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Testosterone and Men's Stress Responses to Gender Threats

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Given findings suggesting that basal testosterone (T) is a biological marker of dominance striving that buffers people against stress, we examined the role of basal T in men’s stress responses (cortisol reactivity) following a private, noncompetitive gender status threat. One-hundred twenty-eight men recruited from a university in the Southeast provided saliva samples both before and 15 minutes after receiving feedback that either threatened or affirmed their gender status. Gender threatening feedback elicited heightened cortisol reactivity among men who were low, but not high, in basal T (interaction ƒ² = .03). This suggests that men high in T may be buffered from the immediate psychophysiological effects of manhood threats. Discussion considers how these findings add to the literature on basal T and reactions to status threats. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2014 APA, all rights reserved)
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Testosterone and Men’s Stress Responses to Gender Threats
T. Andrew Caswell, Jennifer K. Bosson,
and Joseph A. Vandello
University of South Florida
Jennifer Guinn Sellers
Green Mountain College
Given findings suggesting that basal testosterone (T) is a biological marker of dominance striving that
buffers people against stress, we examined the role of basal T in men’s stress responses (cortisol
reactivity) following a private, noncompetitive gender status threat. One-hundred twenty-eight men
recruited from a university in the Southeast provided saliva samples both before and 15 minutes after
receiving feedback that either threatened or affirmed their gender status. Gender threatening feedback
elicited heightened cortisol reactivity among men who were low, but not high, in basal T (interaction f
2
.03). This suggests that men high in T may be buffered from the immediate psychophysiological effects
of manhood threats. Discussion considers how these findings add to the literature on basal T and reactions
to status threats.
Keywords: neuroendocrinology, cortisol, androgen, manhood
In contrast to womanhood, manhood is generally viewed as a
socially conferred (rather than biologically determined) status that
can be lost if one fails to uphold culture-specific, normative
standards of masculinity (Bosson & Vandello, 2011). Conceptu-
alizing manhood this way has implications for men’s reactions to
gender threats, or experiences that challenge gender status. For
example, men as compared with women exhibit greater anxiety
and more aggressive cognitions in the wake of gender threatening
feedback such as scores indicating atypicality on a test of gender
identity, presumably because such feedback reminds men of the
ease with which they can lose their manhood (Vandello, Bosson,
Cohen, Burnaford, & Weaver, 2008). Here, we examine whether
individual differences in men’s basal testosterone (T) moderate
their stress reactions following a gender threat. Basal T is a valid
and reliable biological marker of an individual’s desire to achieve
dominance and social status (Sellers, Mehl, & Josephs, 2007),
qualities which are considered central to the male gender role
across time and cultures (Williams & Best, 1990). Treating basal
T as a marker of men’s status striving, we examined whether men
who differ in basal T levels also differ in their stress response—
that is, cortisol reactivity—following an experience that threatens
(vs. affirms) their gender status.
In examining this question, we seek to extend past research on
the role of basal T in men’s cortisol reactivity following status-
relevant stressors. Past investigations examined the role of T in
people’s cortisol responses following experiences of victory and
defeat in direct, public competitions including a dog agility contest
and a one-on-one contest of “spatial processing speed” (Mehta,
Jones, & Josephs, 2008). However, given our thesis that manhood
is a precarious and tenuous social status (Bosson & Vandello,
2011), we propose that many men are sensitive even to manhood
threats that do not involve direct status competitions or win/loss
scenarios. In the present quasi-experiment, we test whether a
private and noncompetitive gender threat (relative to a gender
affirmation) heightens men’s cortisol reactivity, and whether basal
T moderates men’s stress responses to this type of gender threat as
it does their responses to direct status competitions. Note that in
focusing on hormonal and psychophysiological processes, we an-
swer a longstanding call for more biological perspectives on the
male gender role and its correlates (Levant, 2008;Lisak, 2000;
Wong, Steinfeldt, Speight, & Hickman, 2010). Before explicating
our logic, we summarize the literatures on manhood, T and dom-
inance striving, and cortisol reactivity following social stressors.
Precarious Manhood
Classic and contemporary gender role theories alike characterize
the male gender role as particularly problematic and anxiety-
provoking (e.g., Berger, Levant, McMillan, Kelleher, & Sellers,
2005;Blazina & Watkins, 2000;Eisler & Skidmore, 1987;Herek,
1986;Kimmel, 2006;Levant, 1996;O’Neil, Helms, Gable, David,
& Wrightsman, 1986;Pleck, 1981,1995). One source of anxiety
for men may be the precarious nature of manhood status. Relative
to womanhood, manhood is widely viewed as a precarious, fleet-
ing status that is difficult to attain and easy to lose, and that must
be continually demonstrated and defended (e.g., Bosson & Van-
dello, 2011;Gilmore, 1990). Men may lose manhood status by
enacting stereotypically feminine behaviors (e.g., Bosson, Prewitt-
Freilino, & Taylor, 2005), or by failing to demonstrate adequate
levels of psychological or behavioral masculinity (e.g., Vandello et
al., 2008). Thus, manhood has a state-like quality that is less
This article was published Online First February 18, 2013.
T. Andrew Caswell, Jennifer K. Bosson, and Joseph A. Vandello,
Department of Psychology, University of South Florida; Jennifer Guinn
Sellers, Department of Psychology, Green Mountain College.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to T. An-
drew Caswell, Department of Psychology, University of South Florida,
4202 East Fowler Avenue, PCD 4118G, Tampa, FL 33620. E-mail:
tcaswell@mail.usf.edu
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Psychology of Men & Masculinity © 2013 American Psychological Association
2014, Vol. 15, No. 1, 4–11 1524-9220/14/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0031394
4
evident in beliefs about womanhood: It is relatively easy for men
to lose their standing as “a real man” in others’ eyes.
Consistent with this idea, findings from our lab suggest that
people view manhood as a status that fluctuates according to the
vagaries of social factors, rather than being linked to stable bio-
logical factors (Vandello et al., 2008). In one study, people attrib-
uted the transition from boyhood to manhood more strongly to
social factors (e.g., achieving goals) than to biological ones (e.g.,
reaching puberty). Conversely, the transition from girlhood to
womanhood was attributed less strongly to social factors. Simi-
larly, people agreed with fake proverbs about the fleeting nature of
manhood (e.g., “Manhood is hard won and easily lost”) more
strongly than identical proverbs about womanhood, and they per-
ceived personal statements about lost manhood (e.g., “Now I am
no longer a man”) as easier to interpret than identical statements
about lost womanhood. Thus, people view manhood itself as a
relatively transitory, state-like role.
Male Gender Role Violations and Cortisol Reactivity
Although both boys and girls are socialized to engage in gender-
typed behavior (e.g., Lytton & Romney, 1991), and both genders
risk punishment for violating gender role expectations (Rudman &
Fairchild, 2004), boys and men are punished more harshly for
gender role violations than are girls and women (Levy, Taylor, &
Gelman, 1995;Smetana, 1986). Boys learn from an early age that
the display of any stereotypically feminine trait, preference, or
behavior may be met with punishment. For example, young boys
often begin using antigay slurs (e.g., “faggot”) to punish gender
role violators even before they are old enough to understand what
homosexuality is (Plummer, 2001). By adolescence, rigid adher-
ence to male gender norms, reinforced through socialization, pre-
dicts bullying behavior among male athletes (Steinfeldt, Vaughan,
LaFollette, & Steinfeldt, 2012).
Not surprisingly, men respond to threats to their manhood status
with emotional distress and efforts to prove their masculinity. For
example, we found that men responded to false negative feedback
about their gender status with more anxious cognitions than
women did (Vandello et al., 2008). Moreover, men who performed
a public, feminine activity (e.g., braiding hair) versus a gender-
neutral activity were subsequently more likely to select an other-
wise unpopular manhood-restoring boxing task as a follow-up
activity (Bosson, Vandello, Burnaford, Weaver, & Wasti, 2009,
Study 2). Men also punched with greater force if they had previ-
ously braided hair than if they had done a gender-neutral activity
(Bosson et al., 2009, Study 3). This suggests that manhood
threats— even in the form of benign, noncompetitive activities
such as hairstyling—are anxiety-provoking events which compel
men to restore their gender status in other people’s eyes.
If challenges to manhood status are experienced as psycholog-
ical stressors, as the findings described above suggest, then they
should result in increases in cortisol (e.g., Dickerson, Gruenewald,
& Kemeny, 2004). Cortisol, the primary stress hormone secreted
by the adrenal glands, is the end product of the hypothalamic-
pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is a series of processes
and interactions among the organs and glands that regulate the
body’s stress response. Although the HPA axis was once thought
to be activated only by physiological stressors, recent findings
show that cortisol increases following psychological stressors that
involve social-evaluative threats (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004) and
changes in the social dominance hierarchy (Stanton, LaBar, Saini,
Kuhn, & Beehner, 2010). As noted, however, no research of which
we are aware has examined whether men exhibit increases in
cortisol following private, noncompetitive gender threats. Our
primary goal of the current investigation is to examine this ques-
tion.
Testosterone and Dominance Striving
Another goal of this research is to test whether men’s basal T
moderates their stress responses to a gender threat. T is a steroid
hormone that is derived from cholesterol, regulated by the
hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis, and secreted primar-
ily by the testes in men and the adrenals and ovaries in women.
Notably, basal T is linked to dominance behavior and a preference
for social standing in adults (e.g., Booth, Shelley, Mazur, Tharp, &
Kittok, 1989;Gray, Jackson, & McKinlay, 1991;Josephs, Sellers,
Newman, & Mehta, 2006). Baseline T levels predict behaviors
associated with acquiring and maintaining social status such as
rule-breaking (Dabbs, Frady, Carr, & Besch, 1987) and fighting
(Dabbs, Carr, & Frady, 1995), and exogenous T administrations
increase cardiac responses to angry faces (van Honk et al., 2001).
These results indicate that people high in T prepare for and
respond actively to threats to their social standing. Conversely,
individuals low in T respond with trepidation to these same threats,
for example, they look away from threatening faces (van Honk,
Tuiten, & Verbaten, 1999).
Dominance displays and status striving are considered central
components of the male gender role (e.g., Ashmore, Del Boca, &
Wohlers, 1986;Rudman, Moss-Racusin, Phelan, & Nauts, 2012;
Williams & Best, 1990). Dominance is not simply descriptive of
the male gender role, however, it is also prescriptive: Widely held
gender stereotypes dictate that men ought to be competitive, as-
sertive, and forceful (Prentice & Carranza, 2002), all of which are
traits reflective of dominance and status. Thus, basal T—as a
marker of an individual’s tendency to perform behaviors needed to
achieve dominance and social status—should indicate the degree
to which men embody the qualities that “a real man” should
possess (Bosson & Vandello, 2011). Note, however, that we do not
suggest that basal T is a marker of an individual’s achieved social
standing. Although some findings indicate that T predicts actual
social status (e.g., Ehrenkranz, Bliss, & Sheard, 1974), the bulk of
the evidence suggests that T predicts status striving behaviors in
situations in which status is uncertain or unstable (Archer, 2006).
We, therefore, treat basal T as a marker of people’s tendency to
strive for dominance and social status, and not as a marker of
people’s actual social standing.
Accordingly, we expected that men’s cortisol reactivity follow-
ing a gender threat would be moderated by their basal T levels. The
literatures on status, T, and stress suggest two possible patterns
that this interaction might assume. One possibility is that men with
high T will respond to a gender threat with greater cortisol reac-
tivity than men with low T. This logic is informed by work
showing that high T individuals are more motivated than low T
individuals to dominate others (Mazur & Booth, 1998). For exam-
ple, Josephs, Sellers, Newman, and Mehta (2006) found that when
participants were forced into a low status position as the result of
a rigged dominance competition, those high in basal T showed
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5
TESTOSTERONE AND MEN’S STRESS RESPONSES
worse cognitive functioning on a follow-up task (difficult Gradu-
ate Record Exam items) than those low in basal T (see also
Newman, Sellers, & Josephs, 2005). The authors interpreted this to
suggest that a forced, low status position impairs complex cogni-
tive functioning among high T persons, because the mismatch
between their actual and desired status creates distraction and
unpleasant arousal. Similarly, Mehta, Jones, and Josephs (2008)
found that both men and women who were high in basal T
experienced increases in cortisol following a competitive defeat
and decreases in cortisol following a competitive victory. These
findings are consistent with the notion that individuals who strive
for dominance and status find defeat more stressful than those who
eschew dominance and status. If so, we would expect men with
high T to show greater cortisol reactivity than men with low T
following a gender threat, as a threat to their manhood status
should thwart these men’s desires for dominance and status.
However, we also find an equally compelling hypothesis in the
possibility that men who are low in basal T will exhibit especially
high cortisol reactivity following a manipulated gender threat. To
date, most of the work on T and status has involved acute status
threats involving public, face-to-face competitions (Josephs et al.,
2006;Mehta et al., 2008). From our perspective, the implications
of losing a single competition, after presumably having put in a
good show, seem manageable in comparison to the potential im-
plications of feedback that challenges one’s standing as a “real
man.” Competitions, by definition, provide ample opportunities to
demonstrate dominance and masculinity, even for those who ulti-
mately lose. Conversely, feedback that one has received an
“unmanly” score on a privately administered gender test (a)
provides no opportunity to demonstrate masculinity to others
and (b) raises troubling and far-reaching questions about one’s
entire character rather than simply one’s performance in a
single contest. Whereas men with high T—who embrace dom-
inance contests—may be adept at overcoming frequent chal-
lenges to manhood, men with low T may instead interpret
gender threats as reminders of their chronic aversion to domi-
nance. Thus, whereas men with high T may cope easily with
feedback that threatens their status as “real men,” men with low
T might find the same feedback overwhelming.
Findings from both the nonhuman and human literatures support
this logic. Among nonhuman primates, subordinate animals are
higher in basal cortisol (Virgin & Sapolsky, 1997) and show
greater cortisol reactivity to stress than dominant conspecifics
(Czoty, Gould, & Nader, 2009). Among humans, those low in
socioeconomic status (SES)—a marker of social dominance—are
more vulnerable than those high in SES to stress-related illnesses
associated with prolonged cortisol activation (Smith & Hart,
2002). Also among humans, exogenous administrations of T re-
duce the stress response (Hermans et al., 2007), and assuming a
“high-power” physical pose both increases T and decreases corti-
sol (Carney, Cuddy, & Yap, 2010; but see Stanton, 2011, for
criticisms of this work). Thus, converging evidence suggests that
men lower in basal T should react with heightened cortisol reac-
tivity following stressors, whereas those higher in basal T should
be buffered against this stress response. As noted, however, no
research has yet established that a private, noncompetitive gender
threat of the sort used here constitutes the type of social-evaluative
stressor to which men respond with heightened cortisol reactivity.
Overview and Hypotheses
We tested competing hypotheses regarding the moderating role
of basal T in men’s cortisol reactivity following a manipulated
gender threat. In contrast to past work, our gender threat was not
framed as an explicit challenge to status or power, or as a com-
petitive outcome. Instead, it merely described men as being either
typical or atypical members of their gender group. Nonetheless, we
propose that the precariousness of manhood should ensure that this
feedback serves as a psychological stressor. Regarding the mod-
erating role of basal T, one possibility is that men high in basal T
should exhibit the greatest cortisol reactivity following a challenge
to their manhood. This hypothesis was tested against the alterna-
tive possibility that men low in basal T would show the greatest
stress response to a gender treat.
Method
Participants
One-hundred thirty-nine undergraduate men at the University of
South Florida received $10 apiece for participating. Upon com-
pleting the study, participants received a thorough debriefing and
a probe for suspicion during which they indicated whether they
believed that the gender-related feedback they received was real;
data from six participants were excluded from analyses because
they did not believe the feedback. In addition, data from five
participants were excluded due to insufficient saliva volume (n
1), unreliable assay (n1), and baseline T levels more than four
standard deviations from the mean (n3), indicating possible
steroid use or blood contamination. This left 128 men for analyses
(M
age
20.34, SD
age
3.25; 68.8% White; 9.4% Black; 8.6%
Hispanic/Latino; 6.3% Asian or Pacific Islander; 7% Other).
Procedure
Participants responded to flyers on campus or an advertisement
in the school newspaper. Upon arriving at the lab, participants
were introduced to a quasi-experiment investigating the relation-
ship between diet, personality, and hormones. The experimenter
first asked participants to rinse their mouths out thoroughly with
water from a nearby drinking fountain to clear their mouths of food
particles or other particulates that might contaminate their saliva.
The experimenter then gave participants a piece of Trident original
flavor, sugar-free chewing gum to facilitate salivary secretion.
Five minutes later, after providing informed consent, participants
spit out their gum and passively drooled into a 4.5 ml cryogenic
vial. All experimental sessions were conducted between noon and
4 p.m. to control for diurnal fluctuations in hormone levels. These
procedures for salivary collection are consistent with those de-
scribed in Granger, Schwartz, Booth, and Arentz (1999; see also
Dabbs, 1991).
Next, participants spent approximately 10 –15 minutes complet-
ing an ostensible test of gender knowledge consisting of 32 diffi-
cult multiple-choice questions about stereotypically masculine and
feminine topics (e.g., “In 1982, who won the Super Bowl’s MVP
award?”; “Who has written the most romance novels?”; see Van-
dello et al., 2008). Based on random assignment, participants in the
affirm condition learned that they scored at the 83rd percentile for
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6CASWELL, BOSSON, VANDELLO, AND SELLERS
men at their university, and those in the threat condition learned
that they scored at the 23rd percentile. This feedback was accom-
panied by a single scale whose endpoints read “Feminine Gender
Identity” and “Masculine Gender Identity.” An arrow labeled
“Your score” pointed toward either the feminine (threat) or mas-
culine (affirmation) end of the scale.
Immediately after receiving the feedback, participants com-
pleted a 28-item word completion task in which seven of the word
stems (e.g., STRE_ _) could form either anxious (STRESS) or
nonanxious (STREET) words. This served to test the effectiveness
of the gender threat manipulation; in past investigations, threat-
ened men completed significantly more word stems in an anxious
manner than did affirmed men (Vandello et al., 2008). Participants
then read a pamphlet designed to keep them ruminating about their
gender feedback until they provided their second saliva sample, 15
minutes after receiving the feedback. This time period was selected
to allow sufficient activation of the HPA axis following onset of
the stressor (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004;Mehta et al., 2008,
Study 2). The pamphlet listed the ostensible hobbies, foods, and
entertainment preferences associated with scoring in each quartile
of the gender knowledge test. For example, men in the threat
condition (who scored in the bottom quartile) learned that other
men who scored similarly to them had expressed “feminine”
preferences such as salads and pasta, soap operas, and music. Men
in the affirmation condition (who scored in the top quartile)
learned that other men who scored similarly to them had expressed
“masculine” preferences such as red meat, sports, and cars. The
preferences were selected based on gender typicality and were
consistent with the gender-typed interests reported in Lippa
(2005). Written instructions explained that the preferences were
averaged across many men’s scores and that they might not all
map directly onto individual men’s personal preferences. After the
15 minute rumination period, participants provided their second
saliva sample and then received a debriefing and probe for suspi-
cion. They were then paid and excused.
Saliva Storage and Analysis
Saliva samples were stored in a 20 °C freezer and shipped
overnight on dry ice to the Biomarkers Core Lab at Yerkes
National Primate Research Center at Emory University. There,
they were assayed—a procedure that measures the amount of a
given substance in a specimen— using commercially prepared
radioimmunoassay kits produced by Diagnostic Systems Labora-
tories (Beckman Coulter) for T (a measure of “free T,” or psycho-
logically active T that is not bound to sex hormone binding
globulin), and enzymatic immunoassay kits provided by Salimet-
rics (State College, PA) for cortisol.
All samples were assayed in duplicate. The intraassay coeffi-
cient of variation (CV) for each sample was 6.95% for cortisol and
3.41% for T, and interassay CVs averaged across high and low
controls were 8.7% for cortisol and 16.88% for T. These CVs fell
within normal ranges (Schultheiss & Stanton, 2009). Levels of T
and cortisol were also in the normal ranges (T: M97.10 pg/mL,
SD 42.51; cortisol: M0.55 g/dL, SD 0.46). The normal
assay range is 1.10 –270.00 pg/mL for T and 0.025–10 g/dL for
cortisol.
Results
Descriptive Statistics
Consistent with prior research, cortisol distributions were
skewed and kurtotic (Time 1: Sk 1.81, Ku 4.24; Time 2: Sk
1.86, Ku 4.14), so we log transformed them following Mehta
et al. (2008). Skewness and kurtosis scores for the log-transformed
variables fell within acceptable limits (Time 1: Sk ⫽⫺0.45, Ku
0.54; Time 2: Sk 0.07, Ku ⫽⫺0.19). Testosterone scores were
not log transformed because their skewness and kurtosis scores
were normal (Sk 0.45, Ku ⫽⫺0.36). Descriptive statistics and
intercorrelations for T and cortisol are provided in Table 1 for the
whole sample and in Table 2 split by threat condition.
Manipulation Check
Gender threatened men completed more anxious words (M
1.86, SD 1.02) than gender affirmed men (M1.38, SD
0.98), t(126) 2.73, p.01, d.48. This finding replicates past
work (Vandello et al., 2008), and indicates that our gender threat
feedback activated more anxiety relevant cognitions than the gen-
der affirmation feedback.
Cortisol Reactivity
We predicted a basal T-by-threat interaction on cortisol reactiv-
ity. To test this, we first computed cortisol reactivity scores by
subtracting (log-transformed) Time 1 cortisol from Time 2 corti-
sol, so that higher values indicated larger increases in cortisol
across the 15-minute period following the gender test feedback.
Following the procedures recommended by Aiken and West
(1991), we then regressed cortisol change scores onto basal T
(centered on zero), threat condition (coded 0, 1), and the interac-
Table 1
Intercorrelations, Means, and Standard Deviations for Hormone Scores for Whole Sample
Hormone 1 2 3 4 M SD Min Max
1. Basal testosterone (pg/ml) 94.60 40.25 20.92 199.92
2. Time 1 cortisol (ug/dL) .39
.54 .45 .03 2.70
3. Time 2 cortisol (ug/dL) .27
.62
.54 .41 .07 2.37
4. Time 1 cortisol (log ug/dL) .40
.87
.53
.94 .86 3.51 .99
5. Time 2 cortisol (log ug/dL) .30
.57
.91
.56
.85 .69 2.66 .86
Note.N128.
p.001.
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7
TESTOSTERONE AND MEN’S STRESS RESPONSES
tion term (the basal T x condition product). We used this approach
for testing interactions of categorical and continuous predictors
instead of using analysis of variance (ANOVA) because the latter
requires dichotomizing basal Tscores into low T and high T
groups. As statisticians have argued, dichotomizing continuous
data typically reduces the effect size, leading to a significant loss
of statistical power (Aiken & West, 1991;Cohen, 1983).
The expected interaction was significant, ␤⫽⫺0.24, t(124)
1.96, p.05, f
2
.03, and no other effects emerged, ts1.08,
ps.28. Predicted values for cortisol reactivity in the threat and
affirmation conditions, calculated at one standard deviation above
and below the mean on basal T, appear in Figure 1. As illustrated,
basal T was unrelated to cortisol reactivity among men in the
gender affirmation condition, ␤⫽⫺0.02, t1, p.89, whereas
in the gender threat condition, men with low T showed a larger
increase in cortisol than men with high T, ␤⫽⫺0.36, t(124)
2.93, p.01, f
2
.07. Moreover, the simple effect of gender
threat was not significant among men with high T, ␤⫽⫺0.08,
t1, p.52, but it was among men with low T, ␤⫽0.26,
t(124) 2.15, p.04, f
2
.04.
Discussion
Our goals here were to investigate whether men react to a
private, noncompetitive gender threat with heightened cortisol
reactivity, and if so, whether basal T moderates this effect. We
found that men low in basal T responded with greater cortisol
reactivity than men high in basal T following feedback that chal-
lenged their status as “real men” and implied that they lacked
masculinity. These findings extend past research on the links
between T and cortisol reactivity (e.g., Mehta et al., 2008)by
demonstrating that men who are low (and not those who are high)
in basal T are particularly vulnerable to the psychophysiological
stress associated with negative gender feedback. Unfortunately,
given that gender status threats are somewhat frequent events for
many men (Vandello et al., 2008), those who react to such stres-
sors with heightened cortisol reactivity may experience prolonged
stress activation. If so, over time, they may be vulnerable to some
of the long-term health consequences of stress such as hyperten-
sion and immune system dysfunction (Sapolsky, 1998). In con-
trast, men with high T appear to be buffered from the immediate
psychophysiological effects of negative gender feedback.
At first glance, these findings conflict with some research ad-
dressing the predictive power of T. Wirth and Schultheiss (2006),
for example, demonstrated that men high in implicit power moti-
vation (which may be considered analogous to high dominance
striving and high basal T) showed cortisol increases after defeat.
Similarly, Mehta et al. (2008) found that men with high T, but not
men with low T, showed increases in cortisol after losing a
competition. In these examples, however, “threat” was operation-
alized as a loss of status in the context of an interpersonal com-
petition with clear “win or lose” outcomes. Here, we examined
gender status threats using a very different operationalization.
Specifically, we privately offered men feedback indicating that
they lacked masculinity, without any reference to a competition
and without any possibility of “winning” or “losing.” The mere
suggestion that they lacked manhood status had an effect not on
men high in T, as the direct competition studies have shown, but
on men low in T.
Thus, we see these two sets of findings as complementary rather
than contradictory: Men high in basal T, who tend to approach and
prefer dominance contests and status competitions, show height-
ened cortisol reactivity following an explicit and direct loss in a
Table 2
Intercorrelations, Means, and Standard Deviations for Hormone Scores by Threat Condition
Hormone 1 2 3 4 5 M SD Min Max
1. Basal testosterone (pg/ml) .52
.36
.56
.39
94.26 40.84 20.92 189.70
2. Time 1 cortisol (ug/dL) .24
— .79
.85
.70
.52 .50 .03 2.70
3. Time 2 cortisol (ug/dL) .18 .43
— .66
.91
.52 .40 .07 2.37
4. Time 1 cortisol (log ug/dL) .21 .91
.39
— .68
1.04 .94 3.51 .99
5. Time 2 cortisol (log ug/dL) .21 .42
.91
.43
.88 .68 2.66 .86
M94.94 .56 .56 .84 .82
SD 39.97 .41 .42 .76 .71
Min 24.56 .03 .08 3.51 2.53
Max 199.92 1.81 1.97 .59 .68
Note. Values for participants in the threat condition (n64) are above the diagonal, while values for affirmed participants (n64) are below the
diagonal.
p.10.
p.001.
-0.2
-0.1
0
0.1
0.2
0.3
0.4
0.5
Low Testosterone
(-1 SD)
High Te stosterone
(+1 SD)
Increase in Corsol
Gender Threat Gender Affirmaon
Figure 1. Predicted values for change in cortisol (Time 1 to Time 2) as
a function of basal T and gender threat condition.
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8CASWELL, BOSSON, VANDELLO, AND SELLERS
competitive context (e.g., Mehta et al., 2008). However, following
feedback suggesting a relative lack of manhood status, men with
high T remain relatively unfazed (physiologically speaking); in-
stead, it is men with low T who show heightened physiological
arousal when informed that they lack masculinity. Perhaps this
reflects differences in how men who are high versus low in basal
T interpret potentially gender-threatening cues. Negative mascu-
linity feedback, offered in private, may be relatively easy for men
with high T to discount or ignore given its presumed incongruity
with their personal experiences. In contrast, the same feedback
appears stressful for men with low T, perhaps because they lack
the motivation or perceived ability to perform behaviors that
would restore their manhood status in other people’s eyes.
Limitations and Directions for Future Research
Although the current findings are consistent with some research
on the stress-buffering functions of status striving and T (Carney et
al., 2010;Hermans et al., 2007), we cannot fully eliminate the
possibility that our findings reflect the reciprocal influences of the
HPG and HPA axes rather than the psychological benefits of high
status. Indeed, some research demonstrates that high T levels can
down-regulate the HPA axis and block the release of cortisol
(Chen, Wang, Yu, Liu, & Pearce, 1997). As noted, though, other
work demonstrates that cortisol increases among men with high T
following status-related threats (Mehta et al., 2008), indicating that
it is indeed possible for psychological stressors to moderate the
effects of T on cortisol. Thus, further research is necessary to
determine whether the stress-buffering effects of basal T observed
here and elsewhere reflect psychological mechanisms (e.g., differ-
ences in how men with high vs. low T interpret the same stressor),
physiological mechanisms (e.g., the suppressing effects of high T
on cortisol release), or some interaction of these.
Another possible alternative explanation for our findings is that
what we have measured is not men’s reactions to gender threats,
but instead men’s reactions to feedback that they have violated
salient social norms. Recall that our manipulation consisted of
feedback indicating that men were either prototypical or nonpro-
totypical members of their gender group. Such feedback might
threaten men’s sense of normality or conventionality in addition to,
or instead of, their sense of manhood. Despite this ambiguity, we
believe that our findings demonstrate the power of gender status
threats to activate men’s stress response. For instance, prior re-
search suggests that the gender-threatening feedback we used here
is troubling primarily to men. Vandello et al. (2008, Study 4)
employed this gender threat manipulation and found that it in-
creased anxious word completions among men but not women.
The best explanation for this pattern is that the feedback carries
more serious implications for men than it does for women, an
explanation which is consistent with our logic about precarious
manhood, but inconsistent with the notion that we threatened
people’s conventionality. Indeed, we know of no work indicating
that men are more motivated than women to conform to group
norms in general.
Our interpretation is also consistent with work from the self-
esteem literature. Crocker and Wolfe (2001) argue that individuals
draw their self-esteem from different domains, such that the effects
of success or failure on self-esteem in any given domain will
depend on the degree to which the individual values that domain.
To illustrate, when Park and Crocker (2008) gave participants false
negative feedback about their likability, the largest decreases in
state self-esteem and increases in negative affect were observed
among individuals who most strongly based their self-esteem on
the approval of others. Thus, we suspect that men are more
bothered by gender-threatening feedback than women not because
men care more than women do about conformity to group norms
in general, but because men are especially sensitive to—and place
greater importance on–— others’ evaluations of their gender sta-
tus.
One limitation of this study is our reliance on basal T as the sole
measure of people’s preference for dominance and status. Al-
though accruing research demonstrates a relationship between
basal T and dominance striving in humans (e.g., Dabbs et al., 1995;
Josephs et al., 2006;Mazur & Booth, 1998; Metha & Josephs,
2010; Sellers et al., 2007), we did not employ any self-report or
behavioral measures of dominance or status striving to validate
this association in the current work. Doing so thus remains an
important direction for future work. Note, however, that Josephs et
al. (2006) found that basal T is a better predictor of behavior and
psychophysiological responses to status threats than are self-report
measures including the dominance subscale of the Personality
Research Form (Helmes & Jackson, 1977) and the Social Domi-
nance Orientation scale (Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle,
1994).
Another factor which limits the generalizability of our findings
is the stability of T both within and across individuals. Although
salivary T demonstrates good short-term reliability (Sellers et al.,
2007) and stability across 1 year (Granger, Shirtcliff, Booth, Kiv-
lighan, & Schwartz, 2004), other findings suggests that T levels
decline as men age (Travison, Araujo, O’Donnell, Kupelian, &
McKinlay, 2007). We, therefore, cannot rule out the possibility
that the effects demonstrated here are limited to the population our
sample best resembles, that of young men.
In future research, it will be useful to examine also whether men
who differ in basal T differentially notice and interpret manhood
threats. As noted, it seems plausible that men’s chronic levels of
status striving might moderate their interpretations of gender-
threatening feedback. Men with high T, given their preferences for
dominance, may be more inclined than men with low T to interpret
ambiguous gender-relevant cues as benign or easy to discount. It
will also be important to test the coping strategies employed by
men with low T and high T following explicit gender threats: Men
with low T, given their heightened stress response, might be more
inclined to escape or avoid gender threatening situations, whereas
men with high T might view such situations as challenging op-
portunities to prove their manhood status (Mehta et al., 2008). If
so, dangerous or unwise consequences may follow (e.g., physical
confrontations, risk-taking; see Barnes, Brown, & Tamborski,
2012;Weaver, Vandello, & Bosson, in press).
Conclusion
Men as compared with women can “lose” their gender status
relatively easily, via a wide range of social transgressions, weak-
nesses, and shortcomings (for reviews see Bosson & Vandello,
2011;Bosson, Vandello, & Caswell, in press;Vandello & Bosson,
2012). Here, we provide evidence that men who exhibit chroni-
cally low levels of dominance and status striving are, ironically,
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9
TESTOSTERONE AND MEN’S STRESS RESPONSES
especially vulnerable to negative feedback about their manhood. If
men lower in basal T are, in fact, those who are also most likely to
receive manhood-challenging feedback on a regular basis, then
they may experience their gender status as a chronic stressor.
Given that chronic psychological stress can render individuals
vulnerable to stress-related illnesses and other negative health
consequences (Sapolsky, 1998), future research efforts should
investigate the means by which men can psychologically counter
manhood-challenging feedback.
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Received March 9, 2012
Revision received October 14, 2012
Accepted November 2, 2012
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TESTOSTERONE AND MEN’S STRESS RESPONSES
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... Another future direction is to expand the range of salivary biomarkers integrated with VR to other promising stress-sensitive metrics. Steroid androgens like DHEA and testosterone are responsive to environmental stimuli (Eisenegger et al., 2011;Shirtcliff et al., 2014), acutely rising in the context of challenge and threat (Caswell et al., 2014;Goetz et al., 2014), often in conjunction with stress hormones (Zakreski et al., 2018;White et al., 2019). DHEA and testosterone have not routinely been targeted as a VR-reactive biomarker (van Dammen et al., 2021;Masson et al., 2021) despite the potential utility for these androgens to differentiate between simulations that are challenging from those which overwhelm stress coping resources (Phan et al., 2017). ...
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Virtual reality (VR) research probes stress environments that are infeasible to create in the real world. However, because research simulations are applied to narrow populations, it remains unclear if VR simulations can stimulate a broadly applicable stress-response. This systematic review and meta-analysis was conducted on studies using VR stress tasks and biomarkers. Included papers (N=52) measured cortisol, heart rate (HR), galvanic skin response (GSR), systolic blood pressure (SBP), diastolic blood pressure (DBP), respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), parasympathetic activity (RMSSD), sympathovagal balance (LF/HF), and/or salivary alpha-amylase (sAA). Effect sizes (ES) and confidence intervals (CI) were calculated based on standardized mean change of baseline-to-peak biomarker levels. From baseline-to-peak (ES, CI), analyses showed a statistically significant change in cortisol (0.56, 0.28-0.83), HR (0.68, 0.53-0.82), GSR (0.59, 0.36-0.82), SBP (0.55, 0.19-0.90), DBP (0.64, 0.23-1.05), RSA (-0.59, -0.88 to -0.30), and sAA (0.27, 0.092-0.45). There was no effect for RMSSD and LF/HF. VR stress tasks elicited a varied magnitude of physiological stress reactivity. VR may be an effective tool in stress research.
... In males, any stressful situation (e.g., loss of job during the COVID-19 pandemic) leads to increased testosterone secretion from the adrenal gland to combat the situation. 38 As an outcome of this process, brain signals skews towards positivity (e.g., refurbishing resume and submitting for new job search) that is reflected through the high HRVScores and reduced SD1/SD2, which is the anxiety biomarker. High levels of stress, low HRVScore, increased serum cortisol, and decreased E2 are the typical physiological snapshots in females in their middle ages. ...
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COVID-19 has disturbed mental health to a great extent. Lockdowns, re-infections in fully vaccinated people, frequent mutations of the virus, working from home, shutting of school colleges, contradictory information flying in the air, and so on are some serious predisposing factors in deteriorating the mental health. The Indian Govt. has granted the telemedicine model of healthcare in the country. Mobile health (mHealth) adds to it effectively and Lyfas is such a smartphone-based instrument that works using the principle of arterial photoplethysmography and photochromatography. It captures short (120 sec) heart rate variability (HRV) and the allied optical biomarkers that surrogate for the cardiovascular autonomic modulation, which is influenced by mental health issues. The study aims to validate Lyfas optical biomarkers (SD1/SD2, LF/HF, pNN50, and HRVscores) and a set of physical parameters e.g., age, HR, BP – systolic and diastolic, and serum cortisol in addressing the mental health state. A total of RTPCR positive 1130 adults (Male 541, Female 589) within the age group of 27-68 yrs. participated in the study. Till the participants became RTPCR negative (average time of 14 days), the Depression-Anxiety-Stress Screening-21 (DASS-21) and Covid Screening Scale (CSS)-based monitoring is done once daily to note the distress levels, and Lyfas tests are taken thrice daily simultaneously. The average of all scores constructs the experimental data. Internal consistency (Cronbach’s α), normality test (Shapiro Wilkis test), and Spearman’s correlations (ρ) and their respective statistical significance (p<0.05, CI: 95%) are computed. The study concludes that Lyfas biomarkers show strong correlations with that of the DASS-21 and CSS scores. Physical parameters are also corroborative to the result.
... Although the specific features of hegemonic masculinity differ across societies and contexts, several dimensions are commonly shared such as, assertiveness, aggression, risk-taking, lack of femininity, and heterosexuality (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). Because hegemonic masculinity is more valued and respected than femininity and other less dominant forms of masculinity (for an overview, see Hoskin, 2020), men are often faced with strong social pressure to maintain the narrowly defined standard of masculine identity (Caswell et al., 2014;Vandello & Bosson, 2013). It has been suggested that men are not only sensitive, but also responsive, to feedback that appears to threaten their masculine status. ...
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This experimental study examined the moderating role of masculinity contingent self-worth (CSW) in the effects of masculinity threat on transprejudice. One hundred and eighty-six male undergraduate students were randomly assigned to one of the three conditions. In the first condition, participants received feedback that challenged their sense of manhood (masculinity threat group). In the second condition, participants received feedback that affirmed their masculinity (masculinity affirming group), whereas the third group of participants served as a control group. The masculinity threat group demonstrated stronger transprejudice than the other two groups, whereas no differences were found between the affirming and control groups. The effect of masculinity threat on transprejudice was particularly strong for participants whose self-worth is readily threatened by a lack of masculinity (i.e., the threat aspect of masculinity CSW). However, individual differences in the boost aspect of masculinity CSW (i.e. the extent to which a person’s self-worth is boosted by confirmations of masculinity) did not moderate the influence of masculinity threat on transprejudice. This study replicates previous evidence that masculinity threat is a cause of transprejudice, whereas it highlights the distinction between the threat and boost dimensions of masculinity CSW by showing that the effects of masculinity threat were only moderated by the threat dimension.
... Popular paradigms have men engage in stereotypically feminine tasks, such as hair braiding (Bosson & Vandello, 2011), or give men false feedback on gender knowledge tests indicating that they score atypically high in feminine knowledge (Vandello et al., 2008;Willer et al., 2013). Men subject to such threat inductions tend to experience increased anxiety (Bosson et al., 2009;Caswell et al., 2014;Vandello et al., 2008), punch punching bags harder (Bosson et al., 2009), display more hostility toward women (Maass et al., 2003), administer more severe shocks to confederates (Cohn et al., 2009), and behave more aggressively toward gay men (Bosson et al., 2012). ...
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Precarious manhood theory posits that males are expected to actively maintain their reputations as “real men.” We propose that men’s concern about failing to meet masculine standards leads them to embrace policies and politicians that signal strength and toughness—or what we term political aggression. Three correlational studies support this claim. In Study 1, men’s fear of failing to meet masculine expectations predicted their support for aggressive policies (e.g., the death penalty), but not policies lacking aggressive features (e.g., affirmative action). Studies 2 and 3 utilized Google searches to assess the relationship between regional levels of precarious manhood and real-world electoral behavior. The use of search terms related to masculine anxieties correlated with Donald Trump’s vote share in the 2016 general election (Study 2) and, confirming preregistered predictions, with Republican candidates’ vote shares in 2018 congressional elections (Study 3). We close by discussing potential sources of variation in precarious manhood.
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The precarious nature of manhood, a hard-won and easily lost social status, has been linked to negative outcomes such as aggression in men, lower well-being for men and women, and more instances of workplace harassment. We posit that precarious manhood also influences men's perceptions of social sexual behavior (SSB) directed at them by a coworker of the opposite gender, shedding light on gender asymmetries in perceptions of SSB at work. Across four experiments (N = 1656), we demonstrate that men are more receptive to SSB from attractive women when their manhood is threatened compared to when it is affirmed (Studies 1–2). This effect holds after controlling for short-term mating orientation, is limited to men's (as opposed to women's) perceptions of SSB from opposite-gender initiators (Study 2) and is also limited to men's perceptions of SSB from attractive (versus unattractive) women (Study 3). Additionally, we find that at baseline, men who receive SSB from attractive women experience greater feelings of masculinity, which are limited to perceptions of sexual (versus nonsexual) behavior from attractive women, ruling out the possibility that men are simply more flatterable than women (Study 4). Our findings suggest that men's insecurities about their manhood may leave them more vulnerable to potentially problematic workplace behaviors that cater to their sense of masculinity.
Chapter
Aspects of masculinity have implications for organizational dynamics and human relations in the context of gender at work. Those aspects include: relational styles, ways of caring, self-reliance, a worker/provider tradition, risk-taking, group orientation, use of humor, and (in some instances) heroism. First, a description of possible enactments of these aspects of masculinity in the workplace will be presented. Then, in addition to simply describing these aspects of masculinity, a more sophisticated approach will extend the scope and advance the conversation to explore the relationships these aspects of masculinities have to the daily lives of employees in the workplace, including the mismatches, the tensions, and the resistances such as retribution or imposter syndrome. Finally, the chapter concludes with a consideration for how these aspects of masculinity shape organizational workplace climate and behavioral norms in the workplace (i.e., masculinity contest culture), where implications might include behavioral, affective, or somatic responses such as anxiety and stress, aggression, adaptive or maladaptive risk-taking, avoidance of femininity, and so on.
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Threatening a man’s manhood—but not a woman’s womanhood—elicits aggression. In two studies, we found evidence that this aggression is related to the social pressure men experience to “be a man.” In Study 1a, we conducted an exploratory factor analysis to isolate participants’ ( N = 195; M age = 19.92) differential motivations for conforming to gender norms. Study 1b then showed that pressure to be masculine moderates the relationship between gender identity threat and aggressive cognition for men. In Study 2a, we conducted a confirmatory factor analysis to validate the aforementioned scales with an age-diverse sample of men ( N = 391; M age = 33.16, range = 18–56 years). Study 2b replicated Study 1b, most notably with younger men. In all, these findings reveal one pathway—the pressure men experience to be stereotypically masculine—that elicits aggressive cognition when under threat in a U.S. context.
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In this book, Joseph Pleck examines and analyzes the full body of research literature on the male role that has appeared since the 1930s and subjects it to a devastating critique. He identifies the components of the "male sex role paradigm" which has been the basis of research for the past forty years, and notes numerous instances of blatant misrepresentation of data, twisted reinterpretations of disconfirming results, misogyny, homophobia, and class bias. He proposes a new theory, the "sex role strain paradigm," offers a reinterpretation of sex role stereotyping, and a critique of research by sociobiologists that allegedly demonstrates a biological basis for male aggression.
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This article reviews evidence that manhood is seen as a precarious social status that is both difficult to achieve and tenuously held. Compared with womanhood, which is typically viewed as resulting from a natural, permanent, and biological developmental transition, manhood must be earned and maintained through publicly verifiable actions. Because of this, men experience more anxiety over their gender status than women do, particularly when gender status is uncertain or challenged. This can motivate a variety of risky and maladaptive behaviors, as well as the avoidance of behaviors that might otherwise prove adaptive and beneficial. We review research on the implications of men's precarious gender status across the domains of risk-taking, aggression, stress and mental health, and work–life balance. We further consider how work on precarious manhood differs from, and can add to, work on individual differences in men's gender role conflict. In summary, the precarious manhood hypothesis can integrate and explain a wide range of male behaviors and phenomena related to the male gender role. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2013 APA, all rights reserved)
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This study examined the relationship of male gender role conflict (GRC) to attitudes about feminism and matters of attachment and separation/individuation. The Gender Role Conflict Scale, Attitudes Toward Feminism Scale, Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment, and Separation-Individuation Inventory were administered to 172 male college students. On the basis of the correlational results, expected relationships were found between GRC and attitudes toward women, attachment to father and mother, and issues of separation/individuation; on the basis of the canonical results, men who held less stereotypical views about women and who were less emotionally restrictive were found to experience less differentiation and relationship problems. Drawing on psychoanalytic theory, the meaning of the findings are discussed, and some possible therapy implications are considered.
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Recently, it was demonstrated how individuals with high levels of testosterone selectively attend toward angry faces. It was argued that this suggests that high levels of testosterone are associated with an aggressive, dominating personality style. In this study, the authors used a double-blind, placebo-controlled design to examine whether exogenous testosterone would induce cardiac acceleration in response to angry faces. Participants (healthy young women) were exposed to neutral, happy, or angry faces. Administration of a single dosage of testosterone (0.5 mg) induced an accelerative cardiac response to angry faces. It is argued that this effect is due to the encouragement of dominance behavior and the inclination toward aggression. Possible mechanisms behind testosterone-driven changes in behavior are discussed with relevance to steroid-responsive networks in the limbic system that drive and control motivational and physiological aspects of social behavior.
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A meta-analysis of 172 studies attempted to resolve the conflict between previous narrative reviews on whether parents make systematic differences in their rearing of boys and girls. Most effect sizes were found to be nonsignificant and small. In North American studies, the only socialization area of 19 to display a significant effect for both parents is encouragement of sex-typed activities. In other Western countries, physical punishment is applied significantly more to boys. Fathers tend to differentiate more than mothers between boys and girls. Over all socialization areas, effect size is not related to sample size or year of publication. Effect size decreases with child's age and increases with higher qualify No grouping by any of these variables changes a nonsignificant effect to a significant effect. Because little differential socialization for social behavior or abilities can be found, other factors that, may explain the genesis of documented sex differences arc discussed.
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Volume 1, Number 1, of Psychology of Men and Masculinity appears before you full of both debts and promise. Its appearance is the culmination of many years--indeed decades--of very hard and determined work. It is also the very beginning of many years of showcasing the scholarship in this emerging and increasingly important domain. The discipline of psychology can finally assert the existence within it of a journal devoted to the study of men the particular, not man the generic. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)