Decoding masculinity: Q+A with Robb Willer, professor of sociology

May 16, 2013, 11:58 p.m.

Robb Willer is an associate professor of sociology and the author of research suggesting that men with higher levels of testosterone are more likely to feel threatened and act out in the form of masculine overcompensation. The Daily sat down with Willer to discuss the roots of his interests in masculinity studies, his stance on the burgeoning field of men’s studies and what trends in male behavior reveal about the state of the gender.


The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did you first get interested in gender studies and sociology?

Robb Willer (RW): I first became interested in the area when I took a social psychology class as a junior in college [Willer attended the University of Iowa for his undergraduate degree]. Up to that time, I had been primarily interested in creative writing. I realized that the things I found really interesting about creative writing — making observations about society and human nature — were all things that I could do through social science research.

TSD: How did you develop your current research interest in masculinity, more specifically?

RW: When I was a graduate student at Cornell University, I was watching “60 Minutes” one Sunday. They had on a French psychologist who consults for the “Big Three” automakers, telling them how to design cars to better satisfy the psychological needs and motivations of American consumers. And among other things, he said that they tried to design SUVs to make men feel powerful. As I watched this, it occurred to me that you could easily study a related idea, namely that when men feel insecure about their masculinity, they’re more motivated to buy a SUV. From there, I got interested more generally in the different things men might do when they feel threatened in their masculinity — measuring support for war and homophobia as well. [My] research went from there.

TSD: Masculinity — and emasculation — are often touchy subjects to address, particularly for men like yourself. What interests you most about this subject of male emasculation or masculinity in general?

RW: I think that the social psychology of masculinity is a really interesting subject because norms of appropriate male behavior are so strong, but we don’t always notice the extremity of their effects. When you really start reading research on masculinity, you start to see how<\p>…<\p>restrictive masculinity norms are. There are quite specific expectations for how a man is supposed to behave in American culture. These expectations have gotten looser in recent years, but it’s still a pretty restrictive set of possibilities that men are expected to conform to.

TSD: The idea that men who feel emasculated act out as a means of asserting their masculinity — otherwise known as masculinity overcompensation — is a widely held conception. When you began your research, did you aim to discover a biological basis for this notion?

RW: After [performing] the original study on this subject, a lot of people asked me what role biology — specifically testosterone — might play in masculinity overcompensation, so I got interested in that question as well. The testosterone literature is quite interesting, and, after reading it, it struck me that there were at least two [means by] which testosterone might enter into the way men respond to masculinity threats.

First, it could be that threats to masculinity increase men’s testosterone and they behave more masculine as a result. Alternatively, it could be that a man’s testosterone level prior to being threatened determines the strength of his response. We found evidence for the second of these possibilities. [Men with higher testosterone] whose masculinity was threatened had the strongest responses. And [men with lower testosterone] didn’t overcompensate at all in our study after receiving masculinity threats.

TSD: Aside from confirming the belief that men with higher testosterone levels exhibit greater aggressiveness when their masculinity is threatened, what is the greater purpose of this research?  

RW: I think what I would like to do next is to better understand the role that masculinity plays in American political attitudes. It may be the case that American men experience economic uncertainty and risk as threats to their masculinity and that these threats affect their political attitudes. In particular, it might be the case that men are driven to adopt more masculine political attitudes, such as support for aggressive military action and negative views of homosexuality, when faced with economic threats and uncertainty.

This research was meant to test the idea of masculinity overcompensation — to identify some of the effects overcompensation might have and to better understand the physiological underpinnings of it. One of the central ideas in this research is that men overcompensate in the face of threats, but women — for the most part — do not. This prediction comes from theoretical work on gender, which [argues] that expectations for appropriate male behavior are stricter than expectations for women. For example, it’s considered okay, even charming, for young girls to be “tomboys” but not okay for young boys to behave in too feminine a way. And this theoretical work is one of the reasons we predicted that we would find masculine — but not feminine — overcompensation.

TSD: Aside from confirming these broadly understood notions of masculinity overcompensation, have your findings confirmed or disproved any assumptions about male behavior? 

RW: I think that our results are generally consistent with academic theories of gender. For example, we find support for the idea that expectations for appropriate male behavior are stricter than expectations for appropriate behavior among women. However, the results do suggest that male behavior is likely related to testosterone and possibly other biological factors. This is an idea that has not yet been extensively explored in the social sciences.

TSD: What other research are you currently engaged in relating to gender studies?

RW: One project that [my lab and I are] very interested in now is a study of Tea Party support in the contemporary United States. We found interesting evidence that Tea Party support amongst white Americans may be related to their sense of where white people stand in society. Similar to the overcompensation research, when whites feel that their social standing is threatened, they respond with greater racial prejudice and — in our research — greater support for the Tea Party movement.

TSD: What do you envision as the future of male and/or gender studies?  

RW: I think right now there are a lot of interesting trends in the norms regulating male behavior. The last 10 or 20 years have seen significant loosening of expectations. Among other things, we see that men these days are more openly concerned with how they look, how they dress. Men also engage in more self-deprecating humor, perhaps behaving in a more modest, self-effacing way. Men may also now be more comfortable expressing fears and other emotions than they once were. In general, the expectation that men not exhibit traditionally feminine characteristics appears to be relaxing.

This interview has been condensed and edited.


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