Men who feel need to prove manhood prone to violence

Study finds that young men are 'more sensitive to threats to their masculinity.'

Dave Yasvinski 3 minute read February 2, 2021

New research suggests the more social pressure a man feels to be masculine, the more aggressive he may be. Getty

The more a man looks to others to inform his sense of masculinity, the more likely he is to become aggressive and attempt to defend that manhood when challenged, according to a team of researchers focused on the always fraught field of male fragility.

The study, just published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, shows the impetus to “man up” can take an outsized toll early in the lives of young men, according to Science Daily. “Our results suggest that the more social pressure a man feels to be masculine, the more aggressive he may be,” said Adam Stanaland, the lead author of the study and a Ph.D. candidate in psychology and public policy at Duke University.

“When those men feel they are not living up to strict gender norms, they may feel the need to act aggressively to prove their manhood — to ‘be a man.’”

To get a measure of the men in their study, researchers subjected 195 undergraduate students and a random group of men aged 18 to 56-years-old to a series of stereotypical “gender knowledge” questions. Subjects were then randomly told their score was better or worse than the average person of their gender, with the low scorers being told they were “less manly than the average man.”

This was followed by another test that required participants to complete a series of word fragments intended to uncover what they were really thinking. The results revealed that men with an internal sense of masculinity were unbothered by a low test score, while the group who looked to others to reinforce their masculinity quickly turned aggressive.

When presented with the letters “ki,” and asked to form a word, for example, this fragile group would use violent options, such as “kill” instead of “kiss.” The tendency to respond aggressively was most pronounced in the youngest group, aged 18 to 29, milder in the 30 to 37 group, and mildest amongst men 38 and older who may have a more fully developed sense of self. “It’s clear that younger men are more sensitive to threats against their masculinity,” Stanaland said.

“In those years, as men attempt to find or prove their place in society, their masculine identity may be more fragile. In many places, this means that younger men are hit constantly with threats to their manhood. They have to prove their manhood every day of their lives.”

The findings, which were not seen in female students, quickly presented worrying real-life ramifications when some of the men who received low scores sent violent threats to the research team. With wildly differing views of male masculinity taking centre-stage in the U.S. and elsewhere of late, the team hopes to follow up with research into the factors generating these aggressive outcomes.

“Men report aggressive behaviour in all sorts of domains,” Stanaland said. “Some of them are trying to prove their own manhood by being aggressive. Men’s violence, terrorism, violence against women, political aggression — fragile masculinity may explain many of these behaviours.

“It’s in everyone’s interest to understand this phenomenon better.”

Dave Yasvinski is a writer

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