There seems to be no end to the things guys will do to prove their masculinity—especially around someone whose attention we’d like to attract. If you’ve ever read Mark Twain’s classic book Tom Sawyer, you probably remember how Tom tries to win the heart of Becky Thatcher by doing all sorts of crazy (and dangerous) things, such as “Goin’ on like an Indian, yelling, laughing, chasing boys, jumping over the fence at the risk of life and limb, throwing handsprings, standing on his head.” And if you’re a male of nearly any age, chances are that you’ve done something similar. In fact, according to several new studies, men will lie, cheat, fight, commit crimes, and even overeat to show off how tough we are or to keep from being perceived as weak.
Eat your heart out.
There’s a strong connection between diet and mating. In many Western cultures where female slenderness is highly valued, women go on all sorts of diets, in part to show prospective mates that they’re healthy. Men, it turns out, do the exact opposite. Over the course of two weeks, researchers at Cornell University surreptitiously observed more than 100 men and women at an all-you-can-eat buffet and charted how much pizza and how many bowls of salad each person ate. Then they correlated all of that with the sex of everyone each person dined with. Women ate the same quantities regardless of whether they were with men or other women. Men whose dinner companions were women ate 92 percent more pizza and 86 percent more salad than those who were out with the boys. Kevin Kniffin, the study’s lead author, speculated in an email to writer Julie Beck of The Atlantic that this kind of overeating might be men’s way of signaling that they’re “healthy enough that they can engage in unhealthful behavior of excessive eating (and still end up okay).” He likened it to other research that “explores the possibility that eating spicy food might be a way that people ‘show off’ since it (arguably) signals a higher tolerance for something that others would consider painful.” Kniffin’s study was published in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science.
Get a grip.
Sapna Cheryan, associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington, wanted to see how men would respond in situations where their masculinity was threatened in relatively minor ways. Cheryan and her team had a number of male university students squeeze a device that ostensibly measured grip strength. The researchers then randomly rated the subjects as either “weak” or “average” regardless of their actual strength. The subjects then filled out a questionnaire that asked a number of personal questions, including their preference for products that were traditionally masculine or feminine, their interest in athletics, their height, and the number of previous relationships. Cheryan and her team found that male college students who were told that they had a weak grip lied about their height (adding an average of three-quarters of an inch), claimed to have had more sexual partners, described themselves as more athletic, and “showed less interest in stereotypically feminine consumer products.” Men who were rated as “average,” however, told the truth. The researchers believe that their findings “underscore the pressure men feel to live up to gender stereotypes” and the things we’ll do to “reinstate a threatened masculinity.” This study was published in the journal Social Psychology.
What does it mean to be manly?
In the grand scheme of things, overeating or lying about your height is pretty harmless. But some men go to far more dangerous lengths to establish their masculinity. Dr. Dennis Reidy, a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, found that men who experience stress because they feel that others see them as less-than-completely masculine are far more likely to engage in risky or violent behavior than men who are less worried about what others think. Reidy is careful to note that not every man who feels less manly will commit some kind of violent act. “The key word here is ‘stress’,” he said in an interview with Reuters Health. “It’s important to understand that it’s a combination of the two things.” If your masculinity is threatened, how far will you go to set the record straight?