People who view themselves as physically strong are more likely to admit to engaging in political violence, according to new research published in Evolution and Human Behavior. The findings indicate that strength plays a role in people’s willingness to use force in support of a political cause.
A number of previous studies have found that greater physical strength is associated with heightened aggression and dominance. But there is little research examining whether physical strength is correlated with political views and behaviors.
“I study political violence. I am interested in why people support or engage in violent antigovernment protests, armed civil conflicts, and other forms of political violence. My research combines political science with psychology,” said Henrikas Bartusevičius, a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo and the author of the new study.
“Recently, I came across an interesting line of research, informed by evolutionary psychology, showing that physically stronger men are more aggressive. Drawing on this, I wanted to find out whether physically stronger men were also more aggressive in the domain of politics, specifically, whether they were motivated to engage in violent antigovernment protests.”
For the new research, Bartusevičius surveyed 2,170 adults from South Africa, 1,000 from Venezuela, 1,574 from Nicaragua, and 1,539 from the United States. The survey asked the participants about their attendance at political demonstrations, participation in political violence over the last year, and future intentions to engage in political violence. The survey also asked, “How physically strong are you compared to other people from your sex?”
After controlling for gender, age, education, and subjective socioeconomic status, Bartusevičius found that self-perceived strength was associated with both participation in political violence and intentions to engage in political violence. He also found that gender and age influenced the relationship between self-perceived strength and political violence.
“I found that men (compared to women) and the young (compared to the old) were also more motivated to engage in violence. The three variables (strength, gender, and age), combined, explained a substantial variation in people’s motivations for violence,” Bartusevičius told PsyPost.
“The main take away from these results is that just by looking at a basic set of individual differences we can account for a considerable share of variation in people’s willingness to engage in contemporary political violence. Conventional explanations of political violence stress nuanced political, economic, cultural, and environmental factors.”
“My research suggests that we should not overlook the role of elemental individual characteristics, especially those that have been shown to relate to aggression in the interpersonal domain. In short, variables that relate to interpersonal aggression are also variables that likely relate to the use of aggression in politics,” Bartusevičius explained.
The findings are in line with another study published this year, which found that physical strength predicted the endorsement of military action to solve global conflicts.
Bartusevičius found that self-perceived strength was associated with political violence among both men and women. Previous research, in contrast, has “found that stronger men (but not stronger women) were more aggressive in dyadic (one-on-one) conflicts,” he explained. “This hints at differences between dyadic aggression and modern forms of coalitional aggression, such as violent antigovernment protests.”
Of course, physical strength is just one of many factors associated with political violence. “The correlations between strength and motivations for political violence were small,” Bartusevičius said. “This implies that one’s physical strength plays only a small role in the decision to take part in such violence. In our other studies, we identified a range of variables that were associated with political violence many times more strongly than physical strength.”
“One such variable is people’s political orientation (e.g., preference for an autocratic versus democratic form of governance). This, however, should not be a surprise: Political violence involves incompatibilities over complex political issues, and hence it seems natural that people’s orientations toward these issues play a bigger role in their motivations to engage in political violence. What is more striking is that strength — a physiological characteristic — plays a non-negligible role in such complex motivations.”
The study was correlational, meaning no causal inferences can be made at this point. “We do not know whether strength causally increases motivations for violence or, alternatively, whether some other characteristic (e.g., tendency to take risks) increases self-perceived strength and motivations for political violence,” Bartusevičius explained.
“Hence, future research should explore ways to assess whether strength causally relates to motivations for violence. Also, future studies should explore the role of strength (and other characteristics) of political leaders, whose decisions over political violence (e.g., whether to initiate it or not) might be much more consequential than those of ordinary citizens.”
The study, “Physical strength predicts political violence“, was published online May 10, 2021.