Masculinity is one of the most fragile concepts we have as a society. Whether it’s conveying superior strength at the gym, or showing off a nicer, more expensive car, stereotypes of masculinity are internalized by men who have been taught to both exert, and enforce their male prowess. In their new study, published in the journal of Social Psychology, researchers from the University of Washington have found that perceptions of masculinity run so deep that men who believe their masculinity has been questioned feel the need to compensate for it in other ways. They found that this compensation tends to manifest in two forms: rejecting what is interpreted as “feminine” and playing up manliness.

Lead author and associate professor of psychology at UW, Sapna Cheryan said she got the inspiration for this study while reading a men’s fitness article at the gym; the article featured a study that asked men on the street how much they could bench press, and then took them to a gym to see if they held true to their word. Cheryan couldn’t help but wonder: what would men do if they didn’t prove to be as strong as they said? Would they assert their masculinity in other ways?

To test the theory, researchers recruited college students from Stanford University to squeeze a handheld device with both hands. They told the students that they were testing how physical exertion could potentially affect decision making, and then created fictitious scores for the strength of their grips. After they were scored, researchers showed the men where they fell on false bell curves, telling some men they fell in the middle of a “male curve” while telling other men they fell on a “female curve.”

When this part of the test was over, participants were asked to fill out online questionnaires asking various questions about their height, the number of previous romantic partners they had, whether they had specific personality traits, and whether they used products that could be interpreted as “male” or “female”; they laced these questions with other “distracter questions” so that the students would not get an idea of what was actually being asked.

What they found was interesting, but not surprising. Those who were told they had a weaker grip exaggerated their height by an average of three-quarters of an inch. “Height is something you think would be fixed, but how tall you say you are is malleable, at least for men.” Cheryan said in a recent press release.

Researchers also found that those who scored lower in the first part of the study also exaggerated the number of their romantic relationships, claimed to be more aggressive and athletic, and did not present any interest in stereotypically “feminine” products. “We know that being seen as masculine is very important for a lot of men,” Cheryan said. “We discovered that the things that men were using to assert their masculinity were the very things that are used as signals of identity.”

On the contrary, men who received average scores on their exertion tests did not feel the need to exaggerate the questionnaire. Researchers believe this difference can be attributed to a man’s need to be identified by strictly masculine characteristics. If these characteristics then fall into question, men will assert them in other ways, no matter how minute.

For the final part of the experiment, researchers gave participants a fictional score for the questionnaire, telling them that 72 out of 100 was average, while 100 represented “completely masculine.” They then gave participants random scores between 26 and 73. After, researchers asked the participants about the products they used on a daily basis, and once again, those who were scored lower did not mention using products gendered “feminine.”

Researchers also noted that their study does carry across to femininity too, though they did not focus on it within their study. Societal pressures to be feminine, which are equally as strong, compel women to assert characteristics of nurturing, as well as being people-focused. If something happens where this is questioned, Cheryan said, women may begin to avoid what is distinguished as “masculine.” Cheryan and her team believe this may motivate women to stay away from traditionally male-centric career fields, like science and technology.

“This research shows that men are under very strong prescriptive norms to be a certain way, and they work hard to correct the image they project when their masculinity is under threat,” said Benoît Monin, professor of organizational behavior and psychology at Stanford.

While somewhat silly, standards and stereotypes of masculinity have been found by other studies to perpetuate violence, especially against women. For instance, previous studies have found that men with “baby faces” are more likely to assert their aggression by being more hostile and committing more crimes than men who are more “chiseled.” Also, men who scored low on masculinity tests were more likely to harass women, or to belittle other men to reassert dominance. Most alarming, though, was that some studies found men who were unemployed were more likely to provoke violence with women, while men who did have successful jobs refused to share housework with their wives.

Cheryan believes that discovering how deeply engrained masculinity is in the fabric of male thinking is essential to preventing men from reaching these measures when their masculinity is threatened. “Men have a lot of power in our society, and what this study shows is that some decisions can be influenced by how they’re feeling about their masculinity in the moment,” Cheryan concluded.

Source: Cheryan S, Monin B, Cameron J, et al.  Manning Up: Threatened Men Compensate by Disavowing Feminine Preferences and Embracing Masculine Attributes. Social Psychology. 2015.