Psychologists looking at 10 years of data from nearly 20,000 men found that those who value having power over women and endorse playboy behavior and other traditional notions of masculinity are more likely to suffer from psychological problems — and less likely to seek out help.
Turns out that cultural norms that hurt half of a society's members aren't too good for the other half, either. Who'd have thunk it?
The new meta-analysis, which was published Monday in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, synthesized 78 studies on masculinity and mental health gathered between 2003 and 2013. The participants ranged in age from 12 to over 65, and the vast majority were men. A little more than half of the studies involved predominantly white men, although some focused on African Americans or Asian Americans. Most of the studies didn't ask respondents' sexual orientation, but among those that did, most of the participants were straight.
Researchers then identified 11 norms considered to be “traditionally masculine” — desire to win, need for emotional control, risk-taking, violence, dominance, sexual promiscuity or playboy behavior, self-reliance, primacy of work, power over women, disdain for homosexuality and pursuit of status — and looked to see whether they were associated with particular mental health outcomes.
In general, the men who stuck more strongly to these norms were more likely to experience problems such as depression, stress, body image issues, substance abuse and negative social functioning. They were also less likely to turn to counseling to help deal with those problems. The effect was particularly strong for men who emphasized playboy behavior, power over women and self-reliance.
Lead author Y. Joel Wong of Indiana University wasn't surprised by the results. “It's not rocket science,” he told Popular Science. “It’s something that’s been demonstrated over 20 years of research.”
A growing group of psychologists are interested in studying “toxic masculinity” — the idea that some traditional ideas about how men should behave are harmful to men, women and society overall. The point is not to demonize men, or the attributes some of them possess. It's more to understand how behaviors encouraged in men can be damaging for everyone involved.
For example, one of the studies cited in Wong's analysis looked at 108 men who had been referred to a program for committing domestic violence. These men were disproportionately likely to embrace the norms of dominance and emotional control, as well as to say that men shouldn't share their emotions or ask for help. The authors of that study theorized that men with these values are more likely to take out anger and frustration on their partners rather than appear “weak” by seeking emotional support.
Michael Addis, a research psychologist at Clark University in Massachusetts and author of the book “Invisible Men: Men’s Inner Lives and the Consequences of Silence,” told Smithsonian that wanting to be self-reliant and in control of their emotions might also be what makes men less likely to seek treatment for their mental health problems.
“I think this has been a long time coming,” Addis said of the research. He noted that one of the reasons masculinity's “toxic” effects aren't well known might be that few men seek treatment from psychologists — making them harder to study.
Not all of the traditionally masculine norms that Wong studied were linked to psychological problems. For example, putting work first didn't correlate with either positive or negative mental health outcomes; perhaps that's a reflection of the fact that investing a lot of emotional energy in work can be fulfilling, even though it taxes relationships, Wong said. And risk taking was associated with huge positive and negative mental health outcomes, possibly because how you feel after taking a risk depends on whether the risk pays off.
But valuing playboy behavior and power over women — aside from being explicitly sexist — was strongly correlated with psychological problems.
Talking to Popular Science, Wong noted that many people might argue that being self-reliant and acting like a playboy are just what it means to be a man.
Wong disputes that understanding: Men have changed their interpretation of masculinity throughout history, and they still can.
“Just because you’ve always behaved in a particular way doesn’t mean you've got no choice,” he said.