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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