line with their hypothesis, the data revealed that stronger men are more likely to assert their economic self-interest.

What counts as self-interest regarding redistribution, however, varies based on socioeconomic status (SES). Redistribution increases the share of resources of low-SES men, and decreases the share of resources of high-SES men.

“Men of low-SES stand to gain, whereas men of high-SES stand to lose,” Sznycer says. “What we found is that higher upper-body strength exacerbates your self-interested stance. Bigger biceps correlate with more support for redistribution among low-SES men, and with more opposition to redistribution among high-SES men.”

Conversely, men with lower upper-body strength were less likely to assert themselves. High-SES men of this group showed less resistance to redistribution, while those of low SES demonstrated less support.

“Our results demonstrate that physically weak males are more reluctant than physically strong males to assert their self-interest—just as if disputes over national policies were a matter of direct physical confrontation among small numbers of individuals, rather than abstract electoral dynamics among millions,” says Michael Bang Peterson of Aarhus University, one of the paper’s lead authors.

According to Sznycer, the paper’s other lead author, however, socioeconomic status by itself doesn’t predict people’s attitudes about redistribution. “It’s only when you combine the information about strength and socioeconomic status that you can predict these political attitudes,” says Sznycer.

“This suggests that the human mind is ecologically rational and designed for small-scale societies rather than means-end rational. In short, within our modern skulls lies a brain designed for ancestral challenges.”

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“Our results demonstrate that physically weak males are more reluctant than physically strong males to assert their self-interest—just as if disputes over national policies were a matter of direct physical confrontation among small numbers of individuals, rather than abstract electoral dynamics among millions,” says Michael Bang Peterson of Aarhus University. (Credit: “man showing his bicep” via Shutterstock)

Interestingly, the researchers found no link between upper-body strength and redistribution opinions among women. “This is consistent with the male bias in the aggressive use of force among mammals,” Sznycer says.

“Compared to males, ancestral human females derived fewer benefits and incurred higher costs when bargaining using physical aggression. Women can certainly be competitive, but they use more indirect forms of aggression.”

Sznycer also notes that finding the same results in three countries suggests the effect is driven by standard features of the human mind in tandem with particular environmental variables—here strength and resources—rather than being an idiosyncratic cultural effect. “These three countries have quite different distributive policies, and yet the way strength modulates these political attitudes is the same everywhere,” he says.

Additional researchers from UCSB and Griffith University contributed to the study.

Source: UC Santa Barbara