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How Social Pressure to 'Be a Man' Can Influence Aggressive Behavior

male boxer punching heavy bag in gym

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Key Takeaways

  • When their manhood is threatened, some men respond aggressively, but not all.
  • New research from Duke University suggests that younger men whose sense of masculinity depends heavily on other people's opinions may be more triggered by threats against their manhood.
  • The study found that women showed no aggression at all when their gender was threatened.

Ask any man, and he’ll probably be able to tell you about a time his manhood was challenged—be it at the playground, the gym, or the workplace. This is what inspired recent research from Duke University, led by Adam Stanaland, a PhD candidate in psychology and public policy.

“Past research has found that in these threatening instances, some men will go to great—often aggressive—lengths to re-assert their manhood,” Stanaland says. “However, we know that not all men are threatenable in this way, so our research was about understanding which men become aggressive to defend their manhood (and why).”

Borrowing from past work on human motivation, the researchers hypothesized that when a man’s outward masculinity is more pressured or performative (versus being more self-motivated), he is likely to have a fragile identity that invokes aggression when threatened (to maintain his masculine façade).

“As someone from the rural (US) South, I have experienced this pressure and its consequences first-hand—and I think this research can shed some light on the many similar stories I’ve heard along the way,” Stanaland says.

Adam Stanaland

Past research has found that in these threatening instances, some men will go to great—often aggressive— lengths to re-assert their manhood.

— Adam Stanaland

What Did the Study Find? 

The researchers considered 195 undergraduate students and a random group of 391 men, ages 18-56. First, the participants were asked a series of questions about "gender knowledge”—for the men, these included questions on sports, auto mechanics, and DIY projects. After they answered, they were told at random that their score was either higher or lower than that of an average person of their gender. Men who received a low score also were told they were "less manly than the average man."

Next, study participants were asked to complete a series of word fragments by adding missing letters, to reveal their state of mind. 

The results, published in the Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin, revealed that the men’s responses varied depending on whether their sense of masculinity came from within, or relied on others.

Men with a strong sense of inner masculinity appeared unruffled by receiving a low score, but those with a more fragile sense of masculinity, whose feelings of masculinity relied on others, responded to word fragments with words that had violent associations. For example, when provided with the letters “ki” and asked to finish the word, they wrote “kill.”

Adam Stanaland

Our findings led us to hypothesize that younger men feel more pressure and are more sensitive to threats because they are in crucial identity formation years—when it’s important to prove oneself as a 'man.'

— Adam Stanaland

The youngest study participants—ages 18-29—were most likely to provide aggressive responses, while the mildest response came from the oldest group (38-over). And female students did not display a comparable aggressive reaction when their gender was threatened.

“Our findings led us to hypothesize that younger men feel more pressure and are more sensitive to threats because they are in crucial identity formation years—when it’s important to prove oneself as a “man” (e.g., provider, husband, business leader),” explains Stanaland. He adds that they plan to expand on this with further research.

Stanaland pointed to two surprising findings. "We asked our second sample of men how old they were when they first experienced pressure to be masculine—the same pressure we think is antecedent to fragile masculinity," he says. "Men reported that they were around 13 years old, which is older than we expected, but in line with past research on boys’ social development during puberty and adolescence."

GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC

For both men and women, gender falls on a spectrum. Nobody, man or woman, is 100% masculine or feminine. The societal pressure on men to be men should be addressed when discussing gender identity because all men have qualities that are considered both masculine and feminine, just like women.

— GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC

As Stanaland explains, puberty is a time when boys (and girls) undergo drastic physical, social, and emotional change. "We are conducting new research to explore when and why fragile masculinity might have its origins in adolescence," he says.

The researchers were also surprised that no other popular gender identity features they measured—that have been used extensively in past research—were related to men’s aggression. "This led us to conclude that there is something unique and consequential about the pressure men experience to be stereotypically masculine in gender-restrictive cultures that leads to a fragile identity state," Stanaland says.

Remember, Gender Falls on a Spectrum

It's important to remember that many people don't identify as "male" or "masculine," or "female" or "feminine."

"For both men and women, gender falls on a spectrum," says licensed mental health counselor GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC. "Nobody, man or woman, is 100% masculine or feminine. The societal pressure on men to be men should be addressed when discussing gender identity because all men have qualities that are considered both masculine and feminine, just like women."

Guarino believes societal pressure on men to "be men" may stem from many different factors. "Historically, it's taught that a man is considered to be a provider, protector, and even sometimes a fighter, while a woman is a nester, nurturer, and supporter," she says. "This can put pressure on men to be masculine and strong. Despite this pressure, many men do not fall to an extreme of masculinity and can fall anywhere on the spectrum between masculine and feminine."

GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC

Since boys are taught to be tough and unfeeling, they feel pressure to hide their feminine qualities. They may even reject those qualities entirely, but that does not mean they go away. Their feminine qualities lie dormant in a boy, which results in internal conflict for him.

— GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC

Man to man, certain labels are considered to be taboo, Guarino adds—like "sensitive," "nurturing," and "emotional."

"Males are discouraged from showing these parts of themselves, starting from childhood, which teaches them to suppress these feelings," she explains. "Since boys are taught to be tough and unfeeling, they feel pressure to hide their feminine qualities. They may even reject those qualities entirely, but that does not mean they go away. Their feminine qualities lie dormant in a boy, which results in internal conflict for him."

The only way to prevent further misrepresentation of what it is to "be a man" is to address the pressure and educate all generations, and parents can play a big role.

"Parents of boys need to understand that feminine qualities are not a bad thing," Guarino says. "They do not set up a boy for failure. Similar to 'tomboy' personalities often seen in young girls, allowing a boy to embrace their feminine side can result in a well-rounded adult, which is the goal for any parent to have for their children."

What This Means For You

A licensed mental health professional can help you work through any issues you have relating to your gender or gender identity in a safe, non-judgmental manner.

Remember, there are many ways to "be a man" (and "be a woman")—and none of them are more valid than the others. Being true to yourself is the first step to happiness and fulfillment.

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  1. Stanaland A and Gaither S. "Be a Man": The Role of Social Pressure in Eliciting Men’s Aggressive Cognition. Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2021 Jan. doi:10.1177/0146167220984298