Are You a “Real Man”? How Men Earn and Prove Manhood Status

To answer this question, we asked U.S. college students to select which of several visual images best represented the psychological profile of an adult who could not have children (Vandello et al., 2008). Half of our participants first read a description of a woman, Anne, who could not get pregnant, and the other half read about a man, John, who could not impregnate his wife. After reading the description, participants selected an image to represent Anne or John. The set of possible images contained an attractive adult, an unattractive adult, and a child, all of whom were the same sex as the adult (Anne or John) in the description; the remaining images were abstract, and were identical across conditions. Our primary interest was the frequency with which people selected the image of the child to represent an infertile woman. That is, if a woman who violates the motherhood mandate is no longer a real woman, then people should characterize her as a girl.

Instead, the largest percentage of participants (28%) who read about Anne selected the image of the unattractive woman to represent her. Only 16% selected the image of the girl. Conversely, the largest percentage (40%) of those who read about John selected the image of the boy to represent him. This finding indicates that women who violate the motherhood mandate may be viewed as flawed – that is, physically unattractive – but they are nonetheless seen as real women. Note that people’s selection of an unattractive woman to represent an infertile woman is interesting in itself. This trend could reflect an implicit tendency to treat women’s physical beauty as a cue that signals fertility (Buss, 1989), or a broader tendency to equate women’s appearance with their overall value and worth (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). Regardless, our findings are consistent with the notion that womanhood status is not as tenuous as is manhood, even in a domain that is considered quite important for women.

Implications for Aggressive Actions

No matter how you look at it – homicides, violent crime rates, laboratory-induced aggression – men are more physically aggressive than women (Bettencourt & Miller, 1996; Eagly & Steffen, 1986). Although the reasons for this disparity are complex and multi-determined, we propose that men, at times, use physical aggression as a means of restoring their manhood.

To test this idea, my colleagues and I threatened some men’s manhood by videotaping them while they performed a feminine task that involved braiding a mannequin’s hair (Bosson, Vandello, Burnaford, Weaver, & Wasti, 2009). Other men were videotaped while performing a similar but non-threatening activity that involved braiding three strands of rope. Next, we offered men an opportunity to select which of two activities they would like to do – solving a “brainteaser” puzzle, or hitting a punching pad. If men use aggressive displays to restore threatened manhood, then men who braided hair should select the punching task more frequently than men who braided rope. This is precisely what happened. Whereas 50% of men who did the hairstyling task subsequently chose to punch, only 22% of those who did the rope braiding task selected the punching activity.

And a manhood threat did not only motivate men to choose a physically aggressive activity. In a follow-up experiment, men actually punched a punching pad harder following the manhood threat (hairstyling task) than they did following the non-threatening task. In yet another study, we had U.S. college men do the hairstyling task after which half of them punched a pad. The other half of men did the hairstyling task and then waited several minutes without doing another activity. Finally, all of the men completed a measure of anxiety. The findings showed that men who punched the pad after the manhood threat scored lower in anxiety than those who did not punch after the manhood threat. This suggests that a physically aggressive behavior can alleviate men’s anxiety concerning the loss of manhood that results from stereotypically feminine actions.

Taken together, these findings suggest that displays of physical aggression can be effective means of restoring threatened manhood. Of course, there are numerous other potential causes of men’s use of physical aggression, including biological factors, socialization tendencies, and other situational pressures. Nonetheless, reminders that their manhood is precarious may, at times, motivate men’s physical aggression even when other causes are not present.

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