Acting Out to Man Up
“Stop being such a wimp. Grow up. Be a man.” Boys and men all over the United States have encountered these insults. For some men, these “manhood threats” cause them to become aggressive as a way to defend their manhood, while other men seem to not care. Yet we still don’t understand why manhood threats cause aggression for certain men but not others.
In our study, we explored whether certain factors that might lead to men’s aggression when their manhood is threatened. Based on past research, we hypothesized that two key elements might be at play: manhood threatening contexts (like ones described above) in conjunction with a second important factor, fragile masculinity.
Fragile masculinity happens when a man acts masculine because of pressure from outside sources—again, this pressure could come from himself, family, friends, the media, or society at large. It doesn’t so much matter where the pressure comes from as much as the extent to which a men’s masculinity (i.e., stereotypically masculine behavior) is pressured. Men with fragile masculinities may appear on the outside as though they are “masculine,” yet they actually are performing masculinity (almost as an act) because they’re trying please others. If this sounds strange, research has shown that this pressure commonly affects many boys and men. We tested how exactly these two things—threat and fragile masculinity—combined may predict men’s aggression.
Across two experiments, we measured men’s pressure and then how they responded to a gender identity threat. To measure gender pressure, the men answered questions such as, “I’m masculine because I want other people’s acceptance and approval.” Being masculine due to social pressure would indicate that men have a fragile masculinity, one that is susceptible to social threat. We then simulated a real-world manhood threat by giving participants a fake gender quiz on the computer and telling them it was assessing their “gender knowledge.” One example question was, “In 1982, who won the Super Bowl’s MVP award?” to make participants very aware that their masculinity was being questioned.
In reality, we didn’t care about their answers to the quiz. The purpose of the quiz was to give them fake feedback, regardless of how they answered: half of the participants received fake threatening feedback—to simulate a manhood threatening context—while the other half receiving fake non-threatening feedback. The threatening feedback said, “You’re much less masculine than the average man,” and also displayed a graph where their score was plotted alongside other men’s (much higher) scores. The non-threatening feedback told participants that they were just as masculine as other men (also with a corresponding graph).
After they received their feedback, participants completed what they believed was a word game. In reality, this word game was a task we used to measure how aggressively the men were thinking based on how they completed a series of word stems. For example, if a participant saw “GU_” and completed it as “GUM,” they were thinking non-aggressively. However, if they completed it as “GUN,” they were scored as thinking more aggressively. A participant’s aggressive cognition score was how many words they completed aggressively compared to non-aggressively. Lastly, before participants left the study, we told them that the study was actually about people’s responses to gender identity threat, that their gender feedback was entirely fake, and that there is no right or wrong way to be a man.
The results supported our hypothesis: it was not just a manhood threat that caused men’s aggression, but also the amount of pressure men felt to be masculine that played a vital role. In other words, men who experienced high levels of pressure to be stereotypically masculine—those with fragile masculinities—felt the most aggressive after being threatened. Men without fragile masculinities felt no more aggressive than the men who weren’t threatened!
Importantly, we also found that age matters. Fragile masculinity seems to become less consequential as men age. In other words, the younger men in our sample felt more pressure than older men to be masculine, and in turn, felt more aggressive when we threatened them. We believe that this is because younger men are under more pressure to prove themselves “as men” (for example as strong leaders) in their relationships, at work, at school, and so forth. When they can’t live up to these unrealistic expectations, young men feel the need to re-assert their manhood. Older men, then, may be more secure in their identities because they have outgrown or removed themselves from harmful societal pressures that we think cause fragile masculinity.
Overall, this research paints a different picture than what we often hear about men, toxic masculinity, and the harmful behaviors associated with both. In fact, our research shows that masculinity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Masculinity becomes harmful when it is pressured upon boys and men: we show that men’s “acting out” is directly related to the pressure we place on them be manly. So, if we care about the well-being of our boys (and those around them), we should work to challenge these harmful norms and facilitate boys’ healthy identity development.
For Further Reading
Stanaland, A., & Gaither, S. (2021). “Be a Man”: The role of social pressure in eliciting men’s aggressive cognition. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167220984298
Vandello, J. A., & Bosson, J. K. (2013). Hard won and easily lost: A review and synthesis of theory and research on precarious manhood. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 14(2), 101–113. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0029826
Way, N., Cressen, J., Bodian, S., Preston, J., Nelson, J., & Hughes, D. (2014). “It might be nice to be a girl... Then you wouldn’t have to be emotionless”: Boys' resistance to norms of masculinity during adolescence. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 15(3), 241–252. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0037262
Adam Stanaland is doctoral candidate at Duke University pursuing a joint PhD in Psychology & Neuroscience and Public Policy. His research explores identity development, well-being, and behavior. He’s also interested in using this research to address large-scale, policy relevant societal problems like men’s disproportionate aggression and violence.
Sarah Gaither is an assistant professor of Psychology & Neuroscience and faculty affiliate in the Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. Her research focuses on how a person’s social identities and experiences across the lifespan motivate their social perceptions and behaviors in diverse settings.