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Culture & Society

Putin's Pecs: Linking Strength and Anger

A sense of entitlement, whether through beauty or brawn, goes hand in clenched fist with anger, a provocative new study suggests.

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feature photo

Vladimir Putin on a recent summer vacation.

Vladimir Putin's vacation photos have attracted the attention of the international media this summer, and not for the beauty of the mountain scenery. Several striking shots show the 60-year-old Russian prime minister shirtless, revealing his surprisingly muscular chest and arms.

If his intent was to project an intimidating image, new research suggests these beefcake photos delivered the message directly to the world's collective subconscious. If psychologist Aaron Sell is correct, nothing says "don't mess with me" like an impressive set of pecs.

The power of Putin's symbolism is explained by a provocative paper just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Authors Sell, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, link physical strength in men with both a propensity to anger easily and a favorable attitude toward the use of force to settle political disputes.

"If governmental decision-makers are like other humans, then their musculature may be playing a role, unconnected from rational evaluation, in their decisions to go to war," they write. It's a bold statement, but one based on a somewhat startling premise: Brawniness, they contend, is next to thuggishness.

Their paper describes a series of studies designed to test and refine the "recalibrational theory of anger," which Sell first proposed in 2005. This model of behavior, in Sell's words, "predicts that individuals with enhanced abilities to inflict costs or to confer benefits will anger more easily, for two related reasons. First, their greater ability to withdraw benefits or inflict costs translates into greater leverage in bargaining over conflicts of interest, meaning that anger is more likely to be successful for them. ... Second, their greater leverage leads them to expect that others will place greater weight on their welfare."

In other words, the ability to beat people up tends to breed a sense of entitlement, as well as a short fuse.

To test this hypothesis, the upper-body strength of study participants (university students) was measured on weight-lifting machines. These abilities were then compared with their answers to a series of questions measuring their proneness to anger, history of physical conflict and feelings about the use of force to settle both personal and political disputes.

The results confirmed Sell's thesis. For men — but not for women — bodily strength was positively correlated with how easily or frequently they angered. Stronger men also "felt entitled to better treatment," he reports.

What's more, they were more likely to score higher than weaker men on a "utility of political aggression" test, in which they reported their reaction to statements such as "Wars in general promote terrorism" and "To deter violence, a country needs a strong military."

"The correlation between a man's strength and their average score on political aggression was not as strong as some of the other measures, but it was significant in both studies [where we tested it]," Sell says. "There are a lot of other variables that we predict should affect someone's attitude about war, so it's not surprising that physical strength is not a huge factor. What's interesting is that it's a factor at all, given that a man's physical strength would play no role in a rational choice model of political attitudes."

One objection comes quickly to mind: Isn't it possible the researchers have gotten this backward? Angry people, after all, often project their rage outward, seeing the world as a threatening place. It follows that they'd be more likely to build up their muscles in self-protection.

"There are two data points that suggest this is not correct," Sell responds. He notes that in one of the studies discussed in the paper, "We asked subjects how long they spent on weight training at the gym. If we statistically control for that, the correlation between physical strength and anger is still significant.

"More importantly, we replicated this basic effect [between strength and anger] among the Tsimane Indians of Bolivia, though that study has not yet been submitted for publication. The Tsimane, of course, do not have access to strength training equipment."

Which doesn't mean they can't bulk up in more primitive ways.

Sell's studies reveal that for women, the key variable in this equation is not physical strength but physical beauty. "A woman's perception of her own attractiveness was correlated with her proneness to anger, feelings of entitlement and success in conflict, in a way parallel to that found for strength in men," he writes. "It was even correlated with her views on the efficacy of personal and political aggression."

In other words, in relationships (or potential relationships), attractiveness gives a person leverage, which leads to the aforementioned feelings of entitlement and quickness to anger. This applies to men as well as women, according to Sell.

"Men's attractiveness predicted their sense of entitlement and success in conflict, and this relationship remained significant even after controlling for differences in strength," he writes. "Men who view themselves as more attractive were also more prone to anger." These conclusions are consistent with those of a study published earlier this year, which found attractive people have more self-confidence and higher incomes

Sell's study will likely face a skeptical audience, for a couple of reasons. First, it is premised on the idea that our emotional makeup was solidified during the prehistoric hunter-gatherer era, a notion that is increasingly being questioned. As Sell concedes, the ability to get one's way using force today depends less upon muscles than a variety of other factors, such as whether you're wearing a uniform and/or carrying a weapon. It is probable that 98-pound weaklings with easy access to Uzis anger just as quickly, and feel just as entitled to special treatment, as muscular men.

What's more, it is questionable whether anger can be looked at in isolation, as it is often one of many feelings that can arise from an uncomfortable situation. Granted, for many men, it is the emotion that comes first and most easily, but that is presumably a matter of socialization.

"Emotional experience is very complicated," Sell says, "but central to our theory is the idea that anger is a universal emotion that was designed by natural selection to solve a specific adaptive problem. We think of anger as a system designed by natural selection that responds to certain negative circumstances — the primary one being the indication by another that they do not value your welfare very highly, compared to their own."

Which is to say, it's a response to feeling dissed.

Sell's study make physically strong men, and attractive people of both genders, sound a bit like spoiled children: They're used to getting their own way, and are prone to temper tantrums when they don't. Could bulging biceps and a pretty face be a risk factor for a sort of emotional retardation? If so, parents of strong or attractive children should be on the lookout for signs of a budding sense of entitlement.

Sell and his colleagues note that their concepts contradict most existing theories of anger, "whether formal or intuitive." If they're right, the Napoleon Complex will have to be retired, presumably replaced by the Schwarzenegger Syndrome.

Then again, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama work out daily at the gym, but the two presidents have shown very different approaches to the use of force. Muscle density may not be destiny after all.

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