Why Two Flawed Ideas About Men Are Popular

Science debunks notions about the nature of males.

Posted Aug 14, 2018

Today, we are seeing the construction of two new cultural memes about men and masculinity.

The first—and most in vogue—is that of a re-energized hyper-macho man, whose template is Donald Trump. He bullies his adversaries and brags that he alone can solve all the world’s problems.

This new ideal man is white and Christian; he deserves to rule the world because whites invented civilization. Former Trump aide Steve Bannon sees it this way, and he is now stumping for the need for white male nationalism in the U.S. and abroad. When Bannon ran the website Breitbart, he called it the voice of the “Alt Right.” People who identify with the Alt Right, according to the Anti-Defamation League, “regard mainstream or traditional conservatives as weak and impotent, largely because they do not sufficiently support racism and anti-Semitism… In fact, Alt Righters reject modern conservatism explicitly because they believe that mainstream conservatives are not advocating for the interests of white people as a group.”

The neo-macho man has scant regard for women. Donald Trump famously bragged about grabbing women’s genitals in a taped video that went viral in 2016. Bannon’s Breitbart regularly featured anti-woman screeds, and alt-right guru Richard Spencer has said that women shouldn’t make foreign policy decisions because their “vindictiveness knows no bounds.” Alt-right males believe that feminism has caused women to selfishly chose to lead their own lives, refusing to be dutiful wives subject to alpha males.

Since Trump has become president, more aggressive male behaviors have crept into the mainstream, including hostility to women. One team of academics from Wharton, looking into how men and women negotiate, found that since Donald Trump’s election there has been a marked “increase in men acting more aggressively toward women.” The Guardian observes, “People are seeing changes in the way some men are behaving...a backlash is on against the few gains that women and girls have made, slowly, painfully and with unnumbered sacrifices down the decades, as men and boys are encouraged to see women as their competitors in an unfriendly world.” 

Boys are indeed picking up on more aggressive behaviors. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that during the presidential campaign, teachers noted an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities had been the verbal targets of candidates on the  trail.

Anyone following Trump rallies saw many angry males, and in fact, reports the New York Times, Trump’s rallies were associated with a rise in violence in the city or town where they took place. A venue that played host to a Trump rally experienced an average of 2.3 more assaults reported on the day of the event than on a typical day, according to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. The study was published in the journal Epidemiology.

How long will the male anger that Trump seems to generate last? Will the trope of the macho, aggressive male be a fixture on the landscape, or will it fade as the political climate changes? Only time will tell, but we would bet it will move back to the margins of society—never vanishing, but falling out of favor.

The second meme we are seeing is quite different—the idea that men are too rigid and stuck in old ways to succeed in a rapidly changing economy.

This notion was first popularized by Hanna Rosin in her 2012 book, The End of Men.  In it, she suggested two new gender models—the cardboard man and the plastic woman, with females being more flexible and possessing better social skills. As New York Times columnist David Brooks put it, “Men are like immigrants who have physically moved to a new country but who have kept their minds in the old one. They speak the old language. They follow the old mores. Men are more likely to be rigid; women are more fluid.” And Karen Hell, columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote “Women, it almost goes without saying, are observant, accommodating, compassionate, flexible, and adaptable. Men, if you'll pardon the expression, are rigid.”

The idea of the man who can’t relate, who can’t change, who has trouble dealing with people and can’t cooperate has morphed from hypothesis into a more accepted belief. But is it in fact true? Not according to science.

As a society, we generally agree with the notion that women are more cooperative than men, but this conclusion is wrong-headed. Research published in the Psychological Bulletin in 2011 suggests that this commonly held belief needs a rethink. Psychologist Daniel Balliet, of the University of Amsterdam and his colleagues analyzed data from 272 studies spanning 50 years. They were surprised to find that men and women do not differ in their overall amounts of cooperation.  That’s right—women are not the “helpful” sex. Men often put the welfare of the group ahead of their own individual needs. Also, context matters. Some situations are more conducive to male cooperation; others, to female cooperation. Women cooperate more than men in mixed-sex interactions. Maybe that’s why we get the idea that women don’t ever put themselves first or push their own agendas. 

But, when females get together, it’s a different story; there’s not much cooperation going on. Less, in fact, than when men congregate. Men are supposedly the silent sex, terrible at communicating. In the bestseller, The Female Brain, author Louann Brizendine reports that men are so tongue-tied that each day, they use only 7,000 words, while women use 20,000. That statistic has been repeated by media all over the world—but it’s wrong. “It’s been a common belief, but it just didn’t fit,” says James Pennebaker, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin and coauthor of a seven-year study of men’s and women’s speech. In fact, both men and women use approximately 16,000 words a day.

Men and women allegedly speak so differently that they virtually inhabit separate cultures. Men just don’t “get” emotions, it’s argued. Leonard Sax, author of the best-selling book, Why Gender Matters, says that boys are so challenged by emotions that they shouldn’t even consider them. He suggests that literature teachers should not ask boys about characters’ emotions but instead should focus only on what the characters actually do. But teachers should dwell on characters’ emotions in teaching literature to girls. 

In The Female Brain, author Brizendine claims, “A woman knows what people are feeling, while a man can’t spot an emotion unless somebody cries or threatens bodily harm.” Are there in fact two communication cultures, one devoid of empathy and emotion? Are men more likely than women to respond to a co-worker’s problems by giving advice, joking, changing the subject, or giving no response? Men, it’s said, tend to relate to other men on a one-up, one-down basis. Status and dominance are important.

Women, however, supposedly respond by sharing a similar problem or expressing sympathy.

Not true, according to a study published in the journal Sex Roles. When confronted with other people’s problems, men and women use essentially the same types of responses. Both men and women largely provide support by giving advice and expressing sympathy. Men and women are remarkably alike in the types of support they provide.

The clear conclusion: Gender differences in communication, especially giving support to others, are relatively small in magnitude. Men are fully able to both offer and receive supportive communications. Women have no special “communication” style.

In resolving conflicts, men and women are supposed to communicate very differently. Men are seen to be focused on autonomy at the expense of connection and women are seen as focused on connection at the expense of autonomy.

Not so. In one study of more than 3,000 adults, most men and women reported having a mutual style, a balanced integration of concerns for autonomy and connection. A manager who rejects a male candidate thinking the man is inherently unable to relate well to others is making a mistake. The silent, inflexible man is a fiction.

Author Helen Fisher claimed, in The First Sex, that women have web brains that integrate many sides of an argument, while men are stuck with plodding, linear thinking. “The future belongs to women,” she argues. Parents magazine said that girls and women use both sides of their brains more symmetrically than boys and men. The larger corpus callosum in women explains female intuition and ability to “multitask” and tune in to emotions, the magazine told its readers. (The corpus callosum is the bundle of nerve fibers connecting the left and right brain hemispheres.) This claim is repeatedly made by best-selling author Michael Gurian, author of The Wonder of Girls and The Wonder of Boys; it appears on many websites aimed at educators. 

But is it true? In fact, no. A meta-analysis (a combination of many studies) of 49 studies published since 1989 reveals no significant sex differences in the size or shape of the splenium of the corpus callosum. When neuroscientist Lise Eliot at the University of Chicago Medical School reviewed the scientific literature on the brains of girls and boys for her 2011 book, Pink Brain, Blue Brain, she reported, “For the record: the corpus callosum does not differ between boys and girls.”(Nor between men and women.)

All this talk about rigid men does a disservice to all the males who are making important strides in redefining male roles in society. Research from the Pew Center found that today, men 18-34 are more engaged than men in the past with their wives and children, more supportive of their working spouses, and they reject the old gender scripts that cast them as cold, uncaring and silent. There has been a marked increase in men, 18-34, who place the highest priority on marriage and family.

The truth is that the new hyper-macho man and the rigid cardboard man are simplistic exaggerations, and it's time to say so. Fewer than half of Republicans like Trump’s conduct as president. The overwhelming majority of Democrats (88%) continue to say they have few or no areas of agreement with Trump, 

As for rigid, emotionally stunted males, the evidence is clear. Men are fully capable of the flexibility needed to succeed in the 21st century, to relate to others and to communicate effectively. It is simply wrongheaded to believe otherwise.