In a series of studies, researchers have identified a striking correlation between perceptions of men’s physical strength and their presumed political conservatism. These studies, conducted across diverse US samples, provide compelling evidence that physical formidability in men is often used as a heuristic cue to infer their political leanings. The findings were published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
The first study, involving 203 undergraduates, revealed that physically strong men were perceived as more conservative compared to their weaker counterparts. This perception extended beyond mere political identity and encompassed specific issues such as fiscal conservatism and social conservatism. Interestingly, the type of conservatism or the presence of wealth cues did not significantly alter these perceptions.
Mitch Brown, PhD from the University of Arkansas, the first author of the study, explained the initial motivation behind these investigations: “These studies started as an interest in understanding whether perceptions of strong men as conservatism tracked an actual association between ideology and strength – strong men are more conservative. From there, I became interested in identifying possible boundary conditions found in previous work showing that this effect could be more pronounced among men with higher status (it wasn’t), in addition to identifying which aspects of conservatism elicited the largest effects.”
In the second study, involving 302 participants, the research delved deeper into the relationship between men’s strength, socioeconomic status (SES), and perceived conservatism. The findings suggested that high-SES men appeared more conservative, regardless of their physical strength. This highlights the complexity of how physical and socioeconomic cues interplay in shaping our perceptions of political ideology.
Study 3, with 179 participants, focused on the moral foundations perceived to be endorsed by physically strong men. Here, participants attributed a higher endorsement of liberty-focused moral foundations to strong men, aligning more with conservative ideologies. This finding was particularly significant, as it demonstrated how physical cues could influence perceived moral leanings.
Brown further commented: “Strong men are consistently perceived as more conservative than weak men, with perceptions generalising across socioeconomic backgrounds and being specific to an interest in liberty. This latter finding could suggest that strong men’s psychological calculus is based on competition, which is best guaranteed by ostensibly more libertarian social systems. Muscularity was also diagnostic of men’s conservatism.”
The final study, involving 210 participants, explored the specific aspects of physical formidability that might be linked to perceived conservatism. It was found that muscularity, rather than body fat, was a key indicator in perceiving men as conservative. This suggests that the physical traits associated with combat ability are central to these perceptions.
These findings have profound implications for understanding the psychological mechanisms behind our perception of political ideologies. They suggest an evolved psychological calculus for identifying ideology through physical affordance judgements, with formidability heightening perceptions of conservatism.
While the studies consistently showed small effects, their regularity suggests a subtle yet significant impact of physical strength on perceived political orientation. But it’s crucial to note that these are perceptions and stereotypes, which may not always hold true in individual cases.
Brown also shared her plans for future research: “I plan to consider other aspects of these ideological stereotypes. My first step is determining whether strong men are more desirable to conservative voters. Another avenue that I’m considering is how these inferences track stereotypes of men as left-wing authoritarians.”
These studies open avenues for future research, particularly in exploring the cues of political affiliation in women and how these heuristic associations between conservatism and formidability might differ across cultures or regions.