Study explores anger, violence, and masculinity

Duke researcher finds social pressure correlation

ADAM STANALAND’s study was designed to threaten the masculinity of its participants. Predictably, some of them got angry.

Of those, and even after a debriefing reiterating that there is no right or wrong way to be a man, a few issued threats or used violent language in their post-study comments. Yet some comments were poignant and sad.

“We got feedback that was like, ‘Oh, this confirms what my parents always thought about me,’ or, ‘This confirms what I think of myself,’ ” Stanaland says.

Stanaland, who is pursuing a joint Ph.D. in psychology and public policy, designed his “ ‘Be A Man’: The Role of Social Pressure in Eliciting Men’s Aggressive Cognition” study to discern how anger and violent thought correlate to whether men’s sense of masculinity comes from within or is in response to social pressure. Men in the latter category, Stanaland’s study indicates, tend to be younger and to have more fragile senses of masculinity.

In short, they think they have more to prove, which they express through anger and aggression.

“Those men who are doing it for external reasons really want to show you, ‘Hey, I’m masculine,’ ” Stanaland says. “ ‘Watch me punch a wall.’ Or, ‘Watch me degrade a minority group.’ ”

Stanaland was raised in small-town South Carolina, where gender expectations were reinforced from a young age: Boys are not to show emotion, but aggression is acceptable; girls are to be kinder and sweeter, and should put effort into their appearance. Stanaland’s parents were an exception. “I feel more fortunate than my peers who grew up in such conditions with their parents, especially friends who have since come out as gay who had really bad experiences with their parents saying, ‘We will disown you,’ ” he says.

More research exists on the impacts of gender conformity on women and girls, Stanaland says, which makes sense: Women have been historically marginalized. Yet there are benefits to understanding the socialization and pressures that form fragile masculinity, he continues, which can be especially explosive and dangerous.

“Read the news,” he says. “Anything really awful happens at the hands of men.”

So through assistant psychology and neuroscience professor Sarah Gaither’s Duke Identity and Diversity Lab, Stanaland ran a pair of studies oriented toward fragile masculinity and its correlation to anger and violent thought. Participants in two groups—195 undergraduate students, and 391 men age eighteen to fifty-six—were asked a series of questions related to masculine gender norms (home repair, sports, etc.) and received an arbitrary score. Low scores were accompanied by language declaring the recipient less manly than average. For some, this was enough to pop the balloon of fragile masculinity.

The study zeroed-in on whether participants conformed to masculine norms because of external pressure or autonomously by asking them to agree or disagree with statements like “I’m masculine because other people expect me to be,” or “I’m masculine because it makes me happy.” “That was kind of something new that we have added to the literature,” Stanaland says.

The outcome Stanaland was most interested in was physical aggressive cognition—that is, anger and violent thought. To measure this, participants were asked to complete words. Gu_ could become gun, or could become gum; ki__ could become kill, or could become kiss. The proportion of words completed aggressively versus nonaggressively became the measure of the participant’s aggressive thought in that moment.

In the end, the studies found that men in their late thirties and younger were more likely to conform to masculine norms because of external pressure and were more likely to behave aggressively if they felt their manhood was threatened.

“If [masculinity] is kept up based on other people’s evaluations...when someone insults that, it’s going to be really fragile and be more likely to crack under pressure and break,” Stanaland says.

Yet masculinity itself isn’t inherently good or bad, Stanaland is sure to point out. There are situations in which traditionally masculine behaviors, like being less outwardly emotional, can be beneficial, he says, such as in the workplace. It’s when masculine behaviors are carried out to an exaggerated extreme and for the wrong reasons that they become destructive and harmful. And while psychologists are only starting to consider why men conform to these gender norms, Stanaland says presenting gender-diverse examples of men, women, and non-binary people and explicitly addressing harmful norms can help boys become less fragile, less aggressive men.

“What we can be doing better is try to show boys and young men that there are many ways to be a person—a human,” says Stanaland.

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Don Meccia, MBA'89's picture
Re: (Duke Mag, Spring 2021) “Man’s Inhumanity towards man, (a) Study explores the connection between anger, masculinity, and social pressure. Awful! So now Duke University has openly slid into the bigoted Orwellian age of misandry? Herein we see (printed in big bold letters in the center of the article) “read the news. Anything really awful happens at the hands of men.” Really? Men? Anything? And then we read, “Masculinity itself isn’t inherently good or bad”. What? And then “presenting examples of men, women, and non-binary people…can help boys become less fragile, less aggressive men”. How exactly and from non whom? The article even broadly implied all men are potential bigots when a ‘triggered’ man from the study is claimed to have retorted - “watch me degrade a minority group”. No proof, just an alleged quote ex any statistic, etc. It’s like one absurdity after the next. The article then concludes boys and young men need to be shown “there are many ways to be a person – a human”. This as if men should not even be able to refer to themselves as men. Quite a dig! And the tiny sample size – is this research? My guess is that the “study” had its ends in mind before it began – the endless mocking – like so much main stream media – of the male (and by connection his role in the family, the family being the cornerstone of a truly just society). Does Duke Magazine allow ever any other group, minority or otherwise, to be so maligned and towards what purpose? C’mon - Do men and men really do all the “awful” stuff in this world? It’s a dark day when half of the planet’s entire population is systematically labeled potentially as just “angry and aggressive” (even in a study looking for such reactions). This is the same dribble one sees on Oprah. It’s fodder from agenda-driven academics who likely don’t care for masculinity in any form at all. I like being a man and am proud to be one! There is an answer to the shameless article. First, be aware that no good person wants or needs social engineering, especially that which emanates from sophomoric studies. Either define what it means to be truly human or leave aside such notions entirely. The situation in the streets of America today is not a function of one gender just going nuts. I never see diversity studies showing the terrible effects of porn on anything! Second, Western Civilization, and yes, the men who have led it from Charlemagne onwards, were all part of a much larger fabric of beautiful marriages, families, Churches, states and nations that all valued Godliness, reason, and virtue as essential to success (like the reasonable beauty and elegance of Europe’s Gothic Cathedrals, Duke has something similar). These were built by families, all aiming together towards something much higher. Third, know that we men are not retreating from leadership, life, and masculinity as you’ve asked us to do here. We don’t need to be shown anything. We are already good, loving, prayerful, sacrificial and wholesome. Many of us are Christians and parents, and as such, not worthy of the terrible generalizations leveled here. We are not leaving anything, not while there are so many innocent to protect! Don Meccia, Fuqua ’89
Roger Austin's picture
1. It would be nice to have a link for the Adam Stanaland's ‘Be a Man’ study, or for any Duke study mentioned in the Duke Magazine, embedded in the article. https://sites.duke.edu/dukeidlab/files/2021/02/StanalandGaither2021_PSPB_PrePrint-1.pdf https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0146167220984298 2. As a non-scientist, I admit I have never heard of word fragment completion being used to measure cognitive characteristics. How well does word fragment completion (gun vs gum vs guy vs gut to complete gu_) serve to be an accurate measure of aggressive cognition (or other cognitive characteristics) vs justin picking up external influences/noise? The reason I ask is because Harvard’s famous 1998 implicit association/bias test https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html has detractors and defenders in both the scientific literature and the public sphere. I realize these are two different tests and that the widespread (mis?)use of the Harvard IAT may come into play, but there is enough similarity to raise the question of what can be learned about cognition from word fragment completion. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2008/07-08/psychometric If I had to complete the work fragment gu_ (which I would do in the interest of science alone and forego the cookies, five bucks, or course credit the subjects received), I would complete it “gun”. The reason is because when I consume news and opinions I am exposed to far more about gun(s) than gum(s) or gut(s) or guy(s). My completion of a word fragment would have nothing to do with my male aggressive cognitive state. And anyone who insists otherwise is itching for a _ight.
Roger Austin's picture
What does one have to do to use paragraphs in the comments section? There were paragraphs before I hit submit.