In Politics, It’s Survival of the Fittest, Literally

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One of the most confounding questions facing political scientists is why some people vote and others don’t. After decades of studies that have controlled for varying levels of trust in the political system, interest in political news, strength of moral convictions, geographic mobility, religious involvement, and voter age, political scientists have found that these factors account for only about 31% of the difference in political participation among any given group of individuals. Now a new study suggests that how physically active a population is may account for just as much of the variance as all those other, more obvious factors combined.

To test this hypothesis, the authors — a team led by Kenji Noguchi of the University of Southern Mississippi psychology department — devised an “action-tendency index” by combining scores on four benchmarks:

1. A personality inventory measuring how extraverted and open to experiences a population is.

2. A pace-of-life index developed in 1999 that assesses a nation’s walking speed, postal speed and, curiously, clock accuracy (on the intriguing theory that more active populations care more about keeping the trains on time).

3. Data on a country’s use of cocaine, amphetamines, and ecstasy (on the somewhat dubious theory that if you’re high, you will be more active).

4. An averaged collection of other benchmarks including a country’s newspaper and movie production (on the theory that more active societies produce more information; the authors don’t explain why papers and movies are counted and not cars or rugs or steel pipes).

Once the authors had some or all of these scores for 69 countries, they then obtained measures of political participation: voter turnout, attendance at demonstrations, and so on. They found that their action-tendency index correlated strongly with political participation; in fact, their index accounted for 35% of the differences within any particular population on the extent of political involvement.

For the U.S., the authors then dramatically narrowed the action-tendency index to look only at health statistics: the percentage of people who engage in physical activity at least five days a week; the percentage of self-reported diabetes diagnoses; the percentage of those with a body-mass index of 30 or higher; and the percentage of those who had reported using illegal stimulants in the past year. Political participation was measured by engagement with and turnout in the 2004 presidential election.

Once again, the authors’ analysis found that tendency toward action, as measured by physical activity, correlated with more political involvement. Interestingly, they found that physical activity corresponded only with political action — actually getting out and voting, say, or going door-to-door for a candidate — and not with mere interest in politics.

Still, these relationships on the national level are merely correlational; they don’t prove that a greater tendency to action causes more political involvement. To test a potential causal relationship, the authors developed a psychological test for 97 individuals.

The testers asked the participants to complete 20 word fragments. Some of the fragments were words that, when completed, suggested action: “motivation,” “engage,” “action” itself, and so on. Another group of words suggested inaction: “freeze,” “still,” “pause.” Another group of words was neutral with respect to action: “candle,” “tooth.” All participants got the neutral words, but the entire group was randomly split so that some got the action words and some, the inaction words.

After being primed with the words, the participants were then asked whether they planned to vote in 2008 and/or volunteer for a candidate or a political party. It turned out that those primed with action words were more likely to plan to be involved in the 2008 election, even after the authors controlled for party affiliation.

The findings — particularly those comparing physical activity with political action — may help explain why our last obese President was William Howard Taft, who left office in 1913. More active people — a.k.a. voters — surely don’t want to see a fat President. The results also suggest a new way for politicians to motivate new voters: get them on the treadmill. Bill Clinton may have intuited this in the ’90s by running during his campaigns — even though he couldn’t quite kick his McDonald’s habit. The authors of the new study even have an explanation for this: more active people also eat more.

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Follow my health columns on Twitter @JohnAshleyCloud

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