Ripped Men More Likely to be Conservative?

According to a study by some psychological scientists from Denmark and the U.S., men who are physically strong are more likely to pursue their own personal interests, while men who are physically weak are more likely to forego their own personal interests. The study focused on the question of redistribution of wealth and measured physical strength by the size of biceps and pectoral muscles. According to the scientists, the political ramifications of male physical prowess are a hangover from our evolutionary development. In their own words:

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.

Huh. Very interesting. And very prone to misinterpretation. I found out about this study from an article in The Daily Mail with the headline: “Men who are physically strong are more likely to have right wing political views.” But before we start crowing about how we always knew liberals were just a bunch of wusses and all that, we really need to look at this study (and the assumptions of this article) a little more closely. There are complications with both.

First, on the article. The headline is very misleading. Once you read between the lines, you realize that the author of the article assumes throughout that the benchmark of conservatism is self-interest, whereas she assumes liberalism is more about “the greater good.” This is a common misconception actually (especially among left-wingers… big surprise). The most clever formulation of this idea came from John Kenneth Galbraith:

The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.

So, since conservatives want to keep what they’ve worked for, they are selfish. Because liberals are willing to take what they haven’t earned and give it to others, they are unselfish. Get it? Is this why millionaire liberals are always complaining about how low our tax rates are, but never seem willing to pay more into the system voluntarily? Whatever.

The erroneous “conservative equals self-interested” premise already colors the interpretation of the study’s data, but the Daily Mail’s provocative spin on that already colored interpretation just becomes outright distortion. So before you go fist-pumping that conservatives are all buff and liberals are all wimps, please recognize what this article is really saying: “Conservatives are all selfish.” But in fact, that is not what the study really means. Notice this quotation (from the article itself no less):

The data revealed that wealthy men with high upper-body strength were less likely to support redistribution, while less wealthy men of the same strength were more likely to support it.

Did you get that? It directly contradicts the headline. This means that, according to the study, physically strong men who are not wealthy are more likely to lean toward the left wing and support the redistribution of wealth. Why do they support this redistribution? Because they are on the poor side of the population and redistribution would benefit them personally in the short-term. So the headline is garbage. What it should have read is, “Study Indicates Physically Strong Men More Likely to Be Self-Interested.” It is not the case that this self-interest automatically leans right unless that conservatism is in line with the strong man’s personal interests. Which it often is not.

So the millions of fit and strong men on welfare are obviously not right wingers. But they are self-interested. They could care less if the country is tanking as long as they get their welfare checks. So, like I said, the article is way off. If we can say that a rejection of the redistribution of wealth makes a man “right wing,” there are apparently two groups in this study that come out on the “right wing” side: physically strong wealthy men and physically weak poor men. And once you see it like that, the study itself starts to look shaky. But that’s not the only reason the study is skewed.

Another problem is that interpreters of the study’s data easily fall prey to the fallacy of causation. What if “right wing” families are just more likely to value physical strength? They certainly send far more men into the military than left-wing families do, so being a big strong man might just be part of the “right wing” ethos. There is no indicator that the strength came before the political leaning though. Correlation does not necessarily mean causation. It is a different thing to say “Right wing men are more prone to be buff” than it is to say “Buff men are more prone to be right wing.” These are two very different statements with different burdens of proof and causation.

Another complication is that wealthy people tend to have the money and time to eat well and exercise. But poor people who are already on welfare also have the time to lift weights, play sports, and get ripped. So being on welfare changes your fitness possibilities, and it also colors your perspective on welfare. Because of course, a person who already receives welfare is going to support its continuation. I wouldn’t be surprised if this reality greatly skewed the statistics.

Furthermore, I think it is safe to say that a statistical “leaning” means very little. What kind of percentages are we talking about here? Because I know plenty of ninety-pound weaklings in the right wing camp, and a quick overview of the fitness-obsessed liberal core of Hollywood is enough to prove that many physically strong men are morally and politically emasculated.

So ultimately, though the study is of interest, it just isn’t terribly helpful or informative. Even if it were the case that right wing men are all ripped and left wing men are all weaklings, what difference would that make? No matter how much you can deadlift, you’re not pulling this American Titanic back from the depths with bulging biceps alone. That will take a strength of a far different kind. And as far as I can tell, that kind of strength is in very short supply on both sides of the aisle.