Men’s beliefs about masculinity can increase their physiological stress reactivity

Men who strongly believe that their manhood must be earned and can be lost exhibit more pronounced cortisol reactivity when their masculinity is threatened, according to research published in the journal Psychology of Men & Masculinities.

The findings indicate that beliefs about masculinity can influence men’s physiological stress response and potentially their health.

“Men have a shorter life expectancy than women; they tend to die about five years sooner. I am interested in trying to understand why that is,” said study author Mary S. Himmelstein, an assistant professor of psychological science at Kent State University.

“I started researching how masculinity impacts men’s health while I was a graduate student. I started by focusing on how masculinity influenced barriers to healthcare seeking and doctor-patient communication.”

“This project came out of a desire to understand whether there were physical mechanisms underlying the relationship between masculinity and health. The goal here was to understand how masculinity might ‘get under the skin’ to impact health via physical rather than behavioral mechanisms.”

To examine this topic, the researchers had 212 male undergraduates give a speech about their ideal job while receiving feedback on their perceived masculinity via a computer monitor in real-time.

Rather than receiving actual feedback related to their speech, however, the participants were randomly shown different patterns of masculinity ratings.

The researchers also collected saliva samples from the participants before the speech, immediately following the speech, 10 minutes after the speech, and 20 minutes after the speech, which were used to measure cortisol levels.

Himmelstein and her colleagues found that men who most strongly subscribed to precarious manhood beliefs tended to exhibit heightened cortisol reactivity in response to dropping masculinity feedback.

In other words, participants who strongly agreed with statement such as “A man needs to prove his masculinity” had a stronger physiological stress response after seeing their masculinity score drop during their speech.

“This study is based upon the tenants of precarious manhood theory, which says that 1) masculinity involves social status and 2) that masculine status can be easily lost when men display behavior inconsistent with masculine norms (for example, displaying weakness or vulnerability),” Himmelstein told PsyPost.

“In plain English, it’s the idea that someone can ‘take away your man card’ if you display a behavior unbecoming of men (e.g., crying in public). We found that men who strongly buy into these ideas experience physical stress when they lose masculine status.”

“Over time, this means men who constantly feel the need to prove themselves and demonstrate that they’re ‘tough’ or ‘macho’ are likely putting themselves at greater risk for chronic conditions that are influenced by stress (e.g., heart disease, stroke, heart attacks),” Himmelstein said.

The heightened cortisol reactivity, however, was only present among those scoring in the top quartile on the measure of precarious manhood.

“Our findings pertain only to individuals who strongly endorse the idea that masculine status can be lost. Other work suggests that these beliefs are also tied to risk-taking behavior and influence doctor-patient communication, both of which also negatively impact health over time,” Himmelstein explained.

“There are likely multiple pathways (behavioral, cognitive, physiological) associated with these beliefs that put men’s health at risk. It is not yet understood how these beliefs change over time and how they affect men’s health over time.”

“I think it’s important to change the narrative about seeking help among men. Admitting that you need help, especially for mental health issues, should be seen as a form of strength rather than weakness,” Himmelstein added.

“It’s harder for men to speak up about intimate partner violence, sexual assault, anxiety, and depression, in part, because as a culture we shame men who experience these things. I’d like to see that change.”

The study, “Stress in Strong Convictions: Precarious Manhood Beliefs Moderate Cortisol Reactivity to Masculinity Threats“, was authored by Mary S. Himmelstein, Brandon L. Kramer, and Kristen W. Springer.