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Explaining Schwarzenegger - men, biceps and the politics of getting what you want

The Governator. How do his biceps shape his politics? Wikimedia Commons

This weekend I gained a grudging appreciation for Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Governator, not the Terminator.

Having watched Arnie’s political rise and fall from afar, he always seemed an odd chimera. Lines he’d delivered as the Terminator retrofitted to an ideology he’d borrowed from somebody else. A kind of populist piss-take exploiting name recognition among cinema-going-yet-politically-comatose voters.

But I’ve just read a paper that made Arnie slightly more intelligible to me. Entitled “The Ancestral Logic of Politics” the paper published last week in Psychological Science explored the link between male upper-body strength and assertion of economic self-interest.

The link between what and what?


The short story is that men with big biceps and who are relatively poor tend to be strongly in favour of social welfare, wealth redistribution and other economic programs associated with the political left. More so at least than equally poor but puny men. Whereas the exact opposite is true for wealthy men: the bigger the biceps the more right-leaning the inclination to economic redistribution.

Rational self-interest

In order to understand this finding we need to consider why people take on the political views they do. While people’s politics are shaped by many factors, self-interest is thought to be particularly strong. That’s not to say voters care only about themselves. But rather that an element of self-interest shaped their views.

With this in mind it isn’t hard to see why policies of social welfare and economic redistribution tend to win more support from the poor - they have much more to gain. Likewise, the twin obsessions of plutocrats - slashing spending and cutting taxes - really mean cutting expenditure on welfare and eliminating taxes that redistribute resources to those less fortunate or well-endowed.

If political views are forged out of rational self-interest, then attitudes to redistribution should follow a neat left-right divide, everything else being equal. But they seldom do.

The new paper, by Michael Bang Petersen, Daniel Sznycer, Aaron Sell, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby adds an interesting twist that might explain why the left-right distinction gets so very blurry.

They argue that for most of humanity’s evolutionary past, the biggest, strongest men were best able to assert themselves in negotiations, wrangling outcomes in their interest. Studies of negotiation and conflict in animals show that better fighters consistently gain a disproportionate share of any resource - without having to fight for it. Most negotiations are an ‘Asymmetric War of Attrition’ in which violence need not be deployed but only implied. The possibility of violence alone leads others to concede more than their share.

That’s where the expression “the lion’s share” comes from. Lions contribute little or nothing to most hunts, leaving the hard and dangerous work of killing prey to the lionesses. The lion then moves in and takes as much as he likes - and there is very little any lioness or cub can do about it.

People astutely judge the fighting abilities of other men - mostly by paying attention to upper body strength. And bicep size provides a most conspicuous, reliable cue of upper body strength.

Psychologists have repeatedly shown that men with greater upper body strength feel more entitled to having things go their way. And they become aggressive more easily. The same does not seem to apply - at least not to the same extent - among women.

The link between male upper body strength, fighting ability and dominance is nowhere near as strong today as it has been throughout our evolutionary past. And democratic processes ensure that strong men can no longer wrest political outcomes in their own interest. Or at least they can’t do so by brute strength alone.

Petersen and colleagues argue that we retain many of the psychological mechanisms whereby strong men assert themselves, and weaker men are more likely to concede. And that shows up in the conviction with which stronger and weaker men hold political views that are in their rational self-interest.

But the result does not apply among women.

Interestingly they repeated the same study in three countries: The USA, Argentina and Denmark. The pattern held in all three, although it was weakest in Denmark. I wonder if the lower income inequality in Denmark, and the social benefits of Danish social welfare programs have eroded the link between physical strength and convictions about redistribution?

Am I a robot?

This paper embodies the kind of evolutionary psychology that routinely gets people’s backs up. We often believe our convictions are reasoned, rational and reasonable. To be told that deeper motivations of which we are not even aware might sway our ideologies and beliefs can be awfully confronting.

The authors are not claiming that attitudes to economic redistribution are settled, hard-and-fast by some combination of socioeconomic status and bicep size. The value of this paper is in showing how our evolved biology and our contemporary politics can interlink in interesting ways, creating nuanced individual differences.

Readers of this column will be familiar with my obsessive interest in the links between biology and ideology. Particularly in the sphere of sex and reproduction, where insecurity over paternity, conflict between spouses and divergent attitudes regarding the regulation of fertility all generate deep political currents.

Readers will also know how I despise the idea that biological effects are “hard-wired” (a particularly dull computing metaphor for human behaviour) or immutable. The beauty of evolution, for me, is in the subtle play between biology and environment. Which is why I’m delighted that this simple (though logistically demanding) study has revealed yet another way in which evolved biology adds nuance to our understanding of political behaviour.

I am already thinking about how to measure the importance of the bicep-redistribution link relative to other influences on political attitudes. And about how to dissect the basis for the link?

Does going to gym reshape a man’s political outlook? Or do men more interested in asserting their self-interest politically tend also toward bicep-building exercise regimes?

And does one measure the bicep on the right or the left?

Arnie, the Republican

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s politics should never have surprised me. He may have played the fictional underdog Conan the Barbarian, but his speech at the 2008 Republican convention revealed that Arnie, since he first picked up a dumbbell in Graz, has been about the muscular, assertive kind of masculinity so beloved of Republicans and the right in general:

I finally arrived here in 1968. What a special day it was. I remember I arrived here with empty pockets but full of dreams, full of determination, full of desire. The presidential campaign was in full swing. I remember watching the Nixon-Humphrey presidential race on TV. A friend of mine who spoke German and English translated for me. I heard Humphrey saying things that sounded like socialism, which I had just left. But then I heard Nixon speak. He was talking about free enterprise, getting the government off your back, lowering the taxes and strengthening the military. Listening to Nixon speak sounded more like a breath of fresh air. I said to my friend, I said, “What party is he?” My friend said, “He’s a Republican.” I said, “Then I am a Republican.” And I have been a Republican ever since.

P.S. About my Yoda complex

Those of us who study evolution and its relation to the human condition often note with a mix of amusement and concern for the future of humanity the ways in which the dankest backwaters of the internet distort our words.

Last week’s article on The Evolution of Lying caught the eye of “Creation Evolution Headlines” who managed to wrangle out of it the idea that the paper by Luke McNally and Andrew L. Jackson on which I was reporting somehow demonstrated that science and a rational world view constitute elaborate self-deception (shielding us from the blinding truth of fundamentalist literalism?).

They suggest McNally, Jackson and I all have “Yoda Complexes”. Interesting, because the Urban Dictionary indicates the Yoda Complex “is especially prevalent among political radicals, conspiracy theorists, religious fundamentalists, and schizophrenics”.

I don’t normally draw attention to this kind of nutbaggery, but their article ‘Evolutionists Confess to Lying’ contains such Onionesque self parody that it makes great entertainment.

I also mention it because Jackson (now tweeting as @yodacomplex) tweeted me the link while I was finishing this column. And what should I discover at the bottom of the post? Another incisive takedown - in this case of the Psychological Science paper on politics and bicep size.

I think not this could be a coincidence. THE FORCE, must it be. Hmmmmmm.

Join the conversation

12 Comments sorted by

  1. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


    I think these upper body fellas should team up with the other lot who looked at the attributes of the male nether regions of a few weeks back and we'd get an entire profile of politico/physical endowments of us blokes.

    Might it also be that bicep size is linked to social class - what one does for a quid? So we have huge hormone-drenched rugby league-playing sons of toil squaring off against puny little desk jockeys, managers and the like who play soccer and golf and vote tory. Strewth!

    Combining sport and politics - this evolutionary biology stuff just transgresses all the norms of decent civil society doesn't it? Plus offering no end of opportunities for jerking off!

    The scary part is that someone somewhere gave them funding for this. And I'll betcha there isn't a decent bicep amongst the lot of them.

  2. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    'They suggest McNally, Jackson and I all have “Yoda Complexes”.'
    Thats ridiculous - your science is trivial but your mastery of word order first rate.
    I hear pale of echoes of Kevin MacDonald in your discussion above.
    He was/is very interested in the way Jewish ethnicity and politics played out - so that Jewish opinion in America was generally strongly in favour of immigration and multiculturalism, whereas Jewish opinion in Israel was strongly in favour of ethnic purity and exclusiveness.

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  3. David Thompson

    Marketing Research

    Reminds me of a first year uni tutor telling us that nuclear warheads were shaped liked penises in just the same way guys with big muscles have privilege and entitlements complexes. Or something. Drivel on steroids. Oh, and I'd go cold turkey on citing any Social Psychology published over the past century or so. The whole discipline is under quarantine at the moment.

    1. Pat Moore


      In reply to David Thompson

      David this type of dismissal is dogmatic, unimaginative and simplistic to say the least. Perhaps the world is far more nuanced and complex than you give it credit for? And different people have different outlooks and understandings depending on their individual placements in that world?

      Have you ever observed a troop of chimpanzees or gorilla society on nature documentaries and their struggles and bloody wars and murders for dominance over one another? How silverbacks have to have muscular…

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  4. Pat Moore


    Yep this is definitely a pink-free, woman no-go zone...muscles and power. You're getting down to basics here Rob and close to the power political bone. And the African "bigmen" of blatantly tribalized politics comes to mind.

    If working class hero muscles are predominantly trained into politically powerless, contained and controlled into the stadiums/ovals and their media circuses and into deunionized, disempowered workforces, upper class, formally educated and politically organized…

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    1. Pat Moore


      In reply to Rob Brooks

      Hi Rob, nothing about content of replies to do with the "dissonance" in that interview but literally a sonic type thing re the sound of your voice for some reason clashing with what I expected you to sound like, subconsciously assumed from reading your essays and replies on this forum, and prejudicially no doubt, making further assumptions from your image. I would say it is the nature of the virtual beast floating in cyberspace here where all have names and words (and you academic contributors have images) but no tone or nuanced inflection etc of the actual speaking voice. It leads me to think that the sound of the voice is another big indicator one (subconsciously) uses to assess the personality of the speaker and "where they're coming from". Thanks for reply and always interesting articles.

      Lucky you made it to through science with that interesting early educational beginning but a child's natural curiosity for the outside world is the first and primary teacher?

    2. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


      In reply to Pat Moore

      The only teacher in reality I think Pat.

      I too was struck by the voice - the lack of a Eugene Terrablanc's clipped boer vowels... I was expecting a vortrekker and I got somerset.

      Rob is obviously a scion of the applingly liberal bleeding heart British component of Sud Efrika's "master race"... the fifth columnists who let the side down by repeatedly recognising the subservient masses as human.

      I didn't detect any sluggishness in the interview - but I did notice that Rob was more nervous and less relaxed than I think he would display at a dinner table. Talking off the dandruff - without notes or preparation - is a challenging task. Drives politicians to drink - literally.

      It just requires practice Dr Rob and the grudging recognition that you - yes even you - might have something sensible and important to say to the ears out here.

    3. Paul Rogers


      In reply to Pat Moore

      Yes, but perhaps . . .

      'Adaptations in humans for assessing physical strength from the voice.'

      "Recent research has shown that humans, like many other animals, have a specialization for assessing fighting ability from visual cues."

      I wrote about this recently.

    4. Pat Moore


      In reply to Paul Rogers

      Thanks Paul, interesting study. And no doubt there are other assessments we subconsciously? make from subtle auditory cues other than "formidability assessment" in the case of the male voice to gauge their fighting ability? And perhaps actual language skills indicate a pacifist predisposition or propensity to use more subtle backdoor guerrilla tactics if need be, skills that Rob apparently needs to employ here sometimes to defuse the unaccountably aggressive confrontational tone some of his studies…

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  5. Theo Pertsinidis

    ALP voter

    Yoda is a character in star wars movies.

    I don't think I've got a Yoda complex but knowledge can lead to foresight and educated calculations.

    Entertainers conjure song and movie... and there are those with the aid of a bong or joint... make something appear unexpectedly or seemingly from nowhere as if by magic.

    Confidence not arrogance.

    I have a hearing voice problem

    which may explain why I sometimes see things as a normalcy bias

    Read My Thoughts at

  6. Dale Bloom


    So now men are similar to lions.

    Another attempt by an evolutionary biologist to get something, or get anything right.

    I can remember the author trying to compare men to deer, birds and even killer whales. That didn’t work, so now men are similar to lions.

    See if that works, and if it doesn’t, maybe compare men to giraffes, kangaroos, beetles or marlin.

    All depends on imagination.