Threats to Manhood Trigger Aggression in Some (Not All) Men

New research identifies why some men don't care if their manhood is threatened.

Posted Jan 29, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye

Source: Krakenimages/Shutterstock

New research sheds light on why some men are prone to "aggressive cognition" when their manhood feels threatened. This paper (Stanaland & Gaither, 2021) was published on January 27 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

In two separate but complementary studies of 195 undergraduates and a random pool of 391 men between the ages of 18 and 56, Adam Stanaland and Sarah Gaither of Duke University found evidence that men who acknowledge they experience societal pressure to "be a man" are more likely to respond aggressively if their manliness is questioned or threatened.

The first study of undergraduate students focused on how "pressure to be masculine moderates the relationship between gender identity threat and aggressive cognition for men."

In the second study, the researchers conducted a confirmatory factor analysis designed to see if the role that "societal pressure plays on eliciting men's aggressive cognition" could be validated with a larger and more age-diverse sample of men. According to Stanaland and Gaither, their second study replicated the first study, "most notably with younger men."

One aspect of this research involved having participants answer a series of questions that tested their knowledge of stereotypically "manly" interests like auto mechanics and sports. Regardless of a guy's actual score, the researchers randomly told some men they'd scored low and were "less manly than the average man" and measured their response.

"Men whose sense of masculinity came from within seemed unruffled by receiving a low score," Stanaland and Gaither explain in a news release. "It was a different story for men with a more fragile sense of masculinity, whose feelings of masculinity relied on others."

"Threatening a man's manhood—but not a woman's womanhood—elicits aggression," the authors write in the paper's abstract. "In all, these findings reveal one pathway—the pressure men experience to be stereotypically masculine—that elicits aggressive cognition when under threat in a U.S. context."

"Our results suggest that the more social pressure a man feels to be masculine, the more aggressive he may be," Adam Stanaland, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology and public policy at Duke, said in the news release. "When those men feel they are not living up to strict gender norms, they may feel the need to act aggressively to prove their manhood—to 'be a man.'"

Interestingly, aggressive responses to having one's manhood threatened were most robust among the youngest study participants (18 to 29). On the flip side, the oldest respondents (over 38) had the least aggressive response to being told they were "less manly than average." Middle-aged men between ages 30 and 37 fell somewhere in the middle.

"It's clear that younger men are more sensitive to threats against their masculinity. In those years, as men attempt to find or prove their place in society, their masculine identity may be more fragile," Stanaland concludes. "In many places, this means that younger men are hit constantly with threats to their manhood. They have to prove their manhood."

Blogger's note: In a follow-up post, I explore how campy, norm-breaking disco anthems like "Macho Man" by the Village People helped me reframe hypermasculine stereotypes and feel OK about my lack of machismo as a gay teenager in the late 1970s.


Adam Stanaland and Sarah Gaither. "'Be a Man': The Role of Social Pressure in Eliciting Men’s Aggressive Cognition." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (First published: January 27, 2021)  DOI: 10.1177/0146167220984298