By: Alice G. Walton
If you’re looking for a non-controversial topic for the Thanksgiving table, this may not exactly be it—but there’s a fascinating psychological phenomenon, outlined in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, that’s worth knowing about, given the social and political climate these days. The new study finds that masculine norms (a.k.a. sexism) are strongly linked to poorer mental health and well-being in the men who exhibit them. It’s rather a no-brainer that experiencing sexism would harm a woman’s mental health, but the fact that it also seems to be linked to worse mental health in men is telling, and disturbing.
The meta-analysis, carried out by a team at Indiana University Bloomington, looked at data from almost 19,500 male participants taking part in earlier studies. The men had answered questions that measured various indicators of sexism. The team was especially interested in traits that are that are considered markers of traditional masculinity: Winning, emotional control, risk-taking, violence, dominance, playboy (promiscuity), self-reliance, primacy of work (how important one’s work is to him), power over women, disdain for homosexuals and pursuit of status.
It turned out that the more a person conformed to masculine norms on average, the more likely he was to have poorer mental health, the less likely he was to have good mental health, and the less likely he was to seek psychological help. Three of the norms—self-reliance, playboy behavior, and power over women—were more closely linked to the negative mental health outcomes. And this is likely because these items are more strongly tied to sexist beliefs.
“The masculine norms of playboy and power over women are the norms most closely associated with sexist attitudes,” write the authors. “The robust and unfavorable association between conformity to these two norms and mental health-related outcomes underscores the idea that sexism is not merely a social injustice, but also has deleterious mental health-related consequences for those who embrace such attitudes.”
A couple of items didn’t hold the same connections: Primacy of work wasn’t linked to any of the mental health outcomes, which the authors suggest may reflect how complicated our relationship with our work can be. And risk-taking was linked to both poor mental health and good mental health, which may imply that it can have different outcomes depending on the person. Overall, though, the study calls out some interesting insights about the sometimes serious pitfalls of classic masculine norms.
“Much of what this study unpacks is what a lot of us have known, perhaps anecdotally and through our own life experiences, for a long time,” says Andrew Reiner, a professor at Towson University, who has written extensively on the subject, and is now writing a book. “The more that men of all ages insulate themselves in traditional and, especially, hyper-masculine norms, the more they wrap themselves in behavior that distances themselves from their deeper emotional honesty and needs. This kind of behavior, especially the old Marlboro-Man-rugged-individualist ethos, distances men in their relationships with women, with other men and with, most poignantly, themselves. It encourages an emotional, and ultimately physical, isolation because it teaches men that—if they’re going to earn their Man Card—then they need to handle all of life’s problems on their own.”
And that’s the particularly disturbing part of the study—that not only are masculine norms associated with unhappiness, but they’re also associated with the absence of help-seeking, which makes the phenomenon self-perpetuating. For these men, says Reiner, “seeking mental health counseling smacks of too much vulnerability and is perceived as the ultimate failure when it comes to masculine accountability…. And the hyper-masculine message of needing to dominate women is a way of hiding their deeper insecurities—just like with the Marlboro Man ethos, it teaches them to mask their insecurities and desire for emotional connection through behavior that gives the appearance, the false front, of strength.”
The issue also extends way beyond a man’s personal experience, since it heightens the risk for other serious problems, like substance abuse and suicide, says Reiner. It may also permeate business interactions and even politics, which we’re certainly seeing these days. Hopefully a younger generation will begin to break down the conventional norms. But it may take some work, and some time.
“This isn’t a problem for macho guys alone,” says Reiner. “Many younger, more sensitive, emotionally balanced young men also still buy into this traditional masculine norm and fear themselves failing as men for this reason. It’s a big reason why we’re seeing an uptick in the growth of men’s groups. They want to exorcise this old demon for the sake of their own survival, literally.”