Liberal men who experience threats to their masculinity tend to become more supportive of a wide range of aggressive political policies and behaviors, according to new research published in the scientific journal Sex Roles. However, this effect was not observed among conservative men who experienced threats to their masculinity.
This study was motivated by the observation that there is an increase in political aggression, characterized by the use of harsh and demeaning language in debates, the coarsening of language in political communication, and a growing tolerance for political violence. This aggressive behavior is not limited to any particular political ideology but can be observed among both right-wing and left-wing individuals.
The researchers noticed that this political aggression is often associated with male politicians and citizens. They proposed that this rise in aggression could be linked to the concept of “precarious manhood” or “fragile masculinity.” In other words, men who feel insecure about their masculinity may be more likely to support aggressive political attitudes and behaviors as a way to reaffirm their sense of manhood.
While previous studies have provided some evidence for the association between precarious manhood and political aggression, there were limitations. Most of the existing data were correlational, meaning they could not establish a causal relationship. Additionally, previous research did not explore which men are most vulnerable to masculinity threats and, consequently, more likely to engage in political aggression.
To address these gaps, the researchers conducted three experiments. They aimed to experimentally assess the impact of precarious manhood on political aggression and to identify whether this influence is stronger among political conservatives or liberals.
In Experiment 1, the researchers recruited 341 participants, both men and women, through the Prolific Academic crowdsourcing platform. Participants needed to be 18 years or older, identify as either a man or a woman, and have been born and raised in the United States.
Participants completed a personality trait questionnaire called the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI), which measures masculinity and femininity. Participants were randomly assigned to either the threat or no-threat condition. In the threat condition, participants received false feedback about their BSRI scores, making them believe they scored higher on feminine traits (for men) or masculine traits (for women) than they actually did.
All participants then rated their agreement with a list of 17 political policies, categorized as aggressive or nonaggressive. Examples of aggressive political policies included support for the death penalty, presidential war powers, increasing military spending, and the use of torture.
In Experiment 2, the researchers recruited 235 men from New York University and the broader community. Participants in the threat condition were randomly assigned to paint their fingernails pink, which was considered a stereotypically feminine task. Participants in the no-threat condition, in contrast, painted circles on a sheet of paper.
All participants then read a fictional foreign-policy scenario describing a potential war between two countries. Participants rated their likelihood of war, their inclination toward aggressive actions in the scenario, and their inclination toward nonaggressive actions.
The goal of Experiment 3 was to replicate the findings of Experiments 1 and 2, specifically focusing on the effect of masculinity threat on liberal men’s support for aggressive political policies. To recruit participants, the researchers approached men who were walking in Washington Square Park near New York University. The study was initially planned to have a sample size of 200 participants, but data collection was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in a final sample of 64 men.
Participants engaged in a handgrip strength task as a masculinity threat manipulation. They were given a hand dynamometer and asked to grip it as hard as they could for about 3 seconds.
In the threat condition, the unit of measurement on the dynamometer was switched to kilograms, showing a lower number for the grip pressure. The researcher showed participants a chart with overlapping distributions, indicating that their hand grip was closest to the average woman. In the no-threat condition, the unit of measurement on the dynamometer was switched to pounds, showing a higher number for the grip pressure. The researcher showed participants the chart, indicating that their hand grip resembled the average man’s.
Participants announced their scores, which were recorded by the researcher. Participants then completed a survey on an iPad, which included measures of support for aggressive and nonaggressive policies, using the same policy list as Experiment 1 (with some exclusions for consistency).
The research findings supported the hypothesis that when men feel their gender status is threatened, they tend to respond with increased political aggression. However, the researchers were surprised to find that it was liberal men, not conservative men as initially predicted, who exhibited increased political aggression after experiencing threats to their masculinity.
In Experiment 1, liberal men who received false feedback suggesting they possessed traits similar to women showed increased endorsement of aggressive political policies. In Experiment 2, liberal men who engaged in a stereotypically feminine behavior demonstrated increased support for an aggressive approach to a foreign-policy dilemma. In Experiment 3, liberal men who received false feedback indicating their physical strength was similar to that of the average woman became more supportive of both aggressive policies and foreign-policy strategies.
The researchers said that possible explanations for this unexpected finding include the limitations of the dependent measures used in the study, the higher chronic concern for masculinity among conservatives, liberal men experiencing stereotype threat in politics, and the potential for liberals to exhibit a conservative shift when exposed to system threats.
“We wish to caution that, while our masculinity threats increased political aggression only among relatively liberal men, threat failed to close the gap between liberals’ and conservatives’ overall levels of political aggression,” the researchers wrote. “Indeed, conservatives displayed consistently and drastically stronger support for aggressive policies and vignette responses. This could be due to people’s longstanding ideological affinities, as aggressive political policies tend to be more conservative than nonaggressive policies.”
“Despite these caveats, political liberals’ heightened susceptibility to messages that impugn their masculinity suggests that left-leaning men should be vigilant against attempts to manipulate their politics through such means.”
Interestingly, the researchers found that threats to masculinity had the strongest effect on liberal men when it involved intimations of physical weakness or suggestions of possessing feminine personality traits. In contrast, engaging in a feminine behavior under the experimenter’s direction had a weaker effect on threatening men’s masculinity. This suggests that messages impugning men’s physical strength or suggesting feminine traits can effectively shift liberal men’s political views towards aggression.
The researchers said that future studies on this topic should seek to include more conservative participants, as the samples for the three experiments were largely left-leaning. “Nonetheless, our failure to observe an effect of masculinity threat on conservative men’s political aggression provides good reason to believe that such future work will reveal a similar ideological asymmetry in political responses to such threat,” they wrote in their study.
“Critically, future research should examine the possible mechanisms behind such an asymmetry—including political stereotype threat, conservatives’ already elevated levels of chronic masculine concern, or ceiling effects reflecting right-leaning men’s already-strong endorsement of conservative ideological stances.”
The study, “Something to Prove? Manhood Threats Increase Political Aggression Among Liberal Men“, was authored by Sarah H. DiMuccio and Eric D. Knowles.