The phrase “real man” usually brings to mind images of muscular athletes or military heroes—men who are physically strong, aggressive, and powerful. Those depictions of masculinity may seem outdated in a society where the notion of gender is ever-evolving, but in fact many men still want to project an image of physical strength and preferences that clearly set them apart from women, says Benoît Monin, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.
When their masculinity is threatened, many men scramble to recover it, using strategies such as avoiding stereotypically feminine products and activities—think moisturizing lotions, day spas, or figure skating—and exaggerating their own stereotypical masculine characteristics, such as their height or the number of women they’ve dated, Monin’s research shows.
Although on the surface this may look like a lot of assertive chest-thumping, Monin says it’s really about identity and people’s sense of belonging to important groups. He and his colleagues have studied threats to identity before, as it relates to different ethnic groups. Looking at what it means to be a man is a novel direction, says Monin, but overall the logic is the same. “In the same way that we find that when Asian Americans’ identity as Americans is questioned they reassert it by displaying local cultural knowledge and choosing typical American food, men whose masculinity is questioned react by exaggerating characteristics they associate with masculinity and downplaying feminine ones.” Monin, also a professor in Stanford’s psychology department, and three colleagues examined the strategies men use to compensate when their masculinity is threatened.
They conducted two studies. In the first study, men were asked to complete a computer-based “masculinity test” and were told it measured the level of their masculinity as compared to other men (in reality, men were randomly assigned scores). After the test, participants were asked about their interest in receiving a variety of products seen as either masculine, feminine, or gender neutral. The second study used a handgrip test to rank the physical strength of participants. The results purportedly showed how strong a man’s grip was compared to the average grip strength for a woman (again, participants were randomly assigned a score). After seeing their score, the men answered questions about things like their height, number of previous relationships, handiness with tools, and certain masculine and feminine personality traits.
Men who were told they scored low on the masculinity tests were less interested in receiving products seen as feminine, like clothing and beauty products, compared to the other men, who were equally interested in all products. The men who believed they had scored low also significantly exaggerated their height, claimed having had a greater number of past relationship partners, and reported higher levels of aggressiveness and athleticism than men whose masculinity wasn’t threatened.
Monin says these findings have implications for companies. If men who feel their masculinity is threatened are willing to exaggerate their height or the number of their previous relationships, those who feel that way at work because of negative feedback or evaluations may be equally willing to behave unethically (for example, stretching performance numbers) to reassert themselves.
Those men could also react by behaving in a hostile manner, as suggested by the higher reported aggressiveness among threatened participants. “It could explain why some men react to frustration on the job or to a threat to status at work by lashing out at employees or coworkers,” says Monin. For managers, predicting what men might do when they feel threatened could help prevent the resulting negative consequences.
The findings also say something about male consumer behavior. The studies showed that one determinant of whether or not men will embrace products considered feminine is how secure those men are about their masculinity. This directly relates to the market for male beauty and grooming products, which is potentially huge, but getting men to embrace those products has proven challenging. “Marketers have to figure out how to alleviate concerns about masculinity as they try to convince men to buy products that could be perceived as feminine,” such as skin care products, says Monin. “These companies need to design ads and marketing campaigns that make men feel very secure in their masculinity.”