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Scientific Evidence For Folk Activism

October 30, 2009

In my essay Beyond Folk Activism, I theorize that much ineffectual political activism is driven by hunter-gatherer instincts erroneously applied to the modern world.  A recent study provides some evidence that we view Presidential elections as contests within our tribe that affect our status and lives:

Young men who voted for Republican John McCain or Libertarian candidate Robert Barr in the 2008 presidential election suffered an immediate drop in testosterone when the election results were announced, according to a study by researchers at Duke University and the University of Michigan.

In contrast, men who voted for the winner, Democrat Barack Obama, had stable testosterone levels immediately after the outcome.

Female study participants showed no significant change in their testosterone levels before and after the returns came in.

The men who participated in the study would normally show a slight night-time drop in testosterone levels anyway. But on this night, they showed a dramatic divergence: The Obama voters’ levels didn’t fall as they should, and the McCain and Barr voters lost more than would have been expected.

“This is a pretty powerful result,” said Duke neuroscientist Kevin LaBar. “Voters are physiologically affected by having their candidate win or lose an election.”

In a post-election questionnaire, the McCain and Barr backers were feeling significantly more unhappy, submissive, unpleasant and controlled than the Obama voters.

The findings mirror what other studies have found in men who participate directly in an interpersonal contest — the winner gets a boost of testosterone, while the loser’s testosterone drops.

Our relationship with political tribes like Republicans and Democrats is a one-way affair.  We affiliate with them to demonstrate our values, but whether our candidate wins or loses has little direct effect on our lives.  Obama offered no special tax rebates for Democrats, and the program was not “Cash for Democratic Clunkers”.  Federal politics is so small a part of most people’s lives that we get little change in status for whether we voted for the winner.  And many people associate mainly with others of the same party, so again, the election won’t change their status.

So it makes little rational sense for men to react this way…unless they view it as an interpersonal contest of significant private import, where their own personal status is closely tied to whether they’ve backed the winning coalition.  In the tribe, that mattered a lot, today – not so much.  Thus, this is evidence that men model national politics as a personal competition.

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  4. October 31, 2009 1:07 pm

    Patri: you may find the “Society as Family” section of this unpublished paper (starting around pg. 6) elaborates on your point about ev-psych phenomena driving our politics (Acrobat). See especially the bit on the Stone Age Trinity: Another version of this paper might deal more with the clannish team sports mentality of politics.


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