Research backs up what you were already thinking: Sexist men are sad

Vitriol can be exhausting.
Vitriol can be exhausting.
Image: Reuters/John Javellana
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It’s been a difficult year for gender equality. On the one hand, the world is edging closer to gender parity when it comes to things like political representation and pay (though both are still far off). On the other, Donald Trump got elected president of the US, despite a history of comments about treating women as sex objects without their consent.

What do we do when we encounter sexism, and how do we understand retrograde attitudes? Is it lack of education, poverty, unprogressive personality—or a mixture of those and other factors? Researchers from universities in Indiana and Singapore have one answer. They conducted a meta-study that pulled in data on nearly 20,000 men, and found that particularly sexist attitudes are correlated with unhappiness.

The research, published this month (pdf) in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, set out to discover whether men who displayed beliefs in “masculine norms” also shared mental health traits. They looked at 74 separate studies that examined men’s attitudes and their psychological wellbeing. All the studies used the same scale, or versions of it: the Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory. The CMNI, conceived in 2003 (pdf), includes 11 separate dimensions: winning, emotional control,  risk-taking, violence, dominance, playboy—defined as a mix of adventure, antifemininity, concealing emotions, and subordinating women—self-reliance, primacy of work, power over women, disdain for homosexuality, and pursuit of status.

It’s important to note that this isn’t a measure of “manliness,” but rather of the extent to which people conform to societal pressures, which are delivered through all kinds of channels—everything from boys being told not to cry to Hollywood films heroizing macho, violent types.

They found that three so-called norms were “unfavorably, robustly, and consistently” related to poor mental health outcomes, including depression and seeking psychological help: self-reliance, playboy, and power over women. The researchers noted that the last two are those most closely associated with “sexist attitudes.”

Of course, the survey data don’t prove causation. Being sexist might make men unhappy, but equally unhappiness might make them more likely to express or feel sexist attitudes. Or perhaps both are the result of other pressures entirely.

Y. Joel Wong from Indiana University’s department of counseling and educational psychology, who led the meta-analysis, said previous research leads him to believe being sexist is itself depressing. “I argue that sexism attitudes ultimately harm the perpetrators of sexism because of its negative interpersonal consequences (individuals who are sexist receive pushback from others who are offended by their behavior),” Wong said in an email. “To be clear, this last statement is my interpretation” of findings that revealed a correlation.

So next time a mansplainer shouts you down or a bad boss treats your female partner with scorn, remember: he might well be a very unhappy man. But that’s no reason not to keep pushing back on behavior that treats women as anything but equal.