Dudes like to feel like dudes, and some would argue, they need to feel like dudes—or else. So the surest route to provoking a certain sort of dude to dude out is to question his dudeness in any way. It’s a truth as old as time and as obvious as its passing, but now, a very validating study has backed up the truth of dude overcompensation in a fairly hilarious way.
The University of Washington pulled off some straight-up trickery for their study, published recently in Social Psychology, by convincing dudes they were participating in research about how exertion affects decision-making. This was technically true; what was not true at all what the men (all students at Stanford) were told about the handgrip device they were asked to hold in the study. The device would test their strength, researchers said, when in reality it would test nothing except for their indirect feelings about their own masculinity. (Question: Was the study was advertised with a sign that read FREE BEER TITS? Answer: I got somethin’ you can squeeze right here.)
Some unlucky participants were then told by researchers that their grip was subpar, and by subpar, they meant—gasp—like a woman’s. This was demonstrated by a very sad fake bell curve (the photo, unfortunately for all of us, was not provided). Next, the participants filled out a questionnaire about their height, previous relationships, personality, and their opinions on consumer products that were deliberately masculine or feminine.
The result: Dudes who were told they were weak pretended to be taller in the questionnaire. By nearly an inch. They quite literally puffed themselves up on paper to compensate for feeling like pussies in reality.
According to the study’s accompanying press release, they:
...exaggerated their height by three-quarters of an inch on average, reported having more romantic relationships, claimed to be more aggressive and athletic, and showed less interest in stereotypically feminine consumer products.
This didn’t happen with the men who were told they were average, though.
Cheryan devised a second test that involved the men answering questions about personal attributes and consumer preferences, and then being told about possible products—deliberately skewed masculine or feminine—they could receive as compensation. As in the first experiment, some of the men were told they scored average or low in terms of masculinity. Those who scored low were less likely to choose the feminine products.
The study’s co-author, Benoit Monin, says both studies reinforce the idea that “men are under very strong prescriptive norms to be a certain way, and they work hard to correct the image they project when their masculinity is under threat.”
Yes. Well. I don’t know about you, but one of the things that has always made me feel great about being a woman is knowing that it’s literally about the most pathetic thing you could be as far as a lot of men are concerned. The knowledge really does wonders for your self esteem.
And I can’t imagine any woman hasn’t seen this gross bias play out in her relationships, intimate or otherwise, with men. These sorts of assumptions about gender make for some of the thorniest relationship problems, because in order to sort them out, you need an incredible degree of awareness in the first place. So many men learn compensatory behaviors—stoicism, aggression, flat-out lying—from so early on that these traits become ingrained to the point of permanence. (Please share tips for helping gender-hardline men and women “snap out of it” when necessary in the comments.)
At Raw Story, Amanda Marcotte makes a salient point:
If you’re a woman who is around men, in a romantic capacity or even just as friends/family (i.e. about 99% of us), you quickly learn how to lie and distract and flatter men on these issues, not out of kindness but just to avoid having to deal with the ugly reaction that so many men produce when they feel even slightly emasculated. It infuses male/female relations with all sorts of dishonesty, and it becomes reflexive over time.
Indeed. In the same way that (some) men (eventually) learn to compliment women, validate their feelings, (pretend to) respect their emotions and opinions, women also learn to pay tribute to the notion of masculinity men are expected to demonstrate—whether it’s making them feel good about their strength, sexual prowess, dick size, biceps, you name it.
When these things are done in genuine appreciation for whatever gendered traits we find amusing or are genuinely drawn to, gendered difference can feel fine, fun, even exciting. But when acting a part is something you feel you have to do, when you don’t feel you have the option to stop if it no longer serves you, and especially when you might not even be aware that it’s a mask and you’re not actually 6’2 after all, then it starts to feel like we’re all fucked.
Cheryan notes that women also certainly feel the pressure to be feminine and might also make bad choices to prove they can comply with gender norms—she mentions avoiding traditionally male fields, like science or tech. And of course, the ways to be unfortunately gender-compliant for women are myriad: Playing dumb, pretending to be bad at things, letting dudes think they solved some problem for you that you could totally solve yourself, etc.
But I would venture that most of these things only hurt women. And while they also arguably rob society of an entire gender’s potential contributions, many of these behaviors differ from typical male overcompensation in that they don’t directly target men in a hostile way. Men, though they certainly pay a personal, private price for extreme adherence to gender roles—depression, suppression—power dynamics are set up in such a way that these tendencies can easily turn particularly aggressive towards women.
In other words, even if this study was about an arguably more innocuous result of the male need to prove dude bonafides, the study authors point out that this is a small part of the whole:
The findings might seem amusing, but other studies have found that men compensate for a lack of masculinity in ways that aren’t as innocuous. Men with baby faces, for example, were more likely to have assertive and hostile personalities and commit crimes than their more chiseled counterparts. Men who were told they scored low on masculinity tests were more likely to act aggressively, harass women and belittle other men.
Additionally, unemployed men were more likely to instigate violence against women, and men who were not their household’s primary breadwinner were less willing to share in housework duties.
You know what I always say: The best way to prove you aren’t a pussy loser with no job and nothing better to do is to beat up on and/or never split chores equally with the woman you love.
In a writeup at Salon, Jenny Kutner correctly notes that men must “recognize their socialized desire to overcompensate as it’s happening, then shut it down.” But, given the reflexive lengths to which some men clearly go to cover up even the tiniest perception of being less-than-dudely enough in the first place, the likelihood of this steady, difficult correction becoming normalized seems about as large as the chance of getting a certain kind of dude to do the dishes.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image via Universal