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Why Fragile Masculinity Turns Men Into Monsters

Over and over, we see the violence that occurs when men’s masculinity is challenged. Now we’re starting to learn why.

For many men, being older and wiser also seems to mean being chiller about their perceived manliness — or lack thereof. 

To that end, a pair of new studies have found that men over 29 tend to be far less likely to respond to emasculation with aggression. Meanwhile, younger men whose sense of masculinity relies greatly on other people’s opinions are among the most triggered by threats to their manhood, explains Adam Stanaland, a 27-year-old psychology and public policy PhD candidate at Duke University and lead writer of “‘Be a Man’: The Role of Social Pressure in Eliciting Men’s Aggressive Cognition,” published last month in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 

Stanaland looked at 195 undergraduate students (men and women) and a random pool of about 400 18- to 56-year-old men for their views on overall manliness. These subjects were first asked a series of “gender knowledge” questions, which for men included highly macho topics like sports, auto mechanics and home repair. Then, with help from a colorful PowerPoint line graph, Stanaland and his team informed each participant his score was “lower than an average man.”

Sufficiently neutered, these participants were next asked to complete a series of word fragments with missing letters (e.g., KI__ __) to gauge their state of mind. Men with a more fragile sense of masculinity created words with violent associations as opposed to neutral ones (e.g., K-I-L-L versus K-I-C-K). The aggressive responses were strongest among men between the ages of 18 and 29, slightly milder for those between 30 and 37 and essentially nonexistent for those over 38. (Female students, perhaps unsurprisingly, displayed zero aggression when their gender was threatened.)

Like so many components of nascent masculinity, Stanaland says his findings essentially boil down to peer pressure. In a recent conversation, we discussed what changes when you turn 38, if fragile masculinity was to blame for the insurrection on January 6th and why it’s in everyone’s interest to realize what’s at the root of men’s violent tendencies.

You first asked the men in your studies to identify different kinds of guns and ways to inflict pain using martial arts. Why?

Because then we could give them fake feedback about whether they are more or less masculine than the average man. A lot of the questions were intentionally challenging, like “Who was the MVP of Super Bowl XLVIII?” (Seattle Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith.) It’s kind of like BuzzFeed’s personality assessments, which offer feedback in text form. We went a step further, showing a graph that clearly illustrated they were less masculine than the average man. 

That’s cold. 

It was meant to be. We wanted to simulate devastating real-world threats to manhood, like when kids on the playground lob homophobic slurs at each other or poke fun at someone for not having a girlfriend. As men get older, there are different versions of that, like making fun of a guy’s car or ribbing him for still being a virgin. I grew up in a small town in South Carolina where there are constant threats to masculinity and men live in a perpetual state of having to prove their manhood in order to fit in. So I was particularly interested in determining whether guys with fragile senses of masculinity were more likely to be aggressive. 

So in order to do so, you first had to identify whose masculinity was fragile to begin with?

Yes, in other words, we figured out whose masculinity was motivated by others, as opposed to an internal understanding of what it means to be a man. Going to the gym or liking cars isn’t inherently problematic, of course, but can become so if it includes pressure from others. Masculine identities built to fulfill the expectations of others are always going to be fragile.

The flip side is autonomous motivation, or doing masculine things because of an internal belief system. The more fragile the masculinity, the more likely they were to aggressively attempt to prove themselves. When we were done, some online participants even responded to feedback questions by saying things like, “This is an idiotic test” or they threatened to report us to the university. One plainly wrote, “I want to kill you.” We thought it was hilarious, because it was evidence for the hypothesis since nobody in the non-threat condition said stuff like that.

How did you measure aggression? 

By using a list of words missing a letter or two that had to be completed in either an aggressive way or a non-aggressive way. So “G-U-__” could either become “gum” or “gun.” Eighteen- to 35-year-old men were much more likely to complete “G-U-N” than “G-U-M” when their masculinity was pressured. And yet, the effect wasn’t present with older men, nor with men whose masculinity was internally motivated. Masculinity threat exclusively predicted aggression.

Why do you think age was such a factor? 

Men are less likely to show this effect as they get older. Thirty-five seems to be a rough cutoff point. We think it’s because the formative years are when it’s especially important to establish a masculine identity: Are you a father? Are you a leader at work? Are you exploring your sexuality? Older men, on the other hand, are more solidified in their identities and tend to have chosen environments in which they’re no longer exposed to that pressure.

At least nine insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on January 6th have a history of violence against women, ranging from domestic abuse accusations to prison time for sexual battery and criminal confinement. Do you think fragile masculinity was on display that day? 

Absolutely. Guys who feel like they’ve got something to prove were more likely to be storming the Capitol than guys who are secure in their masculinity. As an example of a similar occurrence think about the type of guys you knew in college who were suspected perpetrators of sexual assault. They were likely men who went out of their way to prove their masculinity. We have some ongoing research on the political front to explore the extent to which supporting Trump’s aggressive policies against minority groups and women are a function of fragile masculinity, and I expect to find a similar effect present. 

But none of your female participants displayed aggression when their gender was questioned?

No. They did, however, exhibit shame when receiving feedback that they weren’t feminine enough. Our thinking, which is outside the scope of my research because I focus mostly on men, is that women may have different, non-physically-aggressive ways of reasserting their womanhood. For example, based on past research on female stereotypes and social rejection, women who care a lot about appearing feminine might become depressed or become closer to friends who are stereotypically feminine. But our results in this study suggest they probably won’t become more physically aggressive if they’re trying to re-assert their femininity.

Why do you think it’s important for men to understand this phenomenon?

Because a lot of societal problems — violence, sexual assault, terrorism, political corruption — are due to men. Researchers have long been looking at why that is, but they’ve never really connected it to motivation to conform to social norms. My research tries to understand these problems from a socialization standpoint, with the hope that we can eventually prevent male violence against women, against gender minorities and against humanity.