Tell a man that he’s not “man enough” and he may exhibit extremely macho behavior to compensate, new study findings suggest.
“In general, men in our society are very invested in maintaining a masculine identity,” study author Robb Willer, a PhD candidate in sociology at Cornell University, told Reuters Health.
When their masculinity is threatened, “they overcompensate,” he said.
The idea of masculine overcompensation is not new. With roots in Freudian psychology, the concept has been popularly accepted as true, but not necessarily proven, according to Willer.
The current findings suggest that it “actually does have some empirical validity,” he said.
In the fall of 2004, 111 male and female undergraduate students at Cornell completed gender identity surveys, in which they rated themselves on a number of traditionally male and female traits, such as assertiveness, forcefulness and yielding. Willer then gave the students random feedback, although the students believed the feedback was genuinely based on their survey responses.
Some men were told that their survey responses were indicative of a female identity and others were told the opposite. The same was true for women, who were used as the comparison group.
Preference for SUVs increased
Afterwards, Willer had the students complete a survey that examined their attitudes about certain masculine concepts, including homophobia, purchase of a sport-utility vehicle and support for the Iraq war.
Men whose masculinity was threatened — who were told that their initial survey responses were more feminine than masculine — tended to overcompensate for it in the second survey by expressing more homophobia, a higher level of support for the Iraq war and a greater interest in buying an SUV as opposed to other types of vehicles, Willer reports. These men also reported more feelings of shame, guilt, upset and hostility than did those whose masculinity was not threatened.
Also, after the first survey, Willer had the students show a public display of strength — holding a handgrip closed for a certain amount of time. There was no difference, however, in physical strength between masculinity-threatened men and masculinity-confirmed men.
Women apparently didn’t care about their identity rating. Those who were told that their survey responses were more masculine than feminine did not show any feminine overcompensation, Willer said.
“Results of the study offer strong support for the masculine overcompensation thesis,” according to Willer’s report. He is expected to present his findings early next week during the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.
In future research, Willer wants to examine whether masculinity is associated with attitudes on violence toward women. He also wants to replicate the current study in order to determine whether men’s testosterone levels, to be measured via a saliva sample, may be an intervening factor between men’s insecurity about their masculinity and masculine overcompensation.