Threaten a man's masculinity, and he will assume more macho attitudes, according to a study by a Cornell University researcher.
"I found that if you made men more insecure about their masculinity, they displayed more homophobic attitudes, tended to support the Iraq war more and would be more willing to purchase an SUV over another type of vehicle," said Robb Willer, a sociology doctoral candidate at Cornell. Willer is presenting his findings Aug. 15 at the American Sociological Association's 100th annual meeting in Philadelphia.
"Masculine overcompensation is the idea that men who are insecure about their masculinity will behave in an extremely masculine way as compensation. I wanted to test this idea and also explore whether overcompensation could help explain some attitudes like support for war and animosity to homosexuals," Willer said.
Willer administered a gender identity survey to a sample of male and female Cornell undergraduates in the fall of 2004. Participants were randomly assigned to receive feedback that their responses indicated either a masculine or a feminine identity. While women's responses were unchanged regardless of the feedback they received, men's reactions "were strongly affected by this feedback," Willer said.
"Masculinity-threatened men also reported feeling more ashamed, guilty, upset and hostile than did masculinity-confirmed men," states Willer's report, "Overdoing Gender: Testing the Masculine Overcompensation Thesis."
"The masculine overcompensation thesis has its roots in Freudian psychology, but it has become a popularly accepted idea that I felt should be empirically tested and evaluated," Willer said.
He questioned subjects about their political attitudes, including how they felt about a same-sex marriage ban and their support for President Bush's handling of the Iraq war.
"I created composites from subjects' answers to these and other questions," he said. "I also gave subjects a car-buying vignette, presented as part of a study of purchasing a new car."
Masculinity-threatened participants also showed more interest in buying an SUV. "There were no increases for other types of cars," Willer said.
The study produced "the predicted results," he said. "The intention of the study was to explore whether masculine overcompensation exists and where. But the point isn't to suggest these are the only factors that can explain these behaviors. Likewise, there may be a wide variety of other behaviors that could increase when men are concerned about their levels of masculinity."
In a separate study, Willer verified that support for the Iraq War, homophobia and interest in purchasing an SUV were all considered masculine by study participants.
Willer said he and a colleague are planning additional research on subjects' attitudes regarding violence toward women, using the same method for manipulating masculine insecurity.
"I'm planning another follow-up to the study that involves taking testosterone samples from participants to see if testosterone levels are a mediating factor in this process," he added.