Caveman instincts still play role in choosing political leaders

Oct 18, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- When it comes to voter preference, the issues count. But some may pull the handle for a more primal reason: Physical fitness and stature against an opponent.

Possibly hailing from our caveman to ensure , two researchers from Texas Tech University suggest that physical formidability affects preference in political leadership.

Their results will publish Oct. 18 in the peer-reviewed journal, Quarterly.

The paper, published by Gregg R. Murray, an assistant professor of , and graduate student J. David Schmitz, focuses on . This field studies universal human behaviors that are related to psychological mechanisms that evolved to solve problems faced by humans in ancient history.

“Some traits and instincts that may have been acquired through evolution continue to manifest themselves in modern life, seemingly irrationally,” Murray said. “A near-universal fear of snakes and a preference for unhealthy fatty foods likely evolved from when snakes were a common threat and caloric intake was uncertain. We believe similar traits exist in politics.”

The authors’ interest in the physical strength of political leaders stems from the popular observation that taller candidates have won 58 percent of U.S. presidential elections between 1789 and 2008; a trend known as the “presidential height index” by political pundits.

In order to test this theory, Murray and Schmitz first reviewed the literature to establish concepts of the “big man” in tribal leadership of ancient societies, as well as the impact of physical strength on rank and status in the animal kingdom.

The authors then carried out two studies, analyzing 467 U.S. and international students from both public and private universities in the United States.

The first study aimed to capture attitudes towards the preferred physical stature of leaders by using a figure-drawing task.

Students were asked to describe and draw a figure which represented their concept of a “typical citizen” and an “ideal national leader” before being asked to draw both figures together.

The results showed that 64 percent of students drew the leader as taller than the citizen.

In the second test, subjects were asked to answer a questionnaire about their own leadership attributes to consider how height influences personal perceptions of political leadership and attitudes toward running for office.

The expectation was that subjects with greater physical stature would be more likely to think of themselves as capable leaders. The results revealed a statistically significant association between height and perceived leadership capability and interest in running for a political office.

“We believe this research extends beyond merely establishing an association between physical stature and leadership by offering a theoretical basis for this phenomenon,” Schmitz said. “Culture and environment alone cannot explain how a preference for taller leaders is a near-universal trait we see in different cultures today, as well as in societies ranging from ancient Mayans, to pre-classical Greeks and even animals.”

The research and literature demonstrate that there is a preference for physically formidable leaders that likely reflects an evolved psychological trait, independent of any cultural conditioning, Murray said.

“So while at 6’1” Barack Obama towered over the 5’8” John McCain in 2008, perhaps he’ll meet his physical equal in one of the ‘big man’ governors in the 6’1” Rick Perry or the 6’2” Mitt Romney in November 2012.”

Explore further: Precarious work schedules common among younger workers

Provided by Texas Tech University

3 /5 (4 votes)

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User comments : 9

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Squirrel
not rated yet Oct 18, 2011
This kind of "research" gives evolutionary psychology a bad name. The first experiment found only 64% draw a "leader" taller than a "citizen". This is not very large and could be explained in several ways not least that as the piece notes leaders are empirically taller than others. The second experiment is also very dodgy for the same reason: if leaders factually are taller then it makes sense that people would imagine themselves taller if imagining them as leaders. Evolution has left a legacy in our minds and brains but kind of "research" has nothing to do with discovering its nature.
Cave_Man
not rated yet Oct 18, 2011
"Caveman instincts still play role in choosing political leaders"

Yeah and the (deep sea) sponge instinct still plays a huge role in BEING a politician.
antonima
1 / 5 (1) Oct 18, 2011
Napoleon Bonapart must have gained influence through the written word then.
axemaster
not rated yet Oct 18, 2011
Napoleon Bonapart must have gained influence through the written word then.

It's a myth that Napoleon was short. He was actually normal-sized.
Ojorf
3 / 5 (2) Oct 18, 2011
antonima, you are here reading and commenting on a science site, but obviously have no clue about how science works.
Smoking causes lung cancer, pointing to a lifelong smoker who didn't get cancer does not disprove this fact as you seem to think.
Pirouette
1 / 5 (1) Oct 18, 2011
I think that most heterosexual women tend to vote for a taller, slimmer, well-built and handsome man for the elected office. Some are looking for a father-figure, a Conan the Barbarian type, and someone who sounds and appears intelligent enough, all rolled into one man. For many women, the person's political stance and strengths and political agenda are secondary in importance. For others, it's the political party that is of foremost importance along with the above physical traits. For the thinking woman, the candidate she favors who gets elected and then falls out of favor with the general public because of incompetence or an indiscretion is usually given a free pass and the woman is usually sympathetic towards his sob story. But if her favorite loses his desirable physical traits, the trend is reversed. He is no longer her "dream man" and she will seek another.
Pirouette
1 / 5 (1) Oct 18, 2011
It is for this reason that a woman, in my opinion, will shun a politician like Chris Christie, who is morbidly obese, while men would tend to vote for him more for his intellect, strength of character, political agenda, and sense of honesty, rather than his looks.
I don't know if the researchers are separating the motivations of the genders in their study, but they should.
KBK
not rated yet Oct 18, 2011
Napoleon Bonaparte must have gained influence through the written word then.

It's a myth that Napoleon was short. He was actually normal-sized.


His personal bodyguard was hand selected to be abnormally tall and with a long reach. This was prudent and sensible, considering the lack of availability in general of 'long weapons' (ranged). The personal attack was far more likely at that time in technological development, so he simply did the sensible thing, in order to protect himself from attempts on his life.
KBK
not rated yet Oct 18, 2011
As for the article itself, we have to 'fill in' what we don't know about someone.

We reach out not with our logic, but we reach out with our entire being, when confronted with important (to us) unknowns.

Thus feelings, unconscious urgings and instinct definitely DO enter the equation. This is normal human function.

The vast majority (of the voting public) have no clue regarding the ego as an edifice of internal construction that is not the real you inside, but is an artificial interface and construct for the purposes of intellect/body communication, and you have a recipe for unconscious designs being in control of what should be logic function.

Western psychology, being Freudian in nature, is poorly equipped to deal with the reality of the human construct. It was based on the musings of a faulty analysis, that of Freud. Useful for the ruling class, this system, but very poor for the humans involved, regarding understanding of the self. Jung would have been a better choice.