Overdoing Gender: A Test of the Masculine Overcompensation Thesis

Men whose gender identity was threatened demonstrate stronger masculine preferences (such as belief in male superiority) and dominant attitudes, and men with high testosterone levels showed significantly strong reactions to masculinity threats.

FindingsMethodology

Belief in male superiority at the individual and societal levels is often cited as an explanation for the persistence of gender inequality, as well as specific harms to women, such as domestic violence (Hewkes 2002). Recent research suggests that masculine overcompensation may play a role in perpetuating hegemonic masculine attitudes such as homophobia, support for war, and dominance over women

The masculine overcompensation thesis asserts that men react to having their masculinity questioned with extreme demonstrations of masculinity. It is comprised of two types of theories:

1) the masculinity theory, which argues that masculinity is both more narrowly defined (making masculinity more easily threatened) and socially valued (making men more motivated to recover it) than femininity. This narrowly defined, hegemonic masculinity includes competitiveness, assertiveness, physical strength, aggression, risk-taking, courage, heterosexuality and lack of feminine traits. Because femininity is less valued in society, there are fewer social repercussions for women who are not stereotypically feminine than there are for men who are not stereotypically masculine.

2) theories of identity, which argue that individuals tend to react to feedback that threatens valued identities with “overcompensation”, enacting attitudes and behaviors associated with the identity to a more extreme extent than they would have in the absence of threats.

The authors test the idea of masculine overcompensation by threatening participants’ masculinity (using a manipulated gender identity feedback survey) in a series of three laboratory experiments and a large-scale survey to better understand how it shapes political and cultural attitudes.

Findings

Men whose gender identity was threatened demonstrated stronger masculine preferences and dominance attitudes than men whose masculinity was not threatened, while women whose gender identity was threatened made no significant behavioral changes.

  • Men whose gender identity was threatened demonstrated increased masculine attitudes than did men in the study whose masculinity was not threatened. This was demonstrated in the form of reporting significantly greater support for the Iraq War (3.64/10 potential positive points vs. 2.65/10 points) and more negative views of homosexuality (4.03/10 potential negative points vs. 2.77/10 points).
  • Women showed no significant differences in their reported attitudes when told they demonstrated more male than female characteristics.  
  • Men whose masculinity was threatened also expressed stronger dominance attitudes than unthreatened men (4.36/10 potential dominance points vs. 3.26/10). Examples of dominance attitudes include belief in one’s own group’s superiority over other groups and support of using force against other identity groups. There was no effect of gender identity feedback on the reported dominance attitudes of women.
  • Men with higher baseline testosterone levels showed stronger reactions to masculinity threats than those lower with testosterone levels. Among men whose masculinity was threatened, each one unit increase in baseline testosterone was associated with a 0.028 point increase in their support for the Iraq War compared to men with lower baseline testosterone.
  • According to a large-scale survey, men who reported that social changes threatened the status of men were more likely to report homophobic and pro-dominance attitudes, support for war, and belief in male superiority.

Together, these results support the masculine overcompensation hypothesis and identify a hormonal factor moderating the effect. Understanding how masculine overcompensation can shape political and cultural attitudes may help explain some of the challenges facing women in a patriarchal society.

Methodology

The authors used three lab experiments to test for whether gender identity threat actually affected men and women’s masculine/dominant attitudes, and these results were also supported by a large-scale study.

Study 1: 111 undergraduate students (60 women, 51 men)  filled out a demographic questionnaire and a gender identity survey asking respondents to indicate how well a series of adjectives (e.g., competitive) describes their personality. Participants were given results on their gender identity along with feedback sheets that displayed a 0–50 scale of possible scores on the gender identity survey. In actuality, the average ranges given on the feedback sheets, as well as the participants’ scores, were false and created purely for the purposes of manipulating gender identity feedback. Men and women in the study were randomly assigned to receive either masculine or feminine feedback. Participants were next asked to fill out a Political Views Survey that assessed attitudes toward homosexuality and the Iraq War, in addition to other masculine preferences. Participants rated  their support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, the gay rights movement, and whether they thought homosexuality was “always” or “never wrong.”

Study 2: 100 students (60 women and 40 men) participated in the study for pay, plus extra credit in a psychology class. Study procedures were identical to Study 1 except that participants completed different dependent measures after receiving feedback on their gender identity, this time related to dominance attitudes and political conservatism.

Study 3: Data was obtained from the 2007 American Values Survey (AVS). It tracks data on an array of values, attitudes, and behaviors over time for commercial and political consulting purposes. The authors used a variety of demographic variables as controls in analysis: gender, race, age, income, and education. The central independent variable was Threat to Gender Status, which was based on respondents’ beliefs that societal changes disadvantaged their gender. Men were asked this question about the status of men, and women about the status of women. The dependent variables were support for the Iraq War, negative views of homosexuality, male superiority, and dominance attitudes.

Study 4: 54 undergraduate men participated in the study for pay. Participants first completed a demographic questionnaire and gender identity survey. They were then given randomly determined feedback on the results of their gender identity survey before being asked to complete a Political and Religious Views Survey and a post-study questionnaire. At regular interval, participants provided a saliva sample and researchers measured changes in participants’ saliva testosterone levels.