Can a man’s physical strength cue his political orientation? A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences suggests yes, finding that physically strong men are perceived as more conservative.
“I became interested in this topic after reading a study from Petersen et al. (2013) demonstrating how men’s physical strength correlates with their actual political attitudes, an effect that appeared to replicate in several domains,” said study author Mitch Brown, PhD (@ExtravertedFace), an instructor of psychological science at the University of Arkansas.
“This effect led me to believe that perceivers could potentially use men’s strength as a heuristic to estimate their interest in social policies that favor competition and hierarchy, which are ostensibly underpinnings of modern-day conservatism. From there, I was interested in seeing just how integrated these perceptions are with actual interpersonal differences.”
Strong men are more inclined to acquire resources and status by engaging in direct competition and promoting social hierarchies. Given these motivations, they are more likely to support policies that favor the use of aggressive bargaining and employ hierarchy-maintenance strategies. Thus, physical strength could reasonably act as a heuristic for political conservatism.
Brown and colleagues conducted a series of four studies. Study 1 recruited 203 undergraduate students who were shown a total of eight unique identities of physically strong and weak men photographed in white tank tops. Target strength was determined via electronic dynamometer results for chest press and dominant hand grip strength. Participants were presented with one of two versions of each identity, where the identity was the head of each target placed either on the original or a matched body. Participants rated two original and two matched body images for both strong and weak men; the order of these blocks was counterbalanced. Participants provided a 7-point rating of how strong the target appeared, which served as a manipulation check.
Participants indicated the extent to which the target identified as a liberal/conservative along both a “fiscal” and “social” dimension of conservatism, on a scale of 1 (very liberal) to 7 (very conservative). They also indicated the extent to which the target identified with various issues on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), including fiscally conservative sentiments (e.g., opposition to wealth redistribution) and socially conservative sentiment (e.g., opposition to abortion).
Study 2 included 302 undergraduate participants. In this case, targets were paired with a statement about their hypothetical income relative to the median income of the rest of the city. Participants were presented with a combination of strong and weak, as well as high- and low-SES targets. In addition to the questions of Study 1, participants also provided an agreement rating regarding the target’s wealth on a scale of 7-point scale.
Study 3 included 179 undergraduate participants. They rated the target’s strength and responded to 12 statements about the target’s morality, along the dimensions of traditionalism, compassion, and liberty, providing ratings of 1 (completely irrelevant) to 7 (completely relevant) to the target.
Study 4 included 210 participants recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Once again, they responded to two items assessing their perceptions of four targets’ fiscal and social conservatism. Targets varied in terms of masculinity and body fat, displaying a combination of high/low body fat and small/large muscles. Body dimensions were non-exaggerated, with the intention of affording greater ancestral relevance. The four targets were selected from the UCLA Body Matrices. Participants rated their perceived strength of targets on a 7-point scale.
This research revealed four key findings.
“There is a consistent perception of physically strong men (i.e., men with considerable upper body strength identified visually) as espousing more conservative viewpoints relative to physically weak men,” Brown told PsyPost.
“These perceptions are not limited to fiscal or social domains and generalize across perceptions of a man’s socioeconomic background. Strong men are further perceived as more likely to have liberty as a central part of their morality, which could map onto libertarianism’s interest in free market competition. Finally, these effects also occur for highly muscular men whom perceivers regard as strong themselves.”
An interesting finding is that physically weak men do not signal a particular political affiliation, appearing neither conservative nor liberal. The researchers write, “The basis of affordance judgments for liberal ideologies through physical features could be unrelated to formidability. Inferences of liberal ideologies could be rooted in perceptions of warmth, which could be less salient to perceivers in male targets.”
I asked Brown what questions still need to be addressed. He said, “It remains less clear whether these stereotypes reflect kernels of truth. Future research needs to assess both strength and political orientation of men and identify whether perceivers can track both. Both studies have occurred separately (i.e., perceived strength and conservatism), but it has yet to be done together to clarify why the heuristic and actual association exist.”
“These studies are merely a reflection on a potential evolutionary origin of political differences and should reflect a belief that any political affiliation evolved. Rather, these results suggest that the self-interested nature of any political orientation is likely based on an understanding of how one could use their social capital (or lack thereof) to optimize benefits for themselves and endorse policies that favor them. It is important to consider how these results could track what liberals could value and emphasize in their self-interested politics, like how these results reflect conservatives.”
The research, “Physical strength as a heuristic cue of political conservatism”, was authored by Mitch Brown, Donald F. Sacco, Aaron W. Lukaszewski, and Ryan E. Tracy.