by Thomas Richardson
Men are taller, bigger, stronger and more warlike than women. Or to use the academic term; men are the formidable sex. This is true across the vast majority of human cultures and time periods. In the last 2 decades many studies have investigated how we got like this, and how it affects our minds and behaviours today.
Formidable men in our ancestral environments would have likely got what they wanted more than less formidable men. They could simply threaten anyone who attempted to stop them getting their way. Others may have also wanted to appease these men, as they make powerful allies. One theory goes that this would lead to men evolving to calibrate their demands to their formidability. Big and tough? Demand more. Small and weedy? Maybe keep your demands close to your underdeveloped chest.
How would this play out in our modern societies? One prediction is that formidable men might prefer a society that was less equal, for example by opposition to government redistribution of wealth. Many people are happy with inequality if they’re the ones on top, and in ancestral societies, formidable men would have often been up there. On the other hand, some researchers argued that this trend might reverse if the big bloke was poor. Then they might forcefully argue for equality and wealth redistribution, as it would benefit them. Put simply: more formidable men should argue more for their own interests.
This theory might resonate with you. Most of us know a big, strong, entitled jerk in our own lives. But if you’re a bit sceptical of this theory, you’re not alone; I was too when I first read the research. But there seemed to be quite a few studies showing that more muscular men were averse to equality and government wealth redistribution. Some studies found it depended on their own wealth. The studies had cross-cultural samples, some quite large. None of that means the research should be uncritically trusted, but these are generally good signs. So, I was intrigued, and thought I’d do some work on it myself.
One thing previous studies hadn’t tested as much was whether the theory applies to the other indicators of formidability: height. The theories described above would predict that taller men would be less supportive of equality. It might also predict that this relationship would depend on wealth: tall, poor men would support equality, as it would be in their best interest, whereas tall, rich men would oppose it.
In my paper, I set out to test whether these hypotheses applied to height as well as muscularity. To do this I used data from the European Social Survey. This survey collects data on attitudes and behaviours (mainly relating to politics) for ~2000 people representatively sampled from each European Country. They’ve done this every 2 years with only slight modifications to the questions, going all the way back to 2002! Luckily, in wave 7 they obtained data on respondent’s height, giving me free, easy access to a rich dataset of 27,000 representatively sampled people. It really is a fantastic resource, and I advise researchers to check it out. Datasets like these are underutilised by evolutionary social scientists, and have a lot of potential. Because while these datasets have been bled dry by political scientists and economists, these researchers lack the evolutionary perspective, and so there are many hypotheses they wouldn’t think to investigate. Plus, in the midst of a global pandemic, where else are we going to get data?
One of the difficulties with this type of research is establishing causation. A correlation between muscle mass and political attitudes doesn’t tell us whether the muscle mass causes us to have the attitudes or having certain attitudes cause us to develop our muscles. Studying height partially gets around this, because men can’t really change their height. As such, the causation between formidability and attitudes can only go one way.
But this still leaves the problem of third variables: perhaps something causes some men to be taller/stronger and also causes them to hold more self-serving attitudes. A related issue was alternative mediators: perhaps height does affect attitudes towards wealth redistribution, but it’s not caused by increased self-interest. It might just be because taller people are more educated or because they’re older. To make my case I’d have to control for these third variables and alternative mediators to make any proper conclusions. Getting at causality with observational data can be done but is certainly a challenge! In this study, I controlled for age, income, years of education, conservatism and whether someone had a position of authority at work.
The evidence supported both hypotheses about equally:
- Overall, taller people endorsed anti-redistribution attitudes more than shorter people.
- But the effect of height also depended on wealth. Among richer people the trend held, but among poorer people the trend reversed. For poorer people, being taller meant more support for government redistribution of wealth. We could put this interaction effect another way: though richer people supported redistribution less, the being tall made the effect even stronger.
Notice how I’ve written ‘people’ not ‘men’. One result that was confusing, and not fully consistent with the theory, was that women showed the effects as strong as men did. Most women aren’t in the same ballpark as men when it comes to formidability, and historically haven’t engaged in large amounts of violent competition compared to men. So we wouldn’t expect to see the same effects in women. But I did. I list some possible reasons in the paper, but ultimately I can’t explain this result. Sometimes as a scientist you have to raise your hands and admit you don’t know.
With the main results established, I ran as many robustness checks as I could think of to see how strong the result was. There are often many ways to use statistics to test a particular hypothesis, and there isn’t always a clear right answer. Rather than choosing (and perhaps risking bias), one option is to run them all and see whether a hypothesis is supported most of the time. So that’s what I did, and the results held pretty well, increasing my confidence in the result.
One thing to note though is that the effects I found were very small. Small effects can matter, and small effects on the political attitudes of a whole country may result in a lot of votes. Also, some argue that most effects we can expect to see in behavioural science are small. But how small is too small? I don’t really know. A question that has seen a lot of discussion in recent years is how we define a ‘smallest effect size of interest’, where any effect smaller than this may as well be 0. Working out the smallest effect size of interest for hypotheses in the evolutionary social sciences will likely require refining our theories a lot more than many of us currently do, to the point where they make concrete predictions about effects we’d expect to find in our studies. This sounds hard, and it is, but will certainly be worth it.
So to sum up: In a large, representative sample of Europeans, I find that taller people are less supportive of government redistribution of wealth, especially if they are also wealth themselves. If you want to learn more, give the paper a read, and take a look at the data and R script if you’re curious about the details of the analyses. If you have any questions or comments, I’d love to hear them!