ongoing research behind fragile masculinity and the "threat" to manhood

Men have a tendency to respond aggressively when their manhood is threatened. These “threats” can take the form of saying one’s manhood is less than “manly” than another’s, regardless of how one may interpret the meaning of such a statement. Researchers from Duke University examined what causes some men to respond aggressively when their manhood is threatened.

A pair of studies, headed by Adam Stanaland, a Ph.D. candidate and the studies' lead author, examined 195 undergraduate students and a random pool of 391 men ages 18 to 56. First, participants were given a series of questions to evaluate their “gender knowledge.” Their performance on this “quiz” was irrelevant because the participants were randomly given high or low scores. To simulate real-world threats to manhood, men who received a low score were also told they were "less manly than the average man."

Since previous research shows that threatened self-esteem can predict threat, participants also rated their gendered self-esteem using the four-item Collective Self-Esteem Scale–Gender Version, on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). This is helpful in identifying what characteristics may lead to more aggressive responses to receiving a low score and a threat to their manhood.

Next, participants were given an aggressive cognition task. They were asked to complete a series of word fragments by adding missing letters help researchers identify the active state of mind among participants. For example, when provided with "ki__" and asked to complete the word, men who received low scores often wrote "kill" rather than, say, "kiss." The results were surprising, not due to any number of aggressive responses but because of the common characteristics found among men who responded aggressively to a threat to their manhood.

Men whose masculinity is centered within themselves were hardly triggered by receiving a low score on the “gender knowledge” assessment. However, men that exhibited a more fragile sense of masculinity, whose feelings of masculinity relied on others, experienced a great deal of pressure and frustration when receiving a low score. This result is quite reliable as well… that group included men who said they behaved "like a man" due to social pressures such as the desire to fit in, be liked or get dates. Female students within the undergraduate sample did not display a similar aggressive response when their gender was threatened.

The ages of those men who responded more aggressively were significantly skewed toward the younger generation (men between 18 and 29 years old). The responses were milder among the middle group of men between 30 and 37, and milder still among the group of participants aged 38 and older. Put plainly, older men were less aggressive than younger men and reported less experienced pressure to conform to masculine norms.

The researchers called this social influence “pressured motivation.” The interaction between pressured motivation and age groups was so strong that while young men who experienced high pressure were most aggressive, young men who experienced little pressure were among the least aggressive samples, even among the group who received high scores.

We can make predictions, not conclusions, as to why the younger generation responded more aggressively; because, in fact, their responses are quite natural.

"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," says Stanaland.

The results don’t end here. The researchers even reported to have received violent threats from some men who received low scores, demonstrating the extent to which some men will go to prove or correct the perception of their manhood. Stanaland explains why this extreme reaction ought to be examined in future research.

"Men's violence, terrorism, violence against women, political aggression— fragile masculinity may explain many of these behaviors. It's in everyone's interest to understand this phenomenon better."

Written by Aiden Suttlehan

This article has been republished from Renewed Awareness Magazine.

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