Crisis of Masculinity

Is he man enough for the challenge? Do you have your man pants on? Man up or go home! These sexist phrases are an inherent part of many peoples day-to-day language. While mainstream society is moving towards redefining our collective definition of what femininity means, what about masculinity? Do men feel pressure to live up to current gender ideals of masculinity?

The short answer, coming from a study just published in the journal Social Psychology, is an absolute yes. Societal ideologies, although they have gradually accepted some aspects of male femininity, they have yet to fully shake the idea that has been passed down from generation to generation, that to be deemed masculine one must be a strong and powerful unwavering rock of an alpha-type male.

The study was a clever probe of the masculine side of the male ego that aimed to determine what happens when a man’s masculinity is in crisis. Male college students from Stanford University were either tricked into thinking a test of their handgrip strength was inferior to the average man and was in fact equal to that of the average women, or were told their grip strength was average for men. Then the researchers assessed how the men responded to having their manly strength threatened by having them fill out a short and simple questionnaire.

For the threatened men, the handgrip test was in essence perceived as a signal that they are not as strong as the average man and instead had a more feminine, womanly grip strength. How did this threat to their masculinity affect them? Much like our fellow ape friends they responded by bearing their teeth, puffing out their chests and beating them defiantly like a drum… metaphorically speaking.

In reality, the questionnaire results revealed that the threatened men exaggerated their height by three-quarters of an inch on average, reported having more romantic relationships, claimed to be more aggressive and athletic, and showed less interest in stereotypically feminine consumer products than the unthreatened men. Compared to their true selves they were super tall, super fit, super manly, lady-killing machines!

Basically, they boarded the white lie train and over exaggerated to describe themselves as having more masculine traits to compensate for the threat by beefing up their masculine identity. In contrast, men who received average score results, and whose masculinity was therefore not threatened, did not exaggerate those characteristics.

A second experiment similarly assessed the effects of threats to the men’s masculinity. This time the students took a computer-based masculinity test with multiple-choice questions about consumer preferences and personal attributes. After being told the average score on the test was 72 out of 100, with 100 being ‘completely masculine,’ the students were randomly given a score of 26 or 73 and then asked about a range of products they could receive as prize. As with the handgrip experiment, the participants who thought they scored a measly, girly 23 were less interested in more feminine consumer products.

As co-author Benoît Monin, a professor of organizational behavior and psychology at Stanford University, puts it:

“This research shows that men are under very strong prescriptive norms to be a certain way, and they work hard to correct the image they project when their masculinity is under threat.”

Overall, those whose masculinity was threatened both played up their manliness, as well as rejected more feminine preferences, neither of which seem like great options for one’s self-identity (i.e. lying about oneself) or fitting in with modern day’s increasingly desexualised societal roles (i.e. men and women requiring a blend of masculine and feminine traits to thrive in modern society).

In other words, this wouldn’t be such a big deal if, just like many modern women, many modern men’s roles in their job, family, friendship circle and beyond did not require an intricate mix of what can be considered masculine and feminine qualities – in stark contrast with the “man up” mentality that still manages to prevail.

Most importantly, multiple lines of evidence suggests that this disparity between slowly devolving societal gender ideals, that we gradually and largely unconsciously imbibe as we grow up, and rapidly evolving real-life societal demands, may be directly placing men’s mental and physical health at great risk. For example, men having traditional views of masculinity has recently been suggested to be a risk factor for suicidal ideation and murder-suicide.

Moreover, other studies have also found that compensating for a lack of masculinity can be presented to other people in dangerous ways, from adopting more aggressive, assertive and hostile personalities and refusing to consider doing supposedly feminine acts, to harassing and being violent towards women, as well as accepting intimate partner violence from women.

As we gradually move towards a more humanist approach to gender roles, and newer generations are less affected by more traditional views of masculinity and femininity, perhaps repeating this experiment on future generations may produce different results. Only time will tell.

Lead author Sapna Cheryan, associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, leaves us with an interesting thought:

“Men have a lot of power in our society, and what this study shows is that some decisions can be influenced by how they’re feeling about their masculinity in the moment.”


Cheryan, S., Cameron, J., Katagiri, Z., & Monin, B. (2015). Manning Up Social Psychology, 1-10 DOI: 10.1027/1864-9335/a000239

Coleman D (2014). Traditional Masculinity as a Risk Factor for Suicidal Ideation: Cross-sectional and Prospective Evidence from a Study of Young Adults. Archives of suicide research : official journal of the International Academy for Suicide Research PMID: 25383764

McDermott RC, & Lopez FG (2013). College men’s intimate partner violence attitudes: contributions of adult attachment and gender role stress. Journal of counseling psychology, 60 (1), 127-36 PMID: 23088682

Munsch CL, & Willer R (2012). The role of gender identity threat in perceptions of date rape and sexual coercion. Violence against women, 18 (10), 1125-46 PMID: 23136179

Oliffe JL, Han CS, Drummond M, Sta Maria E, Bottorff JL, & Creighton G (2014). Men, Masculinities, and Murder-Suicide. American journal of men’s health PMID: 25294867

Santana MC, Raj A, Decker MR, La Marche A, & Silverman JG (2006). Masculine gender roles associated with increased sexual risk and intimate partner violence perpetration among young adult men. Journal of urban health : bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 83 (4), 575-85 PMID: 16845496

Image via Nejron Photo / Shutterstock.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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