Manliness and Mental Health

How masculinity concerns shape men’s anxiety about mental illness.

Posted Jun 30, 2017

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin Madison had 117 students enter a laboratory. The task of these students was to rate a series of 19 emotions on how much they felt the average man, and the average woman, experienced these emotions. The results were as follows:

Emotions felt more by men: Anger, Contempt, Pride

Emotions felt more by women: Distress, Awe, Disgust, Embarrassment, Fear, GuiltHappiness, Love, Sadness, Shame, Shyness, Surprise, Sympathy

Emotions felt the same: Jealousy, Interest

Now in a world where women are believed to experience both happiness and sadness more than men (along with most other emotions), it should come as no surprise really that men are in a strange position when it comes to mental health, and to expressing emotions more generally. 

If a man is to express distress, embarrassment, fear, guilt, love, sadness, happiness, shame, or sympathy, he is running the risk of being perceived of as atypical. I imagine this is especially the case if a man frequently expresses these emotions.

Psychologists Joseph Vandello and Jennifer Bosson at the University of South Florida have developed the theory of "precarious manhood." This posits that masculinity is a fragile social status, that is—in their words—"hard fought and easily lost." Men must always be weary of coming across as unmanly, and to the extent that this status has been challenged, men will tend to act out in more stereotypically masculine ways.

Studies supporting this have found that when men's sense of masculinity is challenged, they show heightened desire to display physical aggression, and when they do, it is more forceful. Moreover, to the extent that men feel their masculinity is at risk, they are more approving of negative treatment towards stereotypically effeminate men. They also display heightened risk taking, for instance, when gambling.

Recent work headed by Kenneth Michniewicz, an assistant professor in psychology at Muhlenberg College (and well versed in old Nintendo culture—though he only dreams of executing a back brain kick in real life), tested how feminine and masculine men and women believe different mental illnesses to be. Anti-social personality disorder, alcoholism, and drug addiction were found to be perceived as masculine, whereas depression, anxiety, and a variety of eating disorders were perceived as feminine. 

In a follow up study, these researchers found that men imagined that they would be particularly distressed to have the feminine disorders, would be less likely to seek help for these disorders, and felt that these disorders would threaten their masculinity status.

Masculinity is a bit fragile. When a man acts aggressively or in a risky way, or when he hides those tears, it is quite possible he is trying to be a "real man." Unfortunately, in the world of mental illness, this can have very serious consequences.


Michniewicz, K. S., Bosson, J. K., Lenes, J. G., & Chen, J. I. (2016). Gender-atypical mental illness as male gender threat. American Journal of Men's Health10, 306-317.

Michniewicz, K. S., & Vandello, J. A. (2015). People judge male sexism more leniently when women emasculate men. Social Psychology, 46, 197-209.

Plant, E. A., Hyde, J. S., Keltner, D., & Devine, P. G. (2000). The gender stereotyping of emotions. Psychology of Women Quarterly24, 81-92.

Vandello, J. A., Bosson, J. K., Cohen, D., Burnaford, R. M., & Weaver, J. R. (2008). Precarious manhood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology95, 1325-1339.

Weaver, J. R., Vandello, J. A., Bosson, J. K., & Burnaford, R. M. (2010). The proof is in the punch: Gender differences in perceptions of action and aggression as components of manhood. Sex Roles62, 241-251.