A recent meta-analysis of 78 different studies (2003-2013) in the Journal of Counseling Psychology concludes that men who adhere to traditional masculine norms exhibit poorer mental health than men who are less traditional in their concept of masculinity. (H/T: J 2.0)
Mental Health Defined
For analytical purposes, mental health is defined as more than the absence of mental illness. Here it was broken out into both positive and negative aspects.
Positive Mental Health
- Life satisfaction
- Other aspects of psychological well-being
- Various aspects of social well-being, e.g. connectedness with others
Negative Mental Health
- Psychological distress/stress
- Substance abuse
- Body image problems
- Other psychological problems/disorders
- Poor social functioning, e.g. loneliness
Traditional Masculine Norms Defined
Researchers examined data for 20,000 male subjects using the Conformity to Masculine Norms Inventory (Keyes, 2007). That inventory comprises eleven dimensions of traditional masculinity:
- Desire to win.
- Need for emotional control.
- Playboy (sexual promiscuity).
- Primacy of work (importance placed on one’s job).
- Power over women.
- Disdain for homosexuality.
- Pursuit of status.
What Kind of Masculinity is Toxic?
Of the eleven defined dimensions, eight negatively impacted mental health, but two norms had the largest negative impact by far:
- Power over women
These norms are closely linked to sexism. While we tend to think of these attitudes as damaging and unfair to women, it turns out they have negative consequences for their proponents as well. Lead author Y. Joel Wong:
“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.
For instance, heterosexual men who adhere strongly to norms associated with sexism might struggle in their relationships with women, leading to poorer mental health (Wong, Klann, Bijelic, & Aguayo, 2016).”
In addition, self-reliance had a negative impact, though not as large as the other two norms. (In this context, self-reliance includes an unwillingness to ask for help or assistance. For example, refusing to ask for directions when lost.)
Not surprisingly, the most sexist men are the least likely to seek help for their psychological problems:
“Even more concerning, said Wong, was that men who strongly conformed to masculine norms were not only more likely to have poor mental health but also also less likely to seek mental health treatment.”
But they are more likely to voice their views online in my experience, perhaps as a substitute for treatment. As a blogger who has struggled in the past to rid my site of misogynist trolls, I can testify anecdotally that the men who exhibit these traits most forcefully are also likely to confess to poor conditions in their social and romantic lives.
The fact that they are so unlikely to seek counseling is one of the reasons they’ve been hard to study – they operate in the shadows.
Their aggression masks low self-esteem. Ironically, they strive to achieve promiscuity and power over women in the belief that “success” of that sort will finally enable them to experience “happiness.” Instead, they exhibit less positive mental health and more negative mental health symptoms.
Forbes consulted Professor Andrew Reiner, an expert on masculinity, who explains how this works:
“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…
The hyper-masculine message of needing to dominate women is a way of hiding their deeper insecurities—it teaches them to mask their insecurities and desire for emotional connection through behavior that gives the appearance, the false front, of strength.
…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.”
Some Masculine Norms Appear Benign
Risk-taking actually had a net positive impact on mental health:
“Across all findings in our study, conformity to the masculine norm of risk-taking was the only dimension that demonstrated a favorable association with a mental health outcome.
…On the one hand, individuals who conform strongly to the masculine norm of risk-taking might engage in risky health behavior that might predispose them to psychological problems; on the other hand, risk-takers might also be more willing to seek out opportunities to stretch themselves beyond their comfort zone (e.g., by trying out new hobbies) that provide opportunities for self-actualization (Lupton & Tulloch, 2002).”
The two norms that did not negatively affect mental health were:
- Primacy of work
- Disdain for homosexuality
“Primacy of work was not significantly associated with any of the mental health-related outcomes. Perhaps this null finding reflects the complexity of work and its implications for well-being. Although an excessive focus on work can be problematic for one’s health and interpersonal relationships, work and career can also be an important source of meaning in life (Dik, Byrne, & Steger, 2013).”
(Note: The researchers did not address disdain for homosexuality in the findings.)
Interestingly, neither age, race, nor sexual orientation was significant in the findings. The negative effect was stronger for non-college males than for the college samples, however.
Mating Fitness Requires Adaptation
It may be that in ancestral times, traditional masculine norms were necessary for survival. Clearly, societies today exert great influence over cultural norms and play a role in determining what behaviors are socially acceptable or desirable. Those men who are unable or unwilling to adapt are ostracized in society and rejected by women:
Wong points out that what makes [traditional masculine norms] particularly harmful now, though, is that societal attitudes have changed over time to make these qualities increasingly unacceptable. “Perhaps 30 years ago you could behave in a sexist manner, you could do and say things that’d be inappropriate and get away with it,” Wong tells Popular Science. “People would suffer in silence and not speak out. But that’s changed a lot.”
In eight years of blogging I’ve witnessed that the men who are most likely to champion promiscuity and power over women are also the most defensive about disapproval. They vehemently reject the label of douchebag, bro, player, etc., or at least deny that they perpetrate harm on others. They remain blissfully unaware, apparently, of the harm they do to themselves.
Women hardly need another reason to reject sexist men. We know they’re lousy at relationships because they don’t treat women well and they lack emotional intelligence. Now we can add their own mental dysfunction to the list of reasons these guys should not mate.
If you’re not inclined to write down the masculine norms on an index card and carry it around in your handbag, please take away this one thing:
Promiscuous men are bad news for romance. A man’s sexual history is extremely relevant as a filter for his fitness as a mate. No woman finds happiness with a manwhore/head case.