Joseph A. Vandello and Jennifer K. Bosson
University of South Florida
University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign
Rochelle M. Burnaford and Jonathan R. Weaver
University of South Florida
The authors report 5 studies that demonstrate that manhood, in contrast to womanhood, is seen as a
precarious state requiring continual social proof and validation. Because of this precariousness, they
argue that men feel especially threatened by challenges to their masculinity. Certain male-typed
behaviors, such as physical aggression, may result from this anxiety. Studies 1–3 document a robust
belief in (a) the precarious nature of manhood relative to womanhood and (b) the idea that manhood is
defined more by social proof than by biological markers. Study 4 demonstrates that when the precarious
nature of manhood is made salient through feedback indicating gender-atypical performance, men
experience heightened feelings of threat, whereas similar negative gender feedback has no effect on
women. Study 5 suggests that threatening manhood (but not womanhood) activates physically aggressive
Keywords: manhood, masculinity, aggression, gender role threat
In some cultures, the idea that men are made, not born, is taken
quite literally. Among the Samburu and Maasai herders of East
Africa, men cannot marry or father children until they kill their
first ox. To become men, boys from these tribes must also undergo a
circumcision ritual in which no anesthetic is used and no display of
pain can be shown (Saitoti, 1986; Spencer, 1965). Similarly, !Kung
Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in southwest Africa must kill an
antelope before they are considered men (Thomas, 1959), and
Sambian highlanders of New Guinea undergo a bloody, painful
scarification ritual to earn manhood status (Herdt, 1982). On
Pentecost Island in the South Pacific, young men prove their
manhood by tying vines to their ankles and jumping from tall
wooden platforms until they (with luck) dangle inches from the
ground (Muller, 1970). The Satere-Mawe Amazonian Indians
demonstrate their readiness to become men by placing their hands
in a glove filled with stinging, poisonous tucandeiras ants for 30
min (Hogue, 1987).
Although these cultures differ in many ways, what they seem to
share is a common preoccupation with active, public demonstra-
tions of manhood. These manhood rituals might seem strange and
anachronistic to contemporary Westerners, as few formalized
“rites of passage” into manhood exist in most industrialized cul-
tures (at least outside of certain subcultures such as gangs, frater-
nities, or the military). Although the absence of formalized man-
hood rituals might suggest that concerns with proving manhood
are outdated or irrelevant in “modern” Western cultures, we argue
instead that a preoccupation with the precarious nature of manhood
is shared by men in many cultures around the world (Gilmore,
1990; Vandello & Cohen, 2008), including contemporary Ameri-
cans. In fact, the lack of institutionalized rites of passage in the
United States today may make the status of manhood troublingly
ambiguous, uncertain, and problematic (cf. Herek, 1986). Lacking
formal manhood rituals, men may prove themselves with infor-
mal—and sometimes harmful— demonstrations of masculinity.
Conversely, although many cultures also have rites of passage
for womanhood, girls and women do not seem to have the same
requirements of social proof to achieve and maintain their essential
status as women. As Gilmore (1990) noted in his anthropological
survey of manhood around the world, “an authentic femininity
rarely involves tests or proofs of action, or confrontations with
dangerous foes” (p. 12). It might be said that womanhood happens
to girls, via a series of inevitable physical and biological changes,
but manhood is something that boys must make happen, by passing
certain social milestones.
Of course, one might point to the “motherhood mandate” (Hays,
1996; Russo, 1976) as evidence of a social milestone that women
must pass to be considered “real” women. According to this
mandate, women (but not men) should desire to raise children and
be willing to forego career advancement in favor of parenthood
(Gorman & Fritzsche, 2002). Although we do not deny that a
violation of the motherhood mandate can pose a challenge to a
woman’s status, we argue that manhood can be threatened more
easily than womanhood and through a wider range of transgres-
Joseph A. Vandello, Jennifer K. Bosson, Rochelle M. Burnaford, and
Jonathan R. Weaver, Department of Psychology, University of South
Florida; Dov Cohen, Department of Psychology, University of Illinois at
Joseph A. Vandello and Jennifer K. Bosson contributed equally to this
article. We thank Elizabeth Ankudovich, Bridget Asplund, Josh Gianitsis,
Joanna Goplen, Kristi Hipp, Ahn Hua, Brett Kuhlman, Jay Martini, Simina
Mateescu, Annette Scott, Victor Ventor, and Eve Williams for their help
with data collection, entry, and coding. We also thank Michael LeVan for
allowing us to recruit participants in his classes.
Correspondence concerning this article may be addressed to Joseph A.
Vandello, Department of Psychology, PCD 4118G, University of South
Florida, Tampa, FL 33620-7200. E-mail: vandello@ cas.usf.edu
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Copyright 2008 by the American Psychological Association
2008, Vol. 95, No. 6, 1325–1339 0022-3514/08/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0012453
sions. Furthermore, a woman’s actions may damage her reputation
and that of her family, and she may be deemed a “bad” woman, but
these shortcomings will not usually threaten her (socially con-
structed) status as a woman as easily as a man’s actions can
threaten his (socially constructed) status as a man. Thus, our
argument is one of degrees rather than absolutes.
Manhood as Elusive and Tenuous
Our main thesis is that manhood is widely viewed as both
elusive, in that manhood status is not a developmental certainty,
and tenuous, in that even once achieved, it is not guaranteed and
can be lost. Because of the precarious nature of manhood, anything
that makes salient its precariousness, or calls one’s manhood status
into question, should be especially anxiety provoking. This view of
manhood as precarious appears within anthropology, American
social history, political science, and psychology.
Within anthropology, one of the most extensive explorations of
manhood is Gilmore’s (1990) Manhood in the Making. Gilmore
surveyed evidence that manhood is an achieved rather than an
ascribed state in a diverse sample of societies around the world.
The idea that manhood is elusive and tenuous exists across other-
wise very different cultures, and most cultures require some social
proof of manhood through action. According to Gilmore, “Real
manhood . . . is not a natural condition that comes about sponta-
neously through biological maturation but rather is a precarious or
artificial state that boys must win against powerful odds” (p. 11).
The tenuous, elusive nature of manhood has been a predominant
theme in the history of the United States as well (Habegger, 1982;
Kimmel, 1996; Raphael, 1988). For example, Kimmel (1996)
argued that although the concept of manhood has undergone
dramatic changes over the course of American history, it has
always been characterized by uncertainty, struggle, and the need to
prove oneself. Men’s concerns about the uncertain status of man-
hood are particularly evident (and consequential) within the realm
of American politics. In The Wimp Factor, Ducat (2004) proposed
that politics is dominated by masculine anxiety and noted that
politicians must strongly disavow anything feminine to succeed.
More chillingly, Fasteau (1974) proposed that a masculine preoc-
cupation with achieving status and power underlaid certain deci-
sions to expand the United States’s involvement in the Vietnam
War during the 1970s.
Within psychology, Pleck (1981) argued that assumptions of
precarious manhood have dominated theorizing about gender roles
since the 1930s. Rather than conceptualizing manhood as a devel-
opmental certainty, many gender theorists have instead argued that
achieving manhood (i.e., a masculine gender identity) is a “risky,
failure-prone process” (Pleck, 1981, p. 20). Moreover, themes of
agency, instrumentality, and achievement are central to most psy-
chological definitions of masculinity (Ashmore, Del Boca, &
Wohlers, 1986). For example, Bem’s (1974) Sex Role Inventory
and Spence, Helmreich, and Stapp’s (1973) Personal Attributes
Questionnaire assess psychological masculinity with terms such as
activity, decisiveness, willingness to take risks, and competitive-
ness. Research on the content of male role norms (Cicone & Ruble,
1978; David & Brannon, 1976; Doyle, 1989; Pleck, 1976, 1981)
has similarly focused on achieved status through action: Qualities
like occupational success, physical activity, achievement orienta-
tion, and aggressiveness are common themes in these theoretical
works. Research on gender stereotypes across cultures has con-
firmed a consistent belief in male agency and action, with people
from 30 nations universally rating men as more adventurous,
dominant, forceful, and independent than women (Williams &
Although attempting to condense the large literatures on mas-
culinity and male gender roles from across multiple disciplines
undoubtedly produces an oversimplified and incomplete picture,
two common denominators emerge from these different perspec-
tives: First, manhood is viewed as both elusive and tenuous, and
second, manhood requires social proof. Put another way, “real
men” are made, not born.
Note, of course, that many theorists have conceptualized gender
as a social construct whose performance is determined more by
contextual factors than by inherent qualities of men and women
(e.g., Deaux & Major, 1987; West & Zimmerman, 1987). Consis-
tent with this view, we assert not that manhood has an essence that
is inherently more precarious than that of womanhood, but instead
that inhabitants of many cultures define, perceive, and react to
manhood as if this were so.
Why Is Manhood So Precarious?
The view that manhood is tenuous, and therefore requires public
proof, is consistent with research across multiple areas. But why
should manhood be seen as more elusive and tenuous than wom-
anhood? Evolutionary and social role theories provide some plau-
sible clues. One possibility is that these notions derive from
evolved dispositions that have their origins in men’s competitive
acquisition of social status and resources to gain access to women
(Buss, 1998; Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Geary, 1998; Trivers, 1972).
Presumably, in humans’ environment of evolutionary adaptedness,
men who successfully demonstrated their manhood through public
action stood a better chance of attracting potential mates (Symons,
1995). More specifically, our early ancestral environment appears
to have been one of mild effective polygyny (Wilson & Daly,
1992), meaning that there was more variance in men’s reproduc-
tive success than in women’s. Thus, there were great potential
rewards for men who climbed to the top of a status hierarchy and
could mate with many women, whereas there were grave potential
consequences for men at the bottom of a status hierarchy who
might be denied an opportunity to mate at all. In contrast, although
ancestral women also engaged in intrasex competition for the
“best” mate, their competition should have been less fierce because
the variance in women’s reproductive outcomes was smaller than
that of men’s. Differences in the way people view the essence of
manhood versus womanhood thus parallel the severity of the
stakes in men’s versus women’s intrasex competition. Women at
the bottom of a status hierarchy may have gotten undesirable
mates, with whom they produced undesirable offspring. However,
men at the bottom of a status hierarchy may not have reproduced
at all. The greater precariousness of manhood relative to woman-
hood may therefore reflect a psyche adapted to an ancestral envi-
ronment of relatively intense competition and constant jockeying
for status among men.
Alternatively, theories based on the social roles that men and
women occupy suggest that physical differences between men and
women resulting in predictable divisions of labor could account for
normative beliefs about manhood (Eagly, 1987; Eagly & Wood,
VANDELLO, BOSSON, COHEN, BURNAFORD, AND WEAVER
1999; Wood & Eagly, 2002). Because of men’s larger size and
strength, they have typically performed the most physically de-
manding and dangerous labor—the sort associated with high risk
and high reward. This type of labor, by virtue of its risky nature,
means that some men risk a lot and accordingly receive a great
deal of status, whereas other men risk very little. The labor
typically performed by women has been equally important (see,
e.g., Wood & Eagly, 2002, on women’s contribution to caloric
intake), but does not often involve the same amount of risk, and the
variance in women’s contributions is probably less than the vari-
ance in men’s contributions. The greater risk and variance in
contributions that lead to greater variance in status makes achiev-
ing the title of a “real man” a tenuous proposition that is anything
but guaranteed. Again, differences in the variability of men’s and
women’s labor power parallels the differences in the way in which
people think about the essence of manhood and womanhood. Men
who contribute heavily receive the rewards of manhood status,
whereas men who contribute little (or are “good for nothing”) do
not even count as men. Women may contribute more or less, but
the labor they provide in bearing and raising children means that
they are rarely good for nothing. As a consequence, their very
essence as a woman is rarely in doubt.
Regardless of the ultimate origins of men’s normative pressures
for social proof and the precariousness of manhood, we suggest
that these themes are more central to manhood than they are to
womanhood. However, it is certainly possible that beliefs about
the relative precariousness of manhood versus womanhood no
longer prevail within contemporary, industrialized societies, and
so one of the main goals of this project was to investigate people’s
beliefs about precarious manhood and womanhood. Another goal
was to explore the consequences of precarious manhood for men’s
psychological state. In particular, we tested the hypothesis that
reminders of the uncertainty of manhood activate both anxiety-
and aggression-related cognitions for men.
Threatened Manhood, Demonstrations of Proof,
If manhood is viewed as elusive and tenuous, two implications
are that (a) challenges to men’s manhood will provoke anxiety-
and threat-related emotions among men and (b) men will often feel
compelled to demonstrate their manhood through action, particu-
larly when it has been challenged. There are undoubtedly many
actions that men can perform to bolster their status as “real” men
and thus assuage their feelings of gender role stress (Eisler &
Skidmore, 1987; Pleck, 1981; 1995), even if these actions provide
only temporary relief from masculinity concerns. For example,
men may display manhood by drinking heavily, driving fast,
excelling at sports, making lots of money, bragging about their
sexual exploits, and fathering many children, to name a few.
Indeed, across several empirical demonstrations of responses to
gender identity threats, men who underwent challenges to their
masculinity showed decreased liking for other nonprototypical mem-
bers of their gender in-group (Schmitt & Branscombe, 2001), pro-
jected assumptions of homosexuality onto a male target (Bramel,
1963), sexually harassed a woman (Maass, Cadinu, Guarnieri, &
Grasselli, 2003), took stronger levels of electric shock (Holmes,
1971), and overestimated their height and sexual experience
(Cheryan, Cameron, Katagiri, & Monin, 2008). These findings
illustrate that there are multiple strategies for restoring masculine
From our perspective, however, actions that should most effec-
tively prove manhood are those that are public and exclusive (i.e.,
not easily achievable by most others). In particular, actions that
involve a degree of danger or risk, and those that display physical
toughness, should be appealing demonstrations of manhood
(Doyle, 1989). In this regard, physical aggression may be a par-
ticularly attractive option because it is a public, visible action that
is both risky to enact and costly to fake (Cohen & Vandello, 2001).
Indeed, we propose that the cultural script for manhood implicitly
and explicitly sanctions physical aggression as a way of demon-
strating masculine status to the self and others, particularly when
that status has been threatened. Although not always public, phys-
ical aggression tends to be active, visible, dangerous, and difficult
to pull off convincingly (Archer, 2004), making it an effective way
to prove manhood. This view of physical aggression as a
manhood-restoring strategy is consistent with evidence that men
often behave aggressively because of face-saving, identity con-
cerns (Archer, 1994; Felson, 1978, 1982; Luckenbill, 1977), or
threats to personal honor (Cohen, Nisbett, Bowdle, & Schwarz,
1996; Cohen, Vandello, Puente, & Rantilla, 1999; Vandello &
Cohen, 2003). Although testing the link between precarious man-
hood and direct physical aggression is beyond the scope of this
project, we do present an initial test of this link in Study 5.
Specifically, we expose men and women to gender-threatening
feedback and assess its effects on their thoughts relevant to phys-
ical versus relational aggression.
In these studies, we explore beliefs about the precariousness of
manhood among contemporary samples of American college stu-
dents. In the first two studies, we ask whether manhood, compared
with womanhood, is seen as elusive and tenuous (Studies 1a and
1b) and defined by social rather than physical proof (Study 2). In
Study 3, we examine directly whether people consider childbear-
ing to be a requirement for “real-man” and “real-woman” status.
Finally, we explore some of the implications of beliefs about
precarious manhood by threatening men’s and women’s gender
status and testing the effects of this threat on their feelings of
anxiety and threat (Study 4) and spontaneous activation of phys-
ically aggressive thoughts (Study 5).
Studies 1a and 1b
In our initial tests of the idea that laypersons perceive manhood
as more tenuous and elusive than womanhood, we asked college
undergraduates to indicate their agreement with lists of fake prov-
erbs (Study 1a) and straightforward opinion statements (Study 1b)
that pertained to either precarious manhood or precarious woman-
hood. We predicted that respondents would more strongly endorse
proverbs and statements about the precarious nature of manhood
than that of womanhood. In Study 1b, we also queried participants
about their beliefs about the essential nature of manhood versus
womanhood. If people view men as made rather than born, then
they should attribute the transition from boyhood to manhood
more to social factors than to physical or biological factors
(Haslam, Bastian, Bain, & Kashima, 2006; Hegarty & Pratto,
Participants and procedure. In exchange for $8 apiece, 201
undergraduates (83 men and 118 women; median age ⫽ 19) were
randomly assigned to complete one of two versions of a question-
naire as part of a larger packet of unrelated measures. The ques-
tionnaire consisted of 24 common proverbs culled from various
sources, along with 6 proverbs that were written for the purposes
of this study. The 24 distracter proverbs expressed common folk
wisdom, such as “There are no gains without pain” and “A good
companion shortens the longest road.” Embedded within these filler
items, the 6 critical proverbs expressed themes about the precarious-
ness of either manhood or womanhood. Half of the participants
read proverbs pertaining to boys and men, and the other half read
identical proverbs pertaining to girls and women: “Manhood
(Womanhood) is hard won and easily lost,” “As a gem cannot be
polished without friction, a boy (girl) cannot become a man
(woman) without struggles,” “All boys (girls) do not grow up to
become real men (women),” “A boy (girl) must earn his (her) right
to be called a man (woman),” “It is a rocky road from boy (girl) to
man (woman),” and “A man (woman) must continually prove his
After reading each proverb, participants used a scale ranging
from 1 (not at all)to7(very much) to indicate how much they
agreed with and liked the proverb. These ratings were highly
correlated across the six critical proverbs (r ⫽ .85), so we averaged
them to create endorsement indices (one for each proverb). More-
over, these endorsement indices were internally consistent (␣⫽
.86), so we aggregated them to create a composite endorsement
Note that the language used in some of the proverbs (e.g., hard
won, earn, and prove honor) is more consistent with stereotypes
about male agency than with stereotypes about female commun-
ion. Thus, it is possible that people may have endorsed the man-
hood proverbs more strongly than the womanhood proverbs not
because they believed that manhood is more precarious per se, but
merely because statements that contain male-typed language are
more understandable when they pertain to male targets than to
female targets. To partially address this possibility, we asked
participants to rate how well they understood each proverb on a
scale ranging from 1 (not at all)to7(very much). We then created
a composite understandability index by averaging across the six
critical proverbs (␣⫽.84), and we controlled for this index in
To assess whether people perceive manhood as more precarious
than womanhood, we submitted the proverb endorsement index to
a 2 (participant sex) ⫻ 2 (version: manhood vs. womanhood)
analysis of covariance, with ratings of the understandability of the
critical proverbs as a significant covariate, F(1, 196) ⫽ 67.19, p ⬍
.001. Results revealed a clear preference for the manhood proverbs
over the womanhood proverbs, F(1, 196) ⫽ 14.12, p ⬍ .001, d ⫽
0.53, Ms ⫽ 4.20 vs. 3.55 and SEs ⫽ 0.12 and 0.12, respectively.
(This main effect remained significant when the covariate was
excluded from analyses, F[1, 197] ⫽ 39.35, p ⬍ .001.) The effect
of sex and the Sex ⫻ Version interaction were not significant
(Fs ⬍ 1.17, ps ⬎ .25). Despite the strength of these findings, it was
important to replicate the effect using a procedure that more
assiduously avoids language that might activate gender stereo-
types. We conducted Study 1b with this goal in mind.
Participants and procedure. In exchange for partial credit
toward a course requirement, 141 heterosexual-identified under-
graduates (76 women and 65 men; median age ⫽ 20) were ran-
domly assigned to complete one of two versions of an online
questionnaire. The first part of the questionnaire contained several
statements about the tenuous and uncertain nature of either man-
hood or womanhood. On a scale ranging from 1 (not at all true)to
7(very true), participants rated seven statements that were written
with the goal of avoiding gender-typed language (e.g., prove and
hard won): “It is fairly easy for a man (woman) to lose his (her)
status as a man (woman),” “A male’s (female’s) status as a ‘real
man’ (‘real woman’) sometimes depends on how other people view
him (her),” “Some boys (girls) do not become men (women), no
matter how old they get,” “Other people often question whether a
man (woman) is a ‘real man’ (‘real woman’),” “Manhood (Wom-
anhood) is something that can be taken away,” “Manhood
(Womanhood) is not assured—it can be lost,” and “Manhood
(Womanhood) is not a permanent state, because a man (woman)
might do something that suggests that he (she) is really just a ‘boy’
(‘girl’).” These items were internally consistent (␣⫽.85), so we
Next, participants used the same 7-point scale to rate the truth-
fulness of two statements about the physical and social underpin-
nings of the transition to adulthood: “The transition from boyhood
(girlhood) to manhood (womanhood) occurs because of something
physical or biological, e.g., hormonal changes” and “The transition
from boyhood (girlhood) to manhood (womanhood) occurs be-
cause of something social, e.g., passing certain social milestones.”
Finally, to control for the possibility that people’s reactions to
the statements merely reflected their beliefs about traditional gen-
der roles, all participants completed Larsen and Long’s (1988)
Traditional-Egalitarian Sex Role Scale. On a scale ranging from 1
(strongly disagree)to5(strongly agree), participants indicated
their endorsement of 20 statements reflecting traditional and egal-
itarian gender role beliefs (e.g., “A woman’s place is in the home”
and “A man who has chosen to stay at home and be a house-
husband is not less masculine”). After coding responses so that
higher scores indicated more traditional views, we averaged the 20
We submitted ratings of the truth of the manhood–womanhood
statements to a 2 (participant sex) ⫻ 2 (version: manhood vs.
womanhood) analysis of covariance, with Traditional-Egalitarian
Sex Role Scale scores as a significant covariate, F(1, 135) ⫽ 4.23,
VANDELLO, BOSSON, COHEN, BURNAFORD, AND WEAVER
p ⬍ .04. Results revealed a main effect of version, F(1, 135) ⫽
17.81, p ⬍ .001, d ⫽ 0.72, and a marginally significant effect of
participant sex, F(1, 135) ⫽ 3.53, p ⫽ .06, d ⫽ 0.32, but no
interaction (F ⬍ 1). As expected, people rated statements about
precarious manhood (M ⫽ 4.19, SE ⫽ 0.15) as being truer than
statements about precarious womanhood (M ⫽ 3.33, SE ⫽ 0.14),
and this main effect remained highly significant when we excluded
the covariate from the model ( p ⬍ .001). Secondarily, men (M ⫽
3.96, SE ⫽ 0.15) found slightly more truth in all of the statements
than did women (M ⫽ 3.55, SE ⫽ 0.15).
We next submitted responses to the statements about the tran-
sition from childhood to adulthood to a 2 (participant sex) ⫻ 2
(version: manhood vs. womanhood) ⫻ 2 (cause: physical vs.
social) mixed-model analysis of covariance, with repeated mea-
sures on the last factor. This analysis yielded a significant Ver-
sion ⫻ Cause interaction, F(1, 135) ⫽ 6.70, p ⬍ .02, f ⫽ .22. As
illustrated in Figure 1, participants more strongly attributed the
transition to manhood to social factors than to physical factors,
F(1, 135) ⫽ 7.18, p ⬍ .01, d ⫽ 0.45, whereas they attributed the
transition to womanhood equally strongly to social and physical
factors (F ⬍ 1). Also, participants viewed the transition to man-
hood as more social than the transition to womanhood, F(1,
135) ⫽ 12.40, p ⬍ .01, d ⫽ 0.60, whereas they viewed both
transitions as equally physical (F ⬍ 1). All of these effects re-
mained significant when we excluded the covariate from the model
( ps ⬍ .01).
There was also a marginally significant effect of version, F(1,
135) ⫽ 3.40, p ⫽ .07, d ⫽ 0.31; a marginally significant Cause ⫻
Sex interaction, F(1, 135) ⫽ 2.84, p ⫽ .09, f ⫽ .15; and a
Version ⫻ Sex interaction, F(1, 135) ⫽ 4.19, p ⬍ .05, f ⫽ .18, that
were not clearly relevant to hypotheses. Namely, men rated both
physical and social causes as truer of manhood than womanhood,
and they endorsed social causes slightly more strongly than did
women for both versions of the questionnaire. No other effects
emerged (Fs ⬍ 2, ps ⬎ .16).
Summary of Studies 1a and 1b
The findings from Studies 1a and 1b suggest that beliefs about
the precariousness of manhood (relative to womanhood) are alive
and well in contemporary, industrialized cultures such as that of
the United States. Whether notions of precarious manhood ap-
peared in the form of folk wisdom (Study 1a) or straightforward
opinion statements (Study 1b), both men and women consistently
and strongly endorsed the idea that manhood, relative to woman-
hood, is a precarious state that must be actively achieved and
defended through social proof. Note that this finding emerged
when we controlled for an index of how stereotype consistent (e.g.,
“understandable”) the proverbs were (Study 1a) and when we
avoided gender-typed language altogether (Study 1b), suggesting
that people’s relatively favorable reactions to the notion of precar-
ious manhood do not seem to be driven simply by stereotypes
about male agency. Nor are people’s reactions driven merely by
their tendency to endorse traditional gender roles, as the effects in
Study 1b were significant when we controlled for a measure of
gender role beliefs.
In addition, the results of Study 1b provide evidence of people’s
beliefs about the elusive nature of manhood: Although entrance
into both manhood and womanhood occurs via the passage of
physical or biological milestones, the transition to manhood re-
quires additional social achievements. This suggests that people
view manhood as elusive, that is, not assured. We build on this
finding in the next study by examining people’s beliefs about the
tenuous (easily lost) nature of manhood.
In Study 2, we extended Study 1’s findings by examining
whether people understand manhood as an impermanent state that,
once achieved, can be lost with relative ease. Participants read a
vague self-description about losing either manhood or womanhood
and then offered their interpretations of what the writer meant and
rated the difficulty of the interpretation task. If manhood is seen as
more tenuous than womanhood, then people should find it easier to
interpret a statement about “losing manhood” than an identical
statement about “losing womanhood.” In addition, if manhood is
an impermanent, socially achieved status and womanhood is a
relatively enduring physical status, then people should be more
likely to attribute lost manhood to social changes and lost wom-
anhood to physical changes.
Participants and procedure. A total of 75 heterosexual-
identified undergraduates (38 men and 37 women; median age ⫽
21) participated in an optional class exercise. In groups of up to 4,
participants completed a sentence interpretation task as part of a
larger packet of questionnaires (the remainder of which are not
relevant here). For the interpretation task, participants read a brief
statement that was ostensibly extracted from a longer, autobio-
graphical narrative. Instructions explained that self-descriptions
can be interpreted in many ways and that the purpose of this study
was to understand the specific meaning that people impute to
others’ self-descriptions. Depending on condition, participants
then read “My life isn’t what I expected it would be. I used to be
a man (woman). Now, I’m not a man (woman) anymore.”
After reading the self-description, participants wrote open-
ended interpretations of what they thought the writer meant. Next,
they answered three questions about their interpretation: “How
difficult was it to understand what the person meant?” “How
confident are you that your interpretation was what the speaker
Degree of Endorsement
Figure 1. Beliefs about biological versus social causes of the transition
from childhood to manhood and womanhood, Study 1b.
intended?” and “How unusual of a statement was that for someone
to say?” These questions were answered on a scale ranging from 1
(not at all)to7(extremely). We averaged responses to these three
items (after reverse scoring the confidence item) to form an index
of difficulty of interpretation (␣⫽.70).
Next, participants read two interpretations of the self-description
that had ostensibly been written by prior participants (in counter-
balanced order). One interpretation emphasized a social reason for
the statement: “She (he) probably means that she’s (he’s) lost
something important to her (him), like she (he) lost her (his) job or
husband (wife) or something. And now she (he) feels like a
failure.” The other interpretation emphasized a physical reason: “It
sounds like she (he) maybe had a sex change operation and now
considers herself (himself) a man (woman).” After reading each
prewritten interpretation, participants answered two questions:
“How much do you agree with this interpretation?” and “Do you
think this is the correct interpretation for the statement?” Both
questions were answered on a scale ranging from 1 (not at all)to
7(extremely), and we averaged the two items to create an endorse-
ment index (r ⬎ .80 for each interpretation).
Codings. Two independent raters, naı¨ve to the study purpose
and hypotheses, coded each open-ended interpretation along two
dimensions: social and physical. Raters were trained to categorize
as social any interpretations that implied passing (or failing to
pass) some sort of social milestone or behaving in a way that
garnered negative social evaluations from others (e.g., losing a job,
disappointing a loved one, and failing to meet social expectations).
More important, social interpretations always involved some ex-
plicit or implicit reference to other people and/or the speaker’s
relationships to others. In contrast, physical interpretations implied
some type of physical change or loss (e.g., getting a sex-change
operation, losing a breast to cancer, going through menopause, or
growing weak with age). For each category, interpretations re-
ceived a code of 1 if they included that type of reason and a code
of 0 if they did not (note that an interpretation could earn a score
of 1 in both categories if it referenced both social and physical
reasons). Overall, there was strong consensus between the two
coders (social, ⫽.74; physical, ⫽.84). In the few cases in
which coders disagreed, discussion with Joseph A. Vandello and
Jennifer K. Bosson resolved disagreements. (All results reported
below remained significant when the cases of disagreement were
We expected participants to have an easier time interpreting a
statement about losing manhood than an identical statement about
losing womanhood. To test this hypothesis, we submitted the index
of difficulty of interpretation to a 2 (participant sex) ⫻ 2 (version:
manhood vs. womanhood) analysis of variance (ANOVA). Results
of this analysis yielded only the predicted main effect of statement
version, such that the statement about losing manhood was rated as
easier to interpret (M ⫽ 3.74, SD ⫽ 1.18) than the statement about
losing womanhood (M ⫽ 4.42, SD ⫽ 1.17), F(1, 71) ⫽ 5.94, p ⬍
.02, d ⫽ 0.57. No other effects approached significance ( ps ⬎ .18).
Concerning the content of people’s open-ended interpretations,
we expected relatively more social than physical reasons for the
loss of manhood, and we expected more physical than social
reasons for the loss of womanhood. To test this, we submitted the
content codings to a 2 (participant sex) ⫻ 2 (version: manhood vs.
womanhood) ⫻ 2 (content: physical vs. social) ANOVA, with
repeated measures on the last factor. This analysis yielded only the
anticipated Version ⫻ Content interaction, F(1, 71) ⫽ 12.22, p ⬍
.01, f ⫽ .41 As shown in Figure 2, people’s interpretations of the
manhood statement contained more social than physical reasons,
F(1, 71) ⫽ 13.62, p ⬍ .001, d ⫽ 0.86, whereas their interpretations
of the womanhood statement contained marginally significantly
more physical than social reasons, F(1, 71) ⫽ 3.28, p ⫽ .07, d ⫽
0.42. No other main effects or interactions approached significance
( ps ⬎ .21).
Finally, we analyzed participants’ endorsement of the two (so-
cial and physical) prewritten interpretations by submitting the
endorsement indices to a 2 (participant sex) ⫻ 2 (version: man-
hood vs. womanhood) ⫻ 2 (interpretation: physical vs. social)
ANOVA with repeated measures on the last factor. This analysis
produced a main effect of interpretation, F(1, 71) ⫽ 31.68, p ⬍
.001, d ⫽ 1.32, that was qualified by a Version ⫻ Interpretation
interaction, F(1, 71) ⫽ 17.97, p ⬍ .001, f ⫽ .50. As predicted,
people endorsed the social interpretation more strongly for the
manhood version (M ⫽ 5.28, SD ⫽ 1.26) than for the womanhood
version (M ⫽ 4.02, SD ⫽ 1.44), F(1, 71) ⫽ 15.60, p ⬍ .001, d ⫽
0.92, and they endorsed the physical interpretation more strongly
for the womanhood version (M ⫽ 3.64, SD ⫽ 1.64) than for the
manhood version (M ⫽ 2.59, SD ⫽ 1.45), F(1, 71) ⫽ 8.01, p ⬍
.01, d ⫽ 0.66.
If manhood status is viewed as tenuous and impermanent rela-
tive to womanhood status, then a statement about “no longer being
a man” should make more sense to people than a statement about
“no longer being a woman.” Indeed, participants found the man-
hood version of the statement easier to interpret and understand. In
addition, participants interpreted the statement about lost manhood
in primarily social terms (“He no longer fits society’s definition of
a man”), whereas they interpreted the statement about lost wom-
anhood in primarily physical terms (“She had an operation and is
no longer a woman”). These results thus corroborate and extend
the findings from Studies 1a and 1b in suggesting that manhood is
a relatively precarious, socially achieved status, whereas woman-
Percentage Mentioning Theme
Figure 2. Percentages of social versus physical interpretations of state-
ments about lost manhood or womanhood, Study 2.
VANDELLO, BOSSON, COHEN, BURNAFORD, AND WEAVER
hood is a relatively enduring status that is lost (if at all) through
physical or biological changes.
A potential criticism of the studies presented thus far is that we
have not given adequate attention to the possibility that woman-
hood status is also dependent on social actions, but in ways we
have not addressed. Specifically, in many cultures a core compo-
nent of womanhood is the ability to successfully birth and raise
children (e.g., see Molony, 1993, on the importance of motherhood
in Japan). Even in the contemporary United States, the motherhood
mandate (Hays, 1996) dictates that women should prioritize child-
bearing and rearing more strongly than should men.
On the basis of this idea, we further examined participants’
open-ended interpretations to see whether they mentioned not
being able to have or rear children as a possible reason for lost
manhood versus lost womanhood. Only 4 participants mentioned
“cannot have children” in their interpretation, but all of these
participants were in the womanhood condition. Thus, one possi-
bility is that an inability to bear children is considered a condition
of womanhood, but one that simply did not come to mind spon-
taneously for participants in Study 2. To examine this hypothesis,
we tested more directly the link between womanhood and child-
bearing in Study 3.
We had two goals for this study. First, we wanted to explore the
possibility that womanhood status is predicated on the ability to
bear children. If womanhood requires bearing children in the same
way that manhood requires certain actions, then an adult female
who cannot bear children should be viewed as “not a real woman.”
This finding would indicate that the transition from girlhood to
womanhood is not considered a developmental certainty. Of
course, it is possible that the ability to produce offspring is also
viewed as a necessary condition for manhood, in which case an
adult man who cannot impregnate a woman should be viewed as
“not a real man.” Second, we wanted to test this logic using a
paradigm that was less bound by language and the gender-
stereotyped connotations of agentic and communal words. Thus,
we explored the images, rather than the words, that people asso-
ciate with lost manhood versus lost womanhood. In particular, we
wondered whether people envision a child when imagining some-
one who is not a real woman (or man).
Participants and procedure. Sixty-two undergraduates (31
men and 31 women; median age ⫽ 20.5) completed a question-
naire packet, individually or in small groups, in exchange for
course credit. The questionnaire was titled “Psychological Por-
traits,” and it began by explaining that
a psychological portrait is not a literal picture of the physical person,
but a picture of the person’s character or psychological make-up. In
fact, psychological portraits never actually look like the physical
person they represent, and they can even be quite abstract.
Following this description were four examples of psychological
portraits, in various artistic styles and levels of abstraction, accom-
panying brief trait descriptions (e.g., “Tony is experiencing a crisis
of faith. He has recently come to question his faith in God. He is
deeply troubled and conflicted by his own spiritual doubts”). After
viewing the examples, participants read a “clinical description” of
either a man or a woman and then circled which of five possible
portraits they believed best captured the character of the man or
woman who was described.
On the basis of random assignment, participants read either the
manhood version of the clinical description (“John is 29 years old.
He and his wife have been trying to have children for years, but
without any luck. John recently learned that he is not able to get his
wife pregnant”) or the womanhood version (“Danielle is 29 years
old. She and her husband have been trying to have children for
years, but without any luck. Danielle recently learned that she is
not able to get pregnant”). Below the description were five sketches
depicting (a) an attractive adult, (b) an unattractive adult, (c) a child,
(d) a piece of abstract art, and (e) a horse. The gender of the
persons depicted in Sketches 1–3 matched the gender of the target
person (John vs. Danielle). However, we equated the male and
female sketches as closely as possible (Sketches 4 and 5 were
identical across the two conditions). For the child and unattractive
adult, we used the same sketch and merely modified the hair to
change the target’s sex (i.e., short hair vs. longer hair or pigtails).
For the attractive adult sketches, we could not create similarly
attractive faces using the same sketch, so we chose two different
sketches done in a similar style. Pilot ratings confirmed that the
three matching pairs of male–female sketches were similar in
terms of attractiveness ( ps ⬎ .10), approximate age ( ps ⬎ .10),
and emotional expression ( ps ⬎ .20), thus suggesting that partic-
ipants’ choice of sketch was not influenced by differences along
these dimensions. Our dependent variable was the percentage of
people who selected the child sketch to capture the character of the
Results and Discussion
If true womanhood is dependent on being able to bear children,
then a woman who cannot bear children should lose her status as
a woman and be seen as just a girl. Our results, however, did not
support the idea that real women must bear children and instead
suggested that producing offspring is more often seen as a condi-
tion for manhood. Whereas 40% of participants (n ⫽ 12 of 30)
selected the child sketch to represent the infertile man, only 16%
(n ⫽ 5 of 32) selected the child sketch to represent the infertile
(1, N ⫽ 62) ⫽ 4.62, p ⬍ .04, d ⫽ 0.57 (results of an
ANOVA confirmed that participant sex did not interact with
portrait version, p ⬎ .15). In contrast, respondents chose the
unattractive woman to represent the character of the infertile
woman 28% of the time (n ⫽ 9), whereas they chose the unattrac-
tive male to represent the character of the infertile man only 7% of
the time (n ⫽ 2),
(1, N ⫽ 62) ⫽ 4.89, p ⬍ .03, d ⫽ 0.59. (There
were no differences in how often the attractive picture, abstract
picture, or horse were chosen to represent the character of the male
or female target, all ps ⬎ .50).
These findings are consistent with the notion that women who fail
to meet standards of womanhood may be seen as “bad” women with
unattractive characteristics, but they are unlikely to lose their status as
women (unlike infertile adult men, who are seen as merely boys). In
the next study, we begin to hone in on the psychological conse-
quences for men of occupying such a precarious gender role.
Findings from the first three studies point to a robust belief in
the relative precariousness of manhood relative to womanhood.
When men fail to meet certain social standards, their status as men
is questioned by others. Given this state of affairs, one might
expect that men, relative to women, experience a good deal of
anxiety about their gender status. This idea is central to several
theories of masculinity (Eisler & Skidmore, 1987; O’Neil, Helms,
Gable, David, & Wrightsman, 1986; Pleck, 1981, 1995), but to our
knowledge, no studies have directly compared men’s and women’s
anxious reactions to feedback that threatens their gender status. We
did this in Study 4 by giving participants false feedback about their
performance on a gender knowledge test and then measuring their
anxiety-related emotions (e.g., threat, shame, and embarrassment).
Note, however, that admitting anxiety in itself might constitute
a challenge to men’s manhood status. If so, then feedback that
directly threatens their manhood might compel men to underreport
their feelings of anxiety for self-presentational purposes. Because
we were concerned that straightforward self-report measures might
not capture men’s real reactions to the gender threat, we used
indirect measures instead. Participants (a) did a word completion
task that assessed spontaneous activation of anxiety-related words,
(b) indicated how comfortable they felt about others learning their
test score, and (c) predicted their performance on another test of
gender knowledge. We expected gender-threatened men (but not
women) to complete more anxiety-related words, report more
discomfort about revealing their test score to others (Rudman &
Fairchild, 2004), and defensively predict a better performance on
a future, hypothetical test.
Participants and design. Eighty-one heterosexual-identified
undergraduates (41 men and 40 women) received course credit for
their participation and were randomly assigned to threat condition
in a 2 (participant sex) ⫻ 2 (gender threat: threat vs. no threat)
Procedure. Participants arrived at the laboratory alone or in
pairs, and an experimenter explained to them that they would take
part in two brief, unrelated studies. The first study would test their
knowledge of gender-related topics and the second would consist
of a (supposedly) unrelated questionnaire.
Participants then individually completed a computerized “gen-
der knowledge test” in a small lab room. This 32-item test was
adapted from Rudman and Fairchild (2004) and included 16
multiple-choice items measuring knowledge about stereotypically
masculine topics (sports, auto mechanics, and home repair) and 16
items measuring knowledge about stereotypically feminine topics
(cooking, childcare, and fashion). Items ranged from moderately
difficult to very difficult so that the false feedback would be
believable. After participants completed the test, the computer
produced feedback about their performance, including their per-
centile rank compared with others of the same sex. Half of the
participants received nonthreatening feedback (they learned that
they scored at the 73rd percentile), and the other half received
threatening feedback (they learned that they scored at the 27th
percentile). In addition, the computer produced a visual scale
anchored with “feminine gender identity” and “masculine gender
identity” at each end. An arrow toward the feminine end showed
the “average woman’s score” and an arrow toward the male end
showed the “average man’s score.” An arrow labeled “your score”
appeared either near the average man’s or the average woman’s
score, depending on the participant’s sex and threat condition.
After receiving their feedback, participants completed an osten-
sibly unrelated questionnaire. The first page contained a 24-item
word completion task whose true purpose was to measure the
extent to which words related to anxiety and threat were cogni-
tively accessible. Of the 24 word fragments, 7 could be completed
with either anxiety-related words or anxiety-unrelated words:
THREA__ (threat), STRE__ __ (stress), __ __SET (upset);
__OTHER (bother), SHA__ E (shame), __EAK (weak), and
LO__ER (loser). Our main dependent variable was the percentage
of these word fragments that were completed to create anxiety-
Following the word completion task, participants responded to
four questions concerning how comfortable they felt about others
learning of their test score and feedback: “Would you be comfort-
able with your friends learning about your test score and feed-
back?” “Would you be comfortable with your family members
learning about your test score and feedback?” “Would you be
comfortable letting the researchers post your full name and test
score on a public website that describes the gender knowledge
test?” and “Would you be comfortable letting the researchers print
your full name and test score in an article in The Oracle [the
university newspaper]?” Responses to these questions were made on
a scale ranging from 1 (definitely no)to7(definitely yes), and we
averaged them to form an aggregate measure of comfort (␣⫽.82).
Finally, two items asked participants to predict their future
performance on a similar gender knowledge test: “If you took a
similar test, do you think you would score better on this test than
you did on the gender knowledge test that you already took?” and
“If you took a similar test, do you think you would score worse on
this test than you did on the gender knowledge test that you already
took?” After reverse scoring the second item, we averaged these
items to form a future performance expectation measure (r ⫽ .30,
p ⬍ .01). Participants then completed a brief demographic ques-
tionnaire and received a thorough debriefing during which the
experimenter probed for suspicion. No participants expressed more
than mild suspicion.
Results and Discussion
We predicted that men would respond to the gender threat with
greater feelings of anxiety and threat than women. To test this, we
first conducted a 2 (participant sex) ⫻ 2 (gender threat) ANOVA
on the percentage of word fragments that participants completed
with anxiety-related words. This analysis revealed a significant
Sex ⫻ Gender Threat interaction, F(1, 77) ⫽ 8.12, p ⬍ .01, f ⫽
.32, and the pattern of means was consistent with our prediction
(see Table 1). Men in the gender-threat condition completed more
word fragments in an anxious manner than did men in the no-threat
condition, F(1, 77) ⫽ 6.03, p ⬍ .02, d ⫽ 0.55. In contrast, women
in the gender-threat condition did not differ significantly from
those in the no-threat condition in the percentage of anxiety-related
words they completed, F(1, 77) ⫽ 2.50, p ⫽ .12. Men also
completed more anxiety-related words than did women when
under gender threat, F(1, 77) ⫽ 4.56, p ⬍ .04, d ⫽ 0.48, whereas
VANDELLO, BOSSON, COHEN, BURNAFORD, AND WEAVER
they completed marginally significantly fewer anxiety-related
words than did women in the no-threat condition, F(1, 77) ⫽ 3.61,
p ⬍ .07, d ⫽ 0.43.
Next, we submitted the index of comfort with publicizing one’s
test score to the same 2 (participant sex) ⫻ 2 (gender threat)
ANOVA as above. This analysis revealed a marginally significant
main effect of threat condition, F(1, 77) ⫽ 3.26, p ⬍ .08, d ⫽ 0.41,
that was qualified by the expected Sex ⫻ Gender Threat interac-
tion, F(1, 77) ⫽ 3.87, p ⫽ .05, f ⫽ .22. Men in the gender-threat
condition were less comfortable with the idea of others learning
about their test score as compared with men in the no-threat
condition, F(1, 77) ⫽ 7.21, p ⬍ .01, d ⫽ .60 (see Table 1).
Conversely, the comfort levels of women in the gender-threat and
no-threat conditions did not differ (F ⬍ 1). Note, though, that men
and women did not differ from each other in the threat condition
(F ⬍ 1). Instead, men in the no-threat condition were marginally
significantly more comfortable than women in the no-threat con-
dition with the thought of others learning their score, F(1, 77) ⫽
3.59, p ⬍ .07, d ⫽ 0.43.
Finally, we tested whether men were especially likely to react to
their low score by claiming that they would perform better on
another test. An ANOVA on future performance expectations
revealed a marginally significant main effect of participant sex,
F(1, 77) ⫽ 2.78, p ⬍ .10, d ⫽ 0.38, that was qualified by the
anticipated interaction, F(1, 77) ⫽ 4.82, p ⬍ .04, f ⫽ .25 (see
Table 1). Men in the gender-threat condition predicted a better
future performance for themselves as compared with men in the
no-threat condition, F(1, 77) ⫽ 5.13, p ⬍ .03, d ⫽ 0.51. In
contrast, women in the gender-threat and no-threat conditions
predicted future performances that did not differ (F ⬍ 1). More-
over, men predicted a better future performance than did women
when under gender threat, F(1, 77) ⫽ 7.76, p ⬍ .01, d ⫽ 0.63, but
men and women’s performance expectations did not differ in the
no-threat condition (F ⬍ 1).
Considered as a whole, these results suggest that gender-
threatening feedback arouses stronger feelings of anxiety and
related emotions (threat or shame) among men than among
women, a pattern that is consistent with the thesis that manhood
is a more tenuous, precarious state than is womanhood. Of
course, our design did not allow us to rule out the possibility
that men are simply more threatened than women by any
negative feedback, but we do not find this a plausible alterna-
tive explanation. We know of no finding in the self-esteem
literature suggesting that men in general are more bothered by
self-threats than are women. Instead, research has suggested
that gender differences in reactions to self-threats reflect the
importance of the domain of threat to men’s versus women’s
self-concepts (e.g., Josephs, Markus, & Tafarodi, 1992). Our
findings indicate that gender status is one of those very domains
in which threats bother men more than women. In the next
study, we test whether gender threats also activate more ag-
gressive thoughts in men than in women.
We propose that physical aggression is part of men’s, but not
women’s, cultural script for restoring a threatened gender identity.
It is well established that men are more likely to use physical
aggression and women are more likely to use relational aggression
(social exclusion, gossiping, and rumor spreading; Bjo¨rkqvist,
1994; Crick & Grotpeter, 1995; Lagerspetz, Bjo¨rkqvist, &
Peltonen, 1988), so it would not be surprising if the two genders
reacted with different forms of aggression to a gender identity
threat. However, our hypothesis goes beyond this to argue that
women’s use of relational aggression is not linked as directly to
gender threat as is men’s use of physical aggression. Indeed,
relational aggression seems to result more from perceived threats
to women’s close interpersonal relationships (Lento-Zwolinski,
2007) than from threats to their gender identity or status as women
According to general models of aggression (Anderson & Bushman,
2002; Berkowitz, 1990), unpleasant situational experiences—such as
threats to gender identity—should activate cognitive knowledge
structures (e.g., goals and scripts) related to aggression. If cultural
scripts for manhood sanction physical aggression as a way of
demonstrating masculine status, then a threat to their masculinity
should prime physically aggressive thoughts and feelings in men
even when they do not act on them and even in the absence of a
specific provoker. A gender threat should not, however, prime
relationally aggressive thoughts in men, nor should it prime either
type of aggressive thought in women.
In Study 5, we examined activation of aggressive thoughts after
giving men and women feedback that either threatened or did not
threaten their gender identity. We predicted a three-way interaction
of participant sex, gender threat, and aggression type, such that the
gender threat should heighten the accessibility of physically ag-
gressive (but not relationally aggressive) thoughts among men,
whereas the threat should have no effect on women’s aggressive
Participants and design. One hundred thirty-four
heterosexual-identified undergraduates (67 men and 67 women;
median age ⫽ 20) received course credit for participating and were
randomly assigned to experimental condition in a 2 (participant
Anxiety and Threat Responses as a Function of Participant Sex
and Gender Identity Threat Condition, Study 4
Dependent variable and
Gender threat No threat
completions (% [SD])
Men 35.37 (13.26) 24.29 (13.19)
Women 25.85 (16.05) 33.08 (15.10)
Comfort with others learning of
one’s test score (M [SD])
Men 4.14 (1.83) 5.39 (1.07)
Women 4.54 (1.60) 4.49 (1.29)
expectations (M [SD])
Men 5.60 (0.96) 4.85 (0.86)
Women 4.69 (1.21) 4.97 (1.15)
sex) ⫻ 2 (gender threat: threat vs. no threat) ⫻ 2 (aggression type:
physical vs. relational) design.
Procedure. Participants individually completed the same 32-
item gender knowledge test as in Study 4 and subsequently re-
ceived either the gender-threat or the no-threat feedback about
their performance. After participants received their feedback, the
experimenter led them to another room to complete an ostensibly
unrelated questionnaire whose true purpose was to measure ag-
gressive cognitions. Depending on condition, the questionnaire
assessed cognitions about either physical or relational aggression.
The first page of the questionnaire contained a 28-item word-
completion task modeled after Anderson, Carnagey, and Eu-
banks’s (2003) Word Fragment Test. In the physical aggression
condition, eight of the word fragments could be completed in
either aggressive or nonaggressive ways: GU__ (gun), KI__ __
(kill or kick), __IGHT (fight), BLO__ __ (blood), B__T__LE
(battle), __ __RDER (murder), __UNCH ( punch), and STA__
(stab). In the relational aggression condition, nine of the word
fragments could be completed in either aggressive or nonaggres-
sive ways: LI__ (lie), __UMOR (rumor), __ __CLUDE (exclude),
__ __JECT (reject), TE__SE (tease), G__SS__ __ (gossip),
IGN__ __E (ignore), SL__ __DER (slander), and TA__N__
(taunt). Past research has demonstrated that this type of word
completion task is a valid measure of aggressive cognitions
(Anderson et al., 2003, 2004; Carnagey & Anderson, 2005). Scores
were computed as a percentage of total possible words completed
in an aggressive manner.
After the word completion task, participants completed a filler task,
the Positive and Negative Affect Scales (Watson, Clark, & Tellegen,
1988), and a brief demographics scale and were debriefed.
experimenter probed for suspicion during debriefings, but no partic-
ipants expressed anything more than mild suspicion.
Results and Discussion
We predicted a three-way interaction such that men should
exhibit more physically (but not relationally) aggressive thoughts
after receiving gender-threatening feedback, whereas women’s
aggressive thoughts should be unaffected by the gender threat.
Using a 2 (participant sex) ⫻ 2 (gender threat) ⫻ 2 (aggression
type) ANOVA, we analyzed the percentage of word fragments that
participants completed with aggressive words. This analysis re-
vealed a three-way interaction, F(1, 126) ⫽ 4.91, p ⬍ .03, f ⫽ .20,
that qualified significant Sex ⫻ Aggression and Threat ⫻ Aggres-
sion interactions (Fs ⬎ 7.00, ps ⬍ .01, fs ⬎ .24), as well as a main
effect of aggression type, F(1, 126) ⫽ 4.30, p ⬍ .05, d ⫽ 0.36, and
a marginally significant main effect of gender threat, F(1, 126) ⫽
3.00, p ⬍ .09, d ⫽ 0.30. To decompose the three-way interaction,
we conducted separate 2 (participant sex) ⫻ 2 (gender threat)
ANOVAs for the physical aggression and relational aggression
Among people who received the physical aggression word com-
pletion task, the two-way interaction was significant, F(1, 58) ⫽
4.21, p ⬍ .05, f ⫽ .27, and the pattern of means conformed to
predictions: Men completed more physically aggressive words in
the gender-threat condition than in the no-threat condition, F(1,
58) ⫽ 12.41, p ⬍ .01, d ⫽ 0.91, but women’s physically aggres-
sive word completions did not differ as a function of gender threat
(F ⬍ 1; see the means on the left side of Figure 3). Among people
who completed the relational aggression word completion task, no
significant effects emerged (all Fs ⬍ 2, ps ⬎ .18; see the means on
the right side of Figure 3).
To control for the possible influence of negative mood on these
effects, we reran the above analyses using the Negative Affect
scale of the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (␣⫽.78) as a
covariate. All significant effects remained significant when we
controlled for negative affect.
To summarize, when men’s masculinity was threatened, they
exhibited heightened accessibility of physically aggressive
thoughts, as measured by their spontaneous completion of words in
hostile ways. A threat to their manhood did not increase men’s
relationally aggressive thoughts, and among women, a threat to
their womanhood did not activate either type of aggressive
thoughts. Although data demonstrating a more direct causal con-
nection between manhood threats and physical aggression are still
needed, these findings provide initial support for our thesis that
gender threats prime role-typical aggressive thoughts more
strongly for men than for women.
In the context of a modern, industrialized society that witnessed
an influential feminist movement more than 3 decades ago, it may
seem outdated to suggest that manhood must be earned and then
actively defended. However, our findings suggest that themes of
precarious manhood still resonate with U.S. college students. For
example, students in our first study endorsed proverbs and state-
ments about the uncertain, tenuous, and easily lost nature of
manhood more than of womanhood, and they attributed the tran-
sition to manhood as resulting more from social than physical
factors. Along similar lines, participants in Study 2 found it easier
We originally ran a 2 (participant sex) ⫻ 2 (gender threat) study in
which the dependent variable was physically aggressive cognitions. In
response to reviewer comments on an earlier version of this article, we ran
a follow-up 2 (participant sex) ⫻ 2 (gender threat) study treating relation-
ally aggressive cognitions as the dependent variable. For purposes of
presentation, we combined these two studies into an eight-cell design.
When we decompose the interaction, however, we do so by testing the
Sex ⫻ Threat interaction separately for those in the physically aggressive
condition versus the relationally aggressive condition.
Aggression priming manipulations fade rapidly, such that the predicted
effects of aggression primes often emerge on only the first in a series of
dependent measures (Lindsay & Anderson, 2000). Nevertheless, we did
ask (directly before the Positive and Negative Affect Scales were admin-
istered) about participants’ endorsement of another person’s role-typical
violence in fictional scenarios involving either physical aggression (e.g., a
man slapping his wife) or relational aggression (e.g., a woman ostracizing
her friend). The three-way interaction did not emerge in the analysis of
endorsement of another’s aggression (F ⬍ 1). However, interactions of
Participant Sex ⫻ Aggression Type, F(1, 126) ⫽ 6.49, p ⬍ .02, f ⫽ .23,
and Participant Sex ⫻ Gender Threat, F(1, 126) ⫽ 4.29, p ⬍ .05, f ⫽ .18,
did emerge. Men endorsed both types of aggressive behavior slightly more
strongly in the gender-threat as opposed to the no-threat condition, whereas
women endorsed aggressive behavior slightly less in the gender-threat
condition relative to the no-threat condition. Men also endorsed physical
aggression slightly more than relational aggression, whereas women en-
dorsed physical aggression substantially less than relational aggression. No
other effects emerged (Fs ⬍ 2.20, ps ⬎ .14).
VANDELLO, BOSSON, COHEN, BURNAFORD, AND WEAVER
to interpret statements about lost manhood than about lost wom-
anhood, and they interpreted lost manhood statements as resulting
from social (rather than physical) factors. And participants in
Study 3 were more likely to visualize a child when imagining an
infertile man compared with an infertile woman, suggesting that
men who cannot produce children are no longer viewed as real
men, whereas women who cannot produce children may be con-
sidered flawed but nonetheless real women. Thus, consistent with
findings obtained in preindustrial cultures around the world (Gil-
more, 1990), our findings demonstrate a belief in the elusive,
tenuous nature of manhood. In short, whereas womanhood is
viewed as a developmental certainty that is permanent once
achieved, manhood is seen as more of a social accomplishment
that can be lost and therefore must be defended with active
demonstrations of manliness.
What are the consequences to men of occupying a precarious
gender status? As our findings from Study 4 indicate, men may be
especially sensitive to the precariousness of their social status.
When faced with feedback that they did not measure up to others
of their gender, men (but not women) showed increased anxiety-
and threat-related thoughts, heightened desire to hide their feed-
back, and a defensive insistence that they would do better on a
future test of gender identity. Given that manhood is precarious,
requiring action and success in all “manly” endeavors, it is not
surprising that many men feel anxiety over what they perceive as
an unattainable standard (Eisler & Skidmore, 1987; O’Neil et al.,
1986; Pleck, 1981).
Unfortunately, it is likely that this anxiety, at times, translates
into physical aggression. Like others (e.g., Malamuth, Linz, &
Heavey, 1995), we believe that many acts of male aggression are
best understood as responses to anxiety about living up to stan-
dards of masculinity and the continual pressure to prove oneself.
As initial evidence of the link between precarious manhood and
aggression, our final study demonstrated that when faced with a
threat to their gender status, men (but not women) exhibited a
heightened accessibility of physically aggressive cognitions.
Of course, we do not suggest that threats to a man’s masculinity
will inevitably lead to physical aggression. As noted, men may
restore threatened masculinity via nonaggressive means as well.
However, in contexts in which physical aggression is the most
salient masculine option or other routes to restoring manhood seem
less attractive or effective, we believe that men will likely use
aggression to restore their status as “real men.” For instance, we
found that after performing a gender-threatening (vs. nonthreaten-
ing) task in public, men subsequently exhibited more aggressive
behavior (Bosson, Vandello, Burnaford, Wasti, & Weaver, 2008).
Specifically, gender-threatened men selected an aggressive task
(boxing) over a nonaggressive one (completing a puzzle), and they
behaved in ways that displayed more aggressive capacity (i.e., they
punched a punching bag harder). Future investigations might build
on these experimental findings by examining the links between threat-
ened manhood and aggressive behavior in naturalistic contexts.
Challenges to the Precarious Manhood Hypothesis
To clarify our position fully, it is important to note how the
precarious manhood hypothesis fares with regard to three impor-
tant challenges. First, some might suggest that our focus ignores
the hardships associated with being female, or even implies that
manhood is overall a more difficult or problematic social role than
womanhood. This is not our intention. In highlighting the precar-
iousness of manhood, we do not claim that womanhood lacks its
own trials, anxieties, restrictions, and punishments. As just one
example, women in contemporary Western cultures are subjected
to highly restrictive and unrealistic standards of beauty and from
early childhood receive a powerful message that their worth as
No Threat Threat No Threat Threat
Physical Aggression Relational Aggression
Percentage of Aggressive Words
Figure 3. Percentages of physically and relationally aggressive word completions as a function of participant
sex and gender identity threat, Study 5.
individuals is measured, first and foremost, by their physical
appearance (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Goldenberg & Roberts,
2004). This emphasis on appearance might even explain partici-
pants’ tendency, in Study 3, to select a sketch of an unattractive
woman to visually represent the “true character” of a woman who
cannot bear children. That is, a woman who does not meet cultural
standards of beauty is assumed to be flawed in other ways as well.
Given this “beauty equals worth” formula, it is not surprising that
women are expected to manipulate aspects of their physical
self—in painful and invasive ways—more regularly than are men.
More important, research has shown that the physical objectifica-
tion of women produces negative consequences for their emotional
and cognitive functioning (Fredrickson, Roberts, Noll, Quinn, &
Twenge, 1998). Moreover, double standards concerning moral and
sexual conduct place greater restrictions on women’s than on
men’s behaviors in numerous domains (Baumeister & Twenge,
2002; Milhausen & Herold, 1999).
Clearly, as do men, women who seek societal approval must
conform to local cultural standards. In this sense, both manhood
and womanhood are linked with a variety of behavioral mandates,
both prescriptive and proscriptive. Our point here is not that
manhood is unique in its restrictiveness or in the prevalence of
impossible-to-achieve standards that it carries. Instead, we simply
argue that manhood, unlike womanhood, is a precarious state of
existence in itself. Women who do not live up to cultural standards
of femininity may be punished, rejected, or viewed as “unlady-
like,” but rarely will their very status as women be questioned in
the same way as men’s status often is. Thus, our focus on manhood
does not deny the importance of women’s gender-related struggles.
Instead, our work illuminates a structural feature of the masculine
gender role (precariousness) that may have important conse-
quences for men’s gendered behavior across a variety of domains,
including intimate partner violence (Vandello & Cohen, 2008).
Second, given the prevalence of stereotypes that link male persons
with agentic qualities and female persons with communal ones
(Helgeson, 1994; Spence & Buckner, 2000; Spence, Helmreich, &
Holahan, 1979; Twenge, 1997), some might suggest that the find-
ings presented here provide merely another demonstration of peo-
ple’s gender-stereotyped beliefs. In priming participants with state-
ments about manhood and womanhood, we might have activated
their gender stereotypes, and these stereotypes—not beliefs about
the precariousness of manhood—shaped their responses. This
challenge is most relevant to Studies 1a and 2 because these were
the studies in which a stereotype activation account might explain
the pattern of findings (i.e., stronger agreement with proverbs that
use stereotype-consistent rather than stereotype-inconsistent lan-
guage; more spontaneous social than physical interpretations of
statements about “lost manhood”).
Note, however, that we replicated Study 1a using gender-neutral
language in Study 1b, and our findings in Studies 3–5 are better
explained by our account than by a stereotype activation account.
For example, the precarious manhood hypothesis explains people’s
preference for a sketch of a boy to represent the true character of
an infertile man (Study 3), whereas a stereotype activation account
cannot (what stereotype links the category of child with the quality
of infertility more strongly for male than female targets?). Simi-
larly, the precarious manhood perspective better explains why a
threat to their gender status activates more anxiety- and
aggression-related thoughts in men than in women (Studies 4 and
5). To illustrate, a stereotype activation account of Study 5 would
predict that men, on average, should complete more words than
women in a physically aggressive manner because feedback about
their performance “relative to other men” should prime physically
aggressive thoughts, via activation of male gender stereotypes,
regardless of which feedback men received. Instead, and consistent
with the precarious manhood hypothesis, men completed more
physically aggressive words than women only if they first received
feedback that threatened their gender status. This suggests that
men’s aggressive word completions reflect a script that is activated
in response to gender threats rather than a stereotype that is
activated in response to any gender-relevant primes.
This brings us to the primary difference between the precarious
manhood hypothesis and a stereotype activation perspective: Our
hypothesis pertains to a structural feature of gender roles that is, at
least in theory, orthogonal to the content (agentic vs. communal) of
gender stereotypes. People in general seem to view manhood as a
more elusive (must be earned) and tenuous (can be lost) status than
womanhood. Although it is true that actions such as earn, prove,
and achieve are relevant to both the structure and the content of
stereotypes about men and masculinity, this need not imply that
our findings merely reflect the content of gender stereotypes.
Moreover, we hasten to note that beliefs about the precariousness
of manhood may actually help to explain the content of prevailing
gender stereotypes. A continual need to prove manhood could
explain why boys and men the world over are associated with
agentic traits in the first place (see Williams & Best, 1982).
A third challenge to the precarious manhood hypothesis con-
cerns our exclusive use of college student samples. Critics might
ask whether we can generalize our findings beyond the population
of young, predominantly White, middle-class, Westernized indi-
viduals from which we drew our samples. Indeed, the precarious
nature of manhood may be especially salient to college students,
for whom the impending transition into adulthood looms large. If
so, we should be particularly likely to find evidence of beliefs
about precarious manhood among college samples. Note, however,
that college students are more educated than average and are
therefore likely than nonstudents to have more progressive ideas
about gender, or at least more awareness of the idea that gender is
socially constructed. This suggests that college students should be
particularly likely to reject the notion that manhood requires social
proof or can be lost. Instead, our college student samples share the
belief espoused by cultures the world over (Gilmore, 1990)—that
manhood is more precarious than womanhood. This being said, it
would be helpful to replicate the current findings among nonstu-
dent populations. Testing our hypotheses among nonstudent and
non-U.S. populations can shed light on environmental and cultural
factors that make a society more or less likely to view manhood
(rather than womanhood) as precarious.
In addition to testing beliefs about precarious manhood among
different samples, future work might also explore some of the
social and personal moderators of the effects reported here. For
instance, we argue that men’s efforts to restore threatened man-
hood stem from concerns about losing masculine standing in the
eyes of others. After all, gender itself is often played out on a
public stage (Deaux & Major, 1987), and its performance is
VANDELLO, BOSSON, COHEN, BURNAFORD, AND WEAVER
evaluated, to a large degree, by others. At its source, then, precar-
ious manhood is a fundamentally public phenomenon, and the
anxieties that it yields should be especially troubling in public
contexts. Future studies should manipulate the public versus pri-
vate nature of both gender threats and attempts to restore mascu-
linity to test whether this factor moderates the link between threat-
ened manhood and physical aggression. On one hand, it is possible
that gender threats only elicit concerns about precarious manhood
when there is an audience to observe one’s fall from manhood. On
the other hand, to the extent that cultural constructions of mascu-
linity become internalized as core aspects of the self, even a private
gender threat may raise men’s concerns about their masculine
standing or elicit feelings of anxiety at the imagined responses of
Other possible moderators of the precarious manhood effect
include the sex composition of the audience that witnesses a
gender threat and individual differences in sensitivity to such
threats. Both theory and research have suggested that men’s gender
threats should be especially troubling in front of other men, as
male audiences constitute the most harsh—and punishing— critics
of others’ masculine performance (e.g., Bosson, Taylor, & Prewitt-
Freilino, 2006; Burn, 2000; Kimmel, 1996). Moreover, men who
suffer from chronic concerns about failing to uphold ideal stan-
dards of manhood (e.g., Eisler & Skidmore, 1987; O’Neil et al.,
1986) might react particularly negatively to experiences that make
precarious manhood salient.
Finally, we view essentialist beliefs about manhood versus
womanhood as a particularly interesting direction for future work.
Recall that our findings from Studies 1b and 2 reveal a stronger
belief in the social (relative to physical) underpinnings of manhood
status. According to work on essentialist beliefs about social
categories (e.g., Demoulin, Leyens, & Yzerbyt, 2006; Haslam &
Levy, 2006; Haslam, Rothschild, & Ernst, 2000; Hegarty, 2002;
Hegarty & Pratto, 2001), this pattern suggests that manhood is
viewed as having a weaker biological basis than womanhood.
Manhood is also viewed as lower in immutability and fixity than
womanhood, given that membership in the social category men is
not fixed, and status can change easily. Considered together, these
beliefs hint at a tendency to essentialize manhood less strongly
than womanhood. That is, with respect to gender, men may be seen
as having less of a natural, underlying “essence” that makes them
who they are, whereas women appear more defined by such an
essence. Additional investigations of essentialist beliefs about gen-
der may further clarify and refine the preliminary patterns ob-
The research presented here is consistent with existing work
across a number of disciplines that suggests that masculinity is
characterized by uncertainty, elusiveness, tenuousness, and re-
quirements of social proof. The current studies extend prior work
by (a) documenting beliefs about precarious manhood (vs. wom-
anhood) among educated members of a contemporary, industrial-
ized culture; (b) demonstrating that threats to manhood (but not
womanhood) heighten feelings of anxiety; and (c) establishing a
link between manhood threats and increases in men’s physically
aggressive cognitions. In conclusion, these studies highlight a
contrast between iconic images of what a real man is and the actual
experiences of real men. Our findings suggest that real men expe-
rience their gender as a tenuous status that they may at any time
lose and about which they readily experience anxiety and threat.
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Received August 2, 2007
Revision received March 26, 2008
Accepted March 30, 2008 䡲