Masculinity norms in the U.S. emphasize the importance of boys and men looking tough and cool while avoiding emotional expression or sensitivity. New research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that pressure to adhere to these norms may influence boys’ beliefs about prosocial behavior and helping others.
“It seems likely that early adolescent boys experience an uptick in pressure to adhere to masculine norms which matters because adherence to masculine norms seems to negatively impact boys’ relationships with other boys as well as their desires to help others,” wrote study author Matthew G. Nielson and colleagues.
Research has shown that attitudes about prosocial behavior (i.e., behavior that benefits others) differ throughout adolescence. For example, older boys (ages 14-15) have been shown to prioritize being prosocial compared to younger boys (ages 12-13), who prioritize being masculine.
Another important factor in understanding early adolescent social interaction is social competence (i.e., one’s social goals and relational self-efficacy). Social goals are desired outcomes for social interactions and relational self-efficacy are one’s beliefs about their ability to interact well with peers.
“Research on social profiles composed of social goals and relational self-efficacy find that these constructs combine to affect adolescent peer-oriented prosocial behavior. Social profiles marked by desires for authentic peer interaction and high self-efficacy report more prosocial behavior than those who are motivated primarily by the approval of their peers or who have low relational self- efficacy,” explained the researchers.
The researchers were also interested in the different contexts in which these attitudes become socialized (e.g., parents, peers, and the self). Parents may socialize masculine norms to protect their sons from being teased. Peers may socialize these norms to reaffirm gender norms and boys may cultivate these norms internally as well.
Nielson and colleagues used data from a larger study on adolescent attitudes and gender beliefs from 2013-2014. For this study, they collected a sample of 260 sixth-grade boys from four elementary schools from the larger dataset. All parents gave consent for their children’s participation.
Participants completed measures of adherence to traditional masculine norms, social competence (indicated by social goal orientation and gender-based relationship efficacy), beliefs about prosocial behavior, and how much they felt pressure to adhere to traditional masculine norms.
Results indicated there were three distinct social profiles: socially avoidant (low adherence to masculine norms, low social development, and low relational self-efficacy), socially precarious (high adherence to masculine norms, high need for social desirability, and high need to avoid judgment), and socially self-confident (low adherence to masculine norms, low need for social desirability, and low need to avoid judgment).
Further analyses showed that boys were more likely to be in the socially precarious profile (compared to socially self-confident) when they felt pressure to adhere to masculine norms from all three sources: parents, peers, and the self. Results also show those in the socially self-confident profile had more prosocial beliefs than those in the socially precarious profile. Boys in the socially avoidant profile had the lowest level of prosocial beliefs.
“Our results indicate variations in boys’ adherence to masculine norms, social competency, and boys’ beliefs about prosocial behavior toward boys. However, our findings do suggest that a preponderance (50%) of boys fall into the socially precarious group wherein they adhere to more traditionally masculine scripts and have strong desires to be socially competent, popular, and avoid appearing socially inept,” the researchers concluded.
The authors cite some limitations to this work including the predominantly White, upper middle-class sample and the lack of diversity in sexual orientation and gender expression in the sample. Future research should explore these patterns in sexual and gender minority youth as well.
The study, “Too hunky to help: A person-centered approach to masculinity and prosocial behavior beliefs among adolescent boys“, was authored by Matthew G. Nielson, Diana L. Jenkins, and Ashley M. Fraser.