Young Men Who Endorse The Masculine Ideal of Success Enjoy Greater Psychological Wellbeing

By Christian Jarrett

Recently it’s been difficult to avoid the mantra that masculinity is toxic. There’s that viral Gillette advert encouraging men to be nicer (provoking a mix of praise, scorn and outrage); and the claim from the American Psychological Association (APA), in its promotion for its new guidelines on working with men and boys, that “traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful” – a message welcomed by some, but criticised by many others, including Steven Pinker who dubbed it “ludicrous” and the British clinical neuropsychologist Vaughan Bell, who described the campaign as “an amazing misfire“.

The APA report has been criticised on many grounds, including its oversight of the biological roots of masculinity, but the most frequently mentioned issue is with the overly simplistic, sweeping nature of the “masculinity is toxic” message. Traditional masculinity clearly reflects a host of values, beliefs and behaviours, some of which may indeed be harmful in certain circumstances, but some of which may also be beneficial, at least some of the time. Coincidentally, a paper in the January issue of the APA journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity captures just a little of this complexity.

Responding to the lack of longitudinal research on this topic, and the concerns that potential positive aspects of masculinity have been overlooked, the new study measured nearly 300 young male college students’ endorsement of traditional masculinity at one time point, in the spring of their freshman year, and then measured their wellbeing six months later.

The findings are mixed, but given the recent cultural emphasis on toxic masculinity, one result stands out: young men who, on the “Conformity to Masculine Norms” scale, more strongly endorsed the masculine ideal of “success and winning” (they agreed with statements like “In general, I will do anything to win”), tended to score higher on psychological wellbeing six months later. “Men who adhere to this norm may experience a sense of mastery and achievement through their accomplishments,” said the researchers, led by Aylin Kaya at the University of Maryland, “which can in turn boost their eudaemonic well-being.”

In contrast, and more in keeping with the message emanating from Gillette/the APA and others, the men who endorsed the masculine “Playboy” ideal (they agreed strongly that “If I could, I would frequently change sexual partners”) and/or the “power” ideal (“In general, I control the women in my life”) tended to report lower wellbeing six months later.

At the study start, the men also completed the “Gender Role Conflict” questionnaire (a scale developed in the 1980s ostensibly to explore problems arising from men’s aversion to femininity) and those who scored highly on the Restricted Emotionality sub-scale – for instance, they agreed “I have difficulty expressing my emotional needs to my partner” – also tended to report lower wellbeing six months later.

However, critics might point out that this correlation is almost inevitable as the items related to Restricted Emotionality are phrased in a negative way that assumes emotional control is a problem, such that it would be odd if a high score on this sub-scale was not associated with subsequent reduced wellbeing. A stronger case against traditional masculinity would be made by results showing that men who felt they successfully and deliberately controlled their emotions went on to experience diminished wellbeing, but such a finding seems highly unlikely given the shelves of evidence documenting the positive consequences of having more mental and emotional self-control.

It’s worth noting that the men’s endorsement, or not, of the majority of the norms that were measured by the “Conformity to Masculine Norms” scale did not, on their own, have a statistically significant association with their wellbeing six months on (positive or negative), including: “heterosexual-presentation” (being concerned to be perceived as straight); “self-reliance” (not wanting to seek help); “violence” (endorsing violence as a suitable response in some situations); “risk” (willingness to put oneself in risky situations); and “emotional control”.

Kayla and her colleagues said that the negative associations of the “Playboy” and “power” masculine norms with later wellbeing supported earlier cross-sectional work linking the endorsement of these norms with negative mental health outcomes in men. However, they added that the positive association between endorsing the “winning” norm and later wellbeing “is consistent with our hypothesis and with previous research that has indicated in certain contexts, adherence to dominant masculine norms may contribute to positive mental health.”

Of course, these new results come with their own important caveats – they may not generalise to other groups beyond young American men at college, and they are based entirely on participants’ self-reports of their own values and wellbeing. Clearly more longitudinal research is needed, arguably using scales that are not phrased with an inherent bias against traditional masculine values, and also including outcome measures not only for the men themselves, but also for those people who live and work with them.

However, these results do provide a more nuanced take on the simplistic idea that traditional masculinity is entirely toxic, a point worth considering alongside the weight of research showing the benefit to children of having a father involved in their upbringing (a point that, hidden behind the “toxic masculinity” headlines, is acknowledged fully in the new APA report; pdf).

The role of masculine norms and gender role conflict on prospective well-being among men

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

28 thoughts on “Young Men Who Endorse The Masculine Ideal of Success Enjoy Greater Psychological Wellbeing”

  1. Why is this considered surprising? A few decades of thought can be argued by the rest of human history?

    Ambition is amoral, and it doesn’t care. That is why trying to suppress it with platitudes looks dangerously naïve, and clearly contemptible, to the men who have lived truly by their ambition and have succeeded. Why would they listen?

    Like

      1. I guess it depends on how the sentence fragment “Ambition is amoral” is parsed. Is it saying that the process of generating ambitions does not take morality into account?

        Ambitions – and the values they express – being singular to the self in the first instance. They are values devoid of a target, or at least the means to achieve that target, and thus they are devoid of moral content. However, the means by which those ambitions may be achieved, especially if they are exclusively in the social domain, must be moral (or, at the risk of invoking the naturalistic fallacy) ought to be moral.

        So, to be all Pollyanna about it, you’re both right, ambition IS amoral, but the means by which that ambition is expressed ISN’T.

        Like

    1. And yet, looking back at history, Queens are more likely to engage in war than Kings. Go look it up. So it looks like you’re completely wrong.

      Like

    2. I agree I think the gradual inclusion of women directly into democracy is the reason why we have less wars since women now have a say they are less likely to support wars and use their influence for peaceful options

      Like

      1. What I would like to see is a survey that test the level of acceptance of traditional masculinity of the people and then test out their level of income school grades etx

        Like

  2. Men’s Success and Wellbeing Relies on Toxic Masculinity and the wellbeing of those they mow down for it is justifiable? Men’s war rules apply when needing to be successful in their conquests and the “spoils of war” are just a small and acceptable little inconvenience?
    What?
    How about we just drop the Toxic Masculinity thing and call it what it really is, Anti-Social Behavior, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Sociopathy, Psychopathy.
    It doesn’t much matter what they think about this. Even if they can’t or won’t change, far more will be paying for their “Wellbeing” in jail. This whole movement is more about the victims finally fighting back and not about today’s Neanderthals changing or becoming better human beings because it isn’t going to happen. The changes will be gradual and take generations. The antisocial behavior is no longer acceptable and will no longer be tolerated. The wheels are in motion and they can’t be stopped. #Agenda2030

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your description of toxic masculinity has nothing to do with masculinity and is not typical of men. Women can also be anti social, narcissistic, etc. And that is the problem. Using this type of behavior to destroy traditional masculinity. And the fact that you don’t understand that shows that it’s working.

      Like

      1. No one said there wasn’t toxic femininity. But by far, and by virtue of their gender, males are more biologically prone to Narcissism, anti-social behaviors, and psychopathy. Women’s main role as the majority of caregivers is the propagation and support of archaic masculine, antisocial, all-for-me at whatever cost, ideals, should absolutely be taken into account. Culpability and responsibility fall on everyone.
        Had this article been addressing women’s role in Neanderthalism/Toxic Femininity, I would have stated that. To conclude, defending obvious social dysfunction is no longer going to allow it to survive and thrive. AGAIN, #Agenda 2030 Educate yourself. And I would suggest going to the United Nations website to do so and avoid the youtube videos. Peace out and here’s to a better and safer world for future generations … especially children. Where they are no longer turned into the monsters we are inundated with today and throughout history. Paradigm shifts are never easy. Ask any native culture that was forced into westernization or wiped out. Yes, it always sucks when evolution is forced upon you, they know. Now it’s time for Western culture to be forced. Lucky for many, they’ll be given more respect and time. But yes, I suspect many are going down in various ways. It’s already happening with the #metoo movement. Welcome to the 21st century where humans have the capability of engineering the first known human evolution. And it’s about time.

        Like

      2. “No one said there wasn’t toxic femininity.”
        Except no one talks about it. No one seems to think it’s a problem. Except we can see it is a clear problem that manifests itself through senseless policies, denial of science, denial of common sense, wild, baseless accusations, and reason being abandoned in favor of feelings. So whatever you think “toxic masculinity” is to blame for, toxic femininity will lead to the destruction of our civilization, as it has done in the past.

        “But by far, and by virtue of their gender, males are more biologically prone to Narcissism, anti-social behaviors, and psychopathy.”
        Even if that is true (and I’m pretty sure the first one isn’t true), so what? Those are day from common behaviors. You’re asking half the population to completely change because you have an issue with a very tiny minority. Sounds like toxic femininity, to be honest…

        “Women’s main role as the majority of caregivers is the propagation and support of archaic masculine, antisocial, all-for-me at whatever cost, ideals, should absolutely be taken into account.”
        You are wrong on multiple levels.
        First, it is not the mother’s responsibility to transform a boy into a man. That is the father’s responsibility. Sure, it’s not an absolute: some women can do it very well, some men can’t do it at all. But it’s been shown that boys that grow up without a father are more likely to join gangs and live a life of violence.
        Secondly, the fact that you bundle in “archaic” masculinity (the word you’re looking for is “traditional”) with those other words tells me you are absolutely clueless what masculinity is. Do not mistake confidence and competence for narcissism and tyranny.

        “To conclude, defending obvious social dysfunction is no longer going to allow it to survive and thrive”
        But this isn’t about that. This is about weeding out perfectly normal behavior that has been shown to be absolutely vital to our advancement as a society.

        “Where they are no longer turned into the monsters we are inundated with today and throughout history”
        I have to wonder who these monsters you speak of are. Certainly, history never spoke of actual monsters (emperor Caligula, for example) favorably.

        “Ask any native culture that was forced into westernization or wiped out.”
        Such as? No civilization in recent times received such a threat. And there is a difference between being wiped out and being made obsolete.

        “Yes, it always sucks when evolution is forced upon you, they know. Now it’s time for Western culture to be forced.”
        Evolution implies advancing to a better state. This is not advancement. It is demonstrable that erasing the very values our society is built on will descend is into chaos. We know what happens when men aren’t around to raise their children. We know what happens when society shifts from well defined sexes into androgyny. You think this is such a progressive idea, but it has happened before. It’s one of the reasons why the Roman empire collapsed. You’ve been reading the wrong history, and in your ignorance you are leading us down a well trodden road into chaos.

        “Welcome to the 21st century where humans have the capability of engineering the first known human evolution.”
        We’ve been trying for ages, but it seems people will still rather listen to their feelings rather than their brains, and ignore history, ignore science, and just go with their gut feeling.

        The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Misguided ones,I might add.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Blimey. Both here and in your reply below you’re making a lot of assertions and displaying a huge amount of presuppositional thinking, not to mention pathologising maleness.

      Like

  3. Pretty disingenuous to conclude that a more in-depth and nuanced study is necessary to decribe these kinds of sociological ideas and yet title your article “Young Men Who Endorse The Masculine Ideal of Success Enjoy Greater Psychological Wellbeing”. Which is it? Is more research needed or have you already made your decision? Dreadful journalism, I can’t believe my phone suggested such shoddy tripe.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. What happened to research at least trying to be objective in its approach to the subject being studied to avoid bias. Support of the ‘Masculine’ bias is obviously driving this article. Also, another major deficiency of this article is that it never defines a keyword in the article and title of the article- Psychological Wellbeing. Without defining what Psychological Wellbeing is, the article cannot support its contention that certain attitudes promote Greater Psychological Wellbeing because there cannot be a measurement since no one knows what the criteria are. In all a waste of time article that adds nothing new through ‘research’ regarding the important issue of what is and creates Male Psychological Wellbeing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Curiously the title of the article is undermined by the content – although this is pretty normal in the era of clickbait.
    The issue at play appears to be the insufficient specification of what ‘toxic masculinity’ (or simply ‘toxic attitudes’ if we remove the gender) might be. Some particular attitudes endorsed by some men have been shown to be ‘toxic’ while others have been shown to be helpful (at least on average). As always, the functionality of these attitudes will also likely vary to some extent with context.

    I would take issue at one particular paragraph in the article:

    “A stronger case against traditional masculinity would be made by results showing that men who felt they successfully and deliberately controlled their emotions went on to experience diminished wellbeing, but such a finding seems highly unlikely given the shelves of evidence documenting the positive consequences of having more mental and emotional self-control.”

    Here, the term ‘control’ is poorly specified. Control can take many forms, some functional and some counterproductive. There is plenty of evidence that ‘controlling’ emotions and cognitions by denying them can working in the short term but can be hugely damaging in the long-term. On the other hand ‘controlling’ emotions and cognitions by accepting them and reducing behavioural reactivity is at the core of most effective psychological therapies. I’d argue that learning effective ways to be unafraid and aware of our emotions and cognitions could be entirely compatible with important elements of ‘traditional masculinity’. After-all, a strong meta-cognitive awareness and control of our *responses to* emotions is a key part of any martial art – and perhaps one of the reasons that boxing is often considered to be a helpful disciple for young men.

    The overall message of the research? Beware of simplifications and generalisations?

    Like

  6. How about trying on ‘enlightened masculinity’ for size? Men and women can support each other in the refinement of thoughts and feelings for the betterment of both. Is that too radical? The best book on the subject is Sex, Drugs, Enlightenment: Noble Secrets from an Orthodox Buddhist ex-Monk by yours truly. it’s available on Amazon and the website for it is SexDrugsEnlightenment.com.

    Like

  7. I think toxic masculinity doesn’t mean ALL masculinity is bad. It refers to aspects of masculinity that are harmful. For example, reenforcing notions that ‘boys don’t cry’ has a massively detrimental effect on men, especially considering the high suicide rates for men and how difficult it is to get at risk men to seek help. Considering that some aspects of masculinity are fine and some are toxic, the findings are hardly surprising.

    Like

  8. There is a massive difference between “masculinity” and “toxic masculinity”. To conflate the two just creates a straw man argument which is no good to anyone but MRAs. Masculinity is not inherently toxic, toxic masculinity is the problem. Ie. Stiff upper lip could be considered masculine. Berating your male child for showing emotions = toxic masculinity.

    Like

  9. Disgusted by that first line. The mantra is not that “masculinity is toxic”. The point is that there are aspects of traditional male gender roles that hurt *everyone*, including men themselves. But it doesn’t mean masculinity is an issue in and of itself, and it doesn’t even mean every inch of traditional behaviour is problematic.

    I’ll come back to read the study later. I’m much too disappointed in how this was framed to do so right now.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. While it may be that the young men benefit from that world view, it is also possible that their behaviors consistent with those values harms other people’s psychological health.

    Like

  11. Such a STUPID article…

    Why white trash people is so annoying every time**

    First of all, it’s O-B-V-I-O-U-S a man who behave based on patriarcal, machist society will have a great well-being… It’s just to say: fish who endorse aquatic life experience great well being…

    Try in one second of your perfect life to behave differently or very differently than your average joey to see how stressfull life can be before conclude things based on your one-subjective experience.

    Secondly, i don’t know if you are interpreting it wrong BUT toxic masculinity and masculinity are not the same thing even both belong to same [obvious] spectrum…

    Also there is a toxic feminility…

    Toxic masculinity is basically the combination of sex-related behaviors of biological male WITH dar-triad or sociopathic behaviors…

    Masculinity is a set of sex-related behaviors of biological male… No more, no less, just it.

    Like

    1. Another thing you may into account is that… atypical behavior-like males tend to have more expression of ”feminine-like behaviors”, for example, abv avg to high sensibility of others opinions or expectations…

      Your cognitive prejudice is prejudicing your capacity to understand this subject..

      Like

  12. I can imagine there are many more just like those young men today. You see: the belief boys should be strong allows more aggressive treatment from infancy by parents, teachers, others to make them tough by creating more maintained layers of anger, fear, anxiety, and preparation for defense. This is combined with much less kind, caring, verbal interaction or support for fear of coddling. The problem is this: using a more correct definition of average stress as not just situational moments(which go top), but many maintained layers of experiences, fears, anxieties, preparation for defense along with many weights and values developed from this more aggressive treatment. These layers are much higher for boys taking up much mental energy, leaving much less mental energy for new mental work or academics. This also creates higher muscle tension which hurts both handwriting/motivation and many fine motor skills (treatment not genetics). Then both from lack kind communication and from social emotional distance created from the more harsh treatment boys are growing up with probably one-fourth of the necessary communication skills they need. The combination hurts reading motivation requiring much mental energy for the abstract skill of decoding, visualizing, reflection time, organization, syntax understanding sentence structure, reaching into social vocabulary for new words in print, and enjoying the process. In this case boys are seriously short changed.
    *Now as to why those boys, later men feel more fulfilled in a type of masculine ideal: boys, later men are given love and honor only on condition of achievement. Boys/men not achieving in school (as you can guess why) are then given more ridicule and discipline to then make them try harder. Support is not given both from the false genetic models and the belief boys should not be coddled. So those boys, later men begin early seeking out love and honor through various sports and video games for ounces of love and honor from society and peers. So by the time they reach high school and college – if they make it that far, they then find much more fulfillment in those more physical areas. They are being led there through the more harsh, less supportive treatment they receive, while many many more girls and women are succeeding and taking over the information age due to much better treatment and care. While those boys and men my briefly be shouting for joy when they score a three pointer or a touchdown, they are also losing feelings of self-worth in society by not being able to secure a legal living wage in the work world, all due to much more harsh treatment and much less support.

    Like

Leave a Reply to Rodger Ricketts, Psy.D. Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s