August 24, 2005

Questioning Masculinity Can Increase 'Toughness'

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Forget varsity football teams and highly competitive sports camps, a new study at Cornell shows that the real way to toughen up a guy –or, at least, make him act tough — is simply to question his masculinity.

“I found that men who were told that they were more feminine expressed more support for the Iraq war, more homophobic attitudes and were more likely to buy an SUV over another type of vehicle as compared to men who were told that they were more masculine,” said Robb Willer grad, sociology.

The purpose of Willer’s study was to examine masculine overcompensation, the idea that when a man’s masculinity is undermined he will behave in an extremely macho way to offset others’ doubt. More and more men are finding their manliness challenged, as recent studies have also found that males who seem vulnerable are increasingly becoming victims of sexual harassment. “Masculine overcompensation is an idea that’s been around for a very long time but I wanted to test it because I felt there was a lack of clear evidence about whether it exists and where,” Willer explained.

Willer gave 111 male and female Cornell undergraduates a gender identity survey in the fall of 2004. Participants were randomly assigned a designation of either a masculine or feminine identity. After they were given their gender description, participants were given multiple other surveys asking about their political attitudes, specifically their opinions on a same-sex marriage ban and Bush and his actions in Iraq. Willer also gave subjects a car-buying vignette, presented as part of a study about buying a new car.

The measures of masculinity — homophobia, support for the war on Iraq and interest in purchasing an SUV over other cars — were confirmed to be masculine traits by study participants in a later study. The results of the gender identity survey appeared to have a clear impact on males for all three variables.

Women, on the other hand, appeared to be unaffected by the feedback they were given, which, Willer says, “is what gender theorists would predict, and so did I.”

Female students attribute the findings to the measures of masculinity: “How many women are likely to support the war in Iraq [as mothers and wives who don’t want their kids and husbands fighting over there]? How many women are likely to be as homophobic as men? And how many women [aside from soccer moms] are going to rush out to go buy an SUV?” asked Elana Fisher ’07. Willer says that the study produced the predicted results.

Students commented that Willer’s research nicely articulates things they already believed to be true.

“The study seems very similar to a lot of the material you’d learn in an intro psychology class; it’s all stuff you could figure out on your own, but the study states it more clearly,” commented Scott Kramer ’06.

Masculine overcompensation appears to be a phenomenon with which college students are intimately familiar.

“Back in high school it was always the really macho guys you’d hear making homophobic comments, but you’d learn years later that the same macho guys had recently come out of the closet,” Fisher said.

Archived article by Erica Fink
Sun News Editor