Men tend to die earlier in life in countries where the belief that manhood is “hard won and easily lost” is more widespread, according to new research published in Psychology of Men & Masculinity. The findings provide evidence that a basic belief about what it means to be a man could have significant consequences around the world.
The new study examined precarious manhood beliefs, which refer to the idea that manhood is something that must be earned and maintained through demonstrations of toughness, control, and dominance. According to this belief, manhood is vulnerable to being lost and men must constantly prove their masculinity to avoid losing their status as “a man.”
“I have a long-standing interest in researching the ways that people understand manhood,” said study author Joseph Vandello, a professor of psychology at the University of South Florida.
“Most of my research program is based on the idea that manhood is seen as a precarious social status (something that is hard won and easily lost). This has implications for lots of men’s behaviors, as they are often motivated to prove their manhood if they feel it’s been threatened in some way. We’ve looked at lots of behaviors, like aggression, risk-taking, derogation of women and LGBTQ populations. The current study is looking at men’s health behaviors.”
Between January 2018 and February 2020, Vandello and his colleagues surveyed 33,417 college students from 62 nations regarding their gender beliefs and attitudes. Precarious manhood beliefs were assessed by asking participants the extent to which they agreed with statements such as “It is fairly easy for a man to lose his status as a man” and “Some boys do not become men, no matter how old they get.” The responses from the student samples were aggregated to create country-level precarious manhood belief scores.
“We examined how much people in countries around the world endorse the idea that manhood is a precarious social status using a simple 4-item survey measure,” Vandello explained. “We then took average country ratings and looked at whether they are associated with men’s health behaviors (e.g., smoking, high volume drinking, contact with venomous animals) and health outcomes associated with risk (e.g., drowning, death from accidents, liver cirrhosis deaths). They are.”
The belief in precarious manhood was positively correlated with men’s health risk-taking behaviors, as well as negative health outcomes such as liver cirrhosis and transportation accidents. Precarious manhood belief were also negatively correlated with men’s general life expectancy and healthy life expectancy, with men living an average of 6.69 fewer years and 6.17 fewer healthy years in countries with high precarious manhood beliefs compared to countries with low precarious manhood beliefs.
“When we looked at individual behaviors and outcomes, the correlations were modest, but when you look at them in the aggregate, the association becomes strong. A lifetime of health risks add up,” Vandello told PsyPost.
“The most surprising thing was the strong correlation between a country’s endorsement of precarious manhood beliefs and the average lifespan of men. Stated differently, we found that men in countries that score high (1 standard deviation above mean) on precarious manhood beliefs live six and a half fewer years than men in countries that score low (1 standard deviation below the mean) on such beliefs.”
The life expectancy findings held even after controlling for country-level variations in women’s life expectancy, human development, access to physicians, and gender equality. But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“This is a correlational study, so we still can’t say for certain that a culture’s beliefs about manhood cause men to take risks with their health,” Vandello said. “But it’s consistent with other experimental research.”
For example, previous research has found that men who endorse precarious manhood beliefs tend to exhibit heightened physiological stress responses when their masculinity is threatened.
“I’d just note that what I think is neat about this study is that such a simple measure — a 4-item measure of precarious manhood beliefs — was such a consistent predictor of these real-world health behaviors and outcomes,” Vandello added.
The study, “Precarious Manhood and Men’s Physical Health Around the World“, was authored by Joseph A. Vandello, Mariah Wilkerson, Jennifer K. Bosson, Brenton M. Wiernik, and Natasza Kosakowska-Berezecka.