Why do some men respond aggressively when their manhood is threatened?

·3-min read
Researchers studying why some men react more aggressively than others when their manhood is threatened see social pressure as part of the problem.

Phrases like "be a man," "I need a real man" or "you're not a man" are never pleasant to hear, but they can provoke particularly aggressive reactions in some, but not all, men. What could explain why some men feel more threatened than others by phrases that question their manhood? A team of researchers in the US set out to investigate.

Researchers at Duke University in the US studied a very specific phenomenon: why some, but not all, men respond aggressively when their manhood is threatened. An observation that they think could be linked to social pressure, as well as men's individual perceptions of the notion of masculinity and, in particular, on how much men's sense of masculinity relies on the opinions of others.

The researchers studied 195 undergraduate students and a random pool of 391 men between the ages of 18 and 56. Participants were first given a questionnaire about their "gender knowledge," including questions on stereotypical topics such as sports, auto mechanics and home repair. The researchers then randomly told participants that their score was either higher or lower than that of an average person of their gender. Low-scoring men were also told that they were "less manly than the average man" in a bid to simulate real-world threats to manhood and gauge reactions.

"Our results suggest that the more social pressure a man feels to be masculine, the more aggressive he may be. 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,'" explains Adam Stanaland, a Ph.D. candidate at Duke and the study's lead author.

More aggressive responses from younger men

The researchers observed that men with a deep-seated sense of masculinity didn't seem too bothered when receiving their scores, even if those scores were low. However, that wasn't the case for men with a more fragile sense of masculinity, whose feelings of masculinity relied on others. Some of those participants said they behaved "like a man" due to social pressures such as the desire to fit in, be liked or get dates.

The volunteers were then subject to another test. The researchers gave participants fragments of words that they were asked to complete in order to reveal if their state of mind was negative, aggressive or positive. The men with a more fragile sense of masculinity tended to create words with violent associations rather than positive of neutral words. For example, when asked to make a word with the letters "ki," they wrote "kill" rather than, say, "kiss," the researchers explain. And with "blo," they put "blood," instead of alternatives like "blow" or "bloom."

The authors explain that the youngest study participants were more susceptible to giving aggressive answers, in particular those age 18 to 29. As participants' ages increased, the more moderate their answers became. The researchers suggest that this could be because younger men's sense of masculinity depends more heavily on the opinions of others.

"It's clear that younger men are more sensitive to threats against their masculinity," Adam Stanaland concludes. "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."