Masculine Overcompensation

Masculine Overcompensation

It’s often said that men act especially macho when they feel their manhood is threatened. But is it really true?


Macho defense mechanisms. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

What happens when you tell a man he’s not manly, or a woman she’s not womanly? To find out, Robb Willer, a graduate student in sociology at Cornell University, gave gender identity surveys to men and women, then randomly told them that their responses were either masculine or feminine.

What I found was that after being given feedback that they were feminine, men expressed greater support for the Iraq War, more homophobic attitudes towards gays, and were more interested in purchasing an SUV, than were the men who were given feedback indicating they were masculine.

Willer says the women he studied didn’t have the opposite reaction, suggesting that their femininity wasn’t as easily threatened. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

This is a good example of the value of skepticism in science. Skepticism simply means refusing to accept facts without evidence. A lot of people say that men overcompensate when their masculinity is threatened – and it’s been the basis for many comic moments in movies and on TV. But is it really true? Just because everyone takes for granted that something is true doesn’t mean that it is. In science, even seemingly obvious, “common-sense” beliefs need to be tested and verified before you can build on them.

So rather than take it for granted that men overcompensate, as a TV writer might do, Willer examines it scientifically. First, he states the hypothesis: Men will behave in more stereotypically “masculine” ways if their manhood is challenged. Then he creates an experiment that will test the hypothesis. That means that he has to find some way of challenging men’s manhood in a controlled situation. So he creates a gender identity test, and recruits volunteers to take it, without explaining why.

His challenge comes with the results. Rather than actually evaluate the men’s responses, Willer randomly assigns each man to either be told that he came up masculine or feminine. He will compare the reactions of these men with each other, and also with women who are put in the same situation.

Next, he comes up with a way to measure masculine overcompensation. There are any number of possibilities, but in order to make the experiment manageable, he settles on a few key issues: negative attitudes toward homosexuality, interest in SUV’s, and support for the Iraq War. These all sound pretty high-testosterone, right? But Willer can’t even assume that. So he independently verifies, in a separate experiment, that other people believe these attitudes to be masculine or macho.

Finally, he makes his results quantifiable (in other words, able to be expressed in numbers). Using a scored questionnaire, he measures each participants’ attitudes toward these issues before and after receiving the results of their (bogus) gender identity test. He also throws in distractor questions (questions about other social and political issues which aren’t relevant to Willer’s study, but keep the subjects from figuring out what he’s doing).

The result? He found that men who are told they tested feminine lean closer to these three macho attitudes after hearing the results of their gender identity test than they did before the test was given. Men who were told they tested as masculine, or women who were told either result, tended not to shift their attitudes at all.

This suggests that Willer’s original hypothesis is correct, but it’s certainly not the end of the story. This experiment would have to be repeated several times, with similar results, before it would really be trusted scientifically. Furthermore, there are many other dimensions of masculine overcompensation that could be tested. And how people respond to a questionnaire may or may not reflect how they behave in real life. Still, this experiment shows just how far you need to go to even begin to accept common-sense ideas in the scientific world.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What hypothesis did Willer set out to test?
  2. In what ways did Willer make sure his methods and results were scientifically sound?
  3. Suppose that all of his subjects – men and women – had more macho attitudes after the test than they had before the test, regardless of the result they were given. What conclusion would you draw?
  4. Think of another widely held belief in our culture. How might you test that belief scientifically?

For Educators

In the EDSitement lesson Galileo and the Inevitability of Ideas, students learn the historical significance of Galileo’s scientific achievements, especially his rigorous challenge to the Earth-centric, Ptolemaic view of the universe.

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