Study: Why Some Men Become Crybabies When Asked to Wear a Mask

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You’ve probably heard the term “toxic masculinity,” but you may not realize that this isn’t just an insult thrown around by SJW feminazis like myself — it’s something that is regularly studied by psychologists and sociologists who are examining how and why men in our society behave the way they do. Today I want to talk about one such study that was published last month in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin: ““Be a Man”: The Role of Social Pressure in Eliciting Men’s Aggressive Cognition.”

Previous research has shown that men respond with aggression when they feel that their masculinity is being threatened, but hashtag-not-all-men. (And no women, by the way — women don’t show any aggression when you threaten their femininity.)

And we can see this in our current situation: when Americans decided to code face masks and hand-washing as “feminine” in the midst of a deadly pandemic, many men were able to ignore that ridiculousness and continue to follow the advice of medical professionals. But many other men had complete and total breakdowns when asked to wear masks in grocery stores, screaming at hourly workers, laying down on the floor like a toddler, needing to be physically removed by their sons causing them to audibly fart, and literally screaming “I feel threatened,” in case it wasn’t super clear that wearing a mask is threatening this man’s masculinity.

So these researchers decided to figure out why many men get so aggressive when their masculinity is threatened, and why some men don’t really seem to mind at all. Their hypothesis was that there are two different reasons why a man might behave in a stereotypically masculine way: he might do that because he genuinely wants to, or he might do it because society expects him to. And men in that latter group, who behave in a stereotypically masculine way because they’re looking to impress the people around them, are more fragile. And so when someone or something threatens that identity they’ve built, they’re more likely to get upset and lash out with another stereotypically masculine trait: aggression.

And that is, in fact, what they found. They surveyed about 200 men and women, asking them to think about when they were growing up and describe what the people around them expected from a “real man” or a “real woman.” Then they asked them questions to learn if the subjects tried to live up to that ideal, and whether they felt that that was their true identity or whether they are basically putting on a show for people around them.

At this point I will pause to say that you may be wondering how all this relates to people who are transgender or nonbinary, or who think they may be transgender or nonbinary. The answer is I don’t really know. The authors don’t discuss it, except for to point out that this research is specifically looking at (presumably cis-) men and women who conform to gender stereotypes, and the results may be thrown off if a significant number of their subjects are non-conforming. They didn’t really give nonconforming subjects a way to signal that noncomformity, which in my opinion makes their results less rigorous. So I’d love to see someone do all this a little better by exploring that aspect.

Anyway, the researchers pitched all of this to the subjects as if it was a kind of memory and personality test, and at the end they gave the subjects their “score” and explained that either their score was average for their gender or extremely below-average for their gender. They then tried to gauge the subjects’ shame, asking if they minded if their scores were made public along with their name. Mean.

So the “below-average among men” results were the stimulus that they hoped would threaten their subjects’ masculinity. To figure out if the subjects would respond with aggression, they gave them an “aggressive cognition” test, which previous studies have shown can be a good indicator of aggressive behavior: they showed the subjects words with missing letters and asked them to fill in the blanks. But the blanks are spaced in such a way that it could be several different words. The idea is that if you’re in a worked up state, you’re more likely to think of aggressive words. 

So GU__ could be gum or gun, KI__ __ could be kill or kick or kiss,  __IGHT could be fight or night, you get the idea.

And yeah, they found that their hypothesis held up: men who based their masculinity on what society expected of them were more likely to respond with aggression when their masculinity was threatened. Men who were more likely to agree with the statement “In general, I present myself like the man I described because I want others’ acceptance and approval” and disagree with “It brings me pleasure if I behave like the man I described” or “I enjoy acting like the man I described.” In a follow-up test, they found that younger men were also more likely to be aggressive because they are more likely to look outward for guidance on how they should behave and so they’re insecure about who they really are and what makes them happy.

Men who didn’t care about society’s expectations of their gender expression weren’t aggressive when told they weren’t as good as other men. And women didn’t get aggressive regardless of whether their femininity was internal or externally motivated. The researchers didn’t really talk about that too much since it wasn’t a surprising finding — past research has shown the same. But I’d love to see some research on whether or not women react in some way. Aggression is a stereotypically male response, so it makes sense that that’s how wannabe manly men would react to being told they aren’t manly enough. And it makes sense that a woman would act out in a different way if she has a fragile hold on her feminine identity and is then threatened — would she display aggression in a different, more socially acceptable way? Or would she get sad? There are a lot of possibilities besides “women don’t care when you threaten their femininity.”

There were also some other interesting findings that the researchers pointed out deserved some more study. For instance, they found that the average age when men remembered learning what a “real man” is was just under 11 years old. They suggest future research could use that as a launch point to “begin to trace the developmental pathways of masculine social pressure that is antecedent to aggressive threat responding in younger adult men.”

They also found that when they asked people to discuss their early understanding of what a “real man” or “real woman” is, women described a stereotypically “traditional” or “restricted” woman 82% of the time, like, “It meant to be nurturing and caring. While strength was also required, it was more emotional than physical.” 18% of women described a progressive woman, like “To be a woman is to balance work ambitions with life and family goals, such as watching your kids grow up.”

For men? 100% described a traditional, restrictive definition of what a “real man” is, like “In today’s society, to be a man means that you are tough and resilient. You’re expected not to cry when something happens, but rather, take charge and do something about making it better.” All the examples honestly make me want to cry, I guess because I’m a woman. One subject said that to be a man meant “To never cry. To never show emotion. To bring physical harm to anyone who crossed you or your family. To stand up for what you believe in.” 

And this poor guy: “I was playing baseball and was hit by a pitch. My coach, who was a jerk, kept screaming at me to ‘be a man’ about it and to walk to first base. Basically, he was insinuating that I wasn’t tough.”

Aside from the evidence this study gives us that says insecure men are more likely to lash out with aggression when their fragile masculinity is threatened, it’s really telling that we seem to be making progress with telling little girls they can be more than just a baby factory, but not with telling little boys they are allowed to have emotions other than anger.

Toxic, fragile masculinity is a feminist issue but it negatively affects everyone who comes into contact with it, male or female. A person who says they behave a certain way because “I want people to like me” but don’t necessarily agree that “I enjoy acting like the man I described” is a sad person. And reacting with aggression when their gender identity is threatened endangers everyone around them. In fact, the researchers themselves pointed out that some of the men in their study who they gave artificially low scores actually physically threatened the researchers with violence.

The researchers write that they hope future studies “consider how the social pressure identified here may be related to other male-specific outcomes, particularly instances of political aggression that endanger marginalized and underrepresented groups.”

It’s all extremely sad, except for the news that apparently you can be a “stereotypical” masculine man and so long as you are happy, fulfilled, and comfortable with who you are, maybe you won’t lash out when you see a man wearing makeup, or when you have to change your baby’s diapers, or when you’re expected to practice basic hygiene like washing your hands and wearing a mask in a pandemic.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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One Comment

  1. ” Somebody said the following, to which I agree wholeheartedly. “It has always amused me that those who make such a fuss about wearing masks are the very same rugged survivalists who spend months learning how to weave diapers out of nettles.”

    So yeah, if they want to waste their lives prepping for their favorite doomsday scenario by digging bunkers and shit I reckon that’s fine, at least it keeps them off the streets. I wish they would all go back to doing that.

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