When their manhood is threatened, some men respond aggressively, but not all.
New research from Duke University suggests who may be most triggered by such threats – younger men whose sense of masculinity depends heavily on other people’s opinions.
“Our results suggest that the more social pressure a man feels to be masculine, the more aggressive he may be,” said Adam Stanaland, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology and public policy at Duke and the study’s lead author.
“When those men feel they are not living up to strict gender norms, they may feel the need to act aggressively to prove their manhood – to ‘be a man’.”
The pair of studies considered 195 undergraduate students and a random pool of 391 men ages 18 to 56.
Study participants were asked a series of questions about “gender knowledge.” For men, these included questions on such stereotypical topics such as sports, auto mechanics and home repair.
After answering, participants were randomly told their score was either higher or lower than that of an average person of their gender.
To simulate real-world threats to manhood, men who received a low score were also told they were “less manly than the average man.”
After receiving their quiz scores, study participants were asked to complete a series of word fragments by adding missing letters, in order to reveal their state of mind. The results were striking, revealing aggressive thoughts among certain men but not others.
Men whose sense of masculinity came from within seemed unruffled by receiving a low score. It was a different story for men with a more fragile sense of masculinity, whose feelings of masculinity relied on others.
That group included men who said they behaved “like a man” due to social pressures such as the desire to fit in, be liked or get dates.
Men with a more fragile sense of masculinity responded to the word fragments by creating words with violent associations rather than neutral meanings. For instance, when provided with the letters “ki” and asked to complete the word, they wrote “kill” rather than, say, “kiss.” When given the letters “blo,” they typed “blood” instead of a word such as “blow” or “bloom.”
Those aggressive responses were strongest among the youngest study participants, men between 18 and 29 years old.
The response was milder among middle-aged men between ages 30 and 37, and milder still among the oldest group of participants, men ages 38 years old and older.
“It’s clear that younger men are more sensitive to threats against their masculinity,” Stanaland said.
“In those years, as men attempt to find or prove their place in society, their masculine identity may be more fragile. In many places, this means that younger men are hit constantly with threats to their manhood. They have to prove their manhood every day of their lives.”
Female students did not display a similar aggressive response when their gender was threatened.
Men’s aggressive responses didn’t end with the study questionnaire, the researchers noted. The study designers received violent threats from some men who received low scores – further evidence that the study hit a nerve.
Stanaland said he hopes to delve further into the forces that shape men’s aggression.
“Men report aggressive behavior in all sorts of domains,” Stanaland said. “Some of them are trying to prove their own manhood by being aggressive.
“Men’s violence, terrorism, violence against women, political aggression – fragile masculinity may explain many of these behaviors. It’s in everyone’s interest to understand this phenomenon better.”
Youth violence is a particularly pertinent issue in the United Kingdom. According to police-recorded data, the United Kingdom (UK) has seen increasing incidence of youth violence since 2012/13 , contrasting with a preceding period of improvement observed globally over the years 2000–12 .
A significant trend has been the rise in weapon-related crime, with 285 homicides committed involving a knife or sharp instrument in year ending March 2018 – an increase of 70 offences compared to the previous year . Recent data from the Office for National Statistics revealed an 16% increase in the number of offences involving a knife or sharp instrument in the year ending March 2018 (n = 40,147).
This figure is suspected to underestimate the actual number of incidents due to issues of record identification from the Greater Manchester Police. Furthermore, in 2017, the most common form of homicide was by sharp instrument with 39,598 offences (a 22% increase since 2016 and 55% increase since 2014) .
A large number of young people involved in violence are dying as a result of sharp instruments. Data also shows young people are disproportionately affected by weapon-related crime. The number of homicide victims for the age group 0–24 years is consistently the highest and continues to increase in contrast to all other age groups (excluding 35–44 years) which have remained stable .
Similar trends have been observed regarding weapon possession, specifically ‘articles with a blade or point’ . This has resulted in a 55% rise in the number of hospital admissions involving young people in England for assaults involving a sharp instrument since 2012/13 , therefore displaying the impact on health services, individuals, and the wider community.
Location also seems to influence this public health issue. For example, London accounts for 48% of the increase in weapon-related crime  and recent data also displays a contrast of the number of offences between metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas.
This variability may reflect disparities in socioeconomic status, education, availability of weapons, and crime levels. For example, deprivation is shown to contribute to violent crime, as risk of victimisation of those unemployed is double the national average and homicide offenders are most likely to have low socioeconomic status (SES) .
Gang violence has received significant attention within the media and is often described as the driving factor behind the rise in knife crime in London . In 2007/08, 55 young people aged 13–19 years died in violent circumstances and according to MPS more than half of these were gang-related .
In early 2019, media reports of stabbings and homicides increased dramatically, creating confusion surrounding gangs and their characteristics. For example, in March BBC News reported 5 gang members were arrested for knife crime within a school . Also, young males of ethnic minority groups, such as African-Caribbean, along with immigrants and asylum seekers are described as causing the majority of youth violence , although associations are yet to be investigated.
Gangs are not wholly responsible for this recent surge in youth violence and the contribution by gangs is difficult to quantify as there is no precise or legal definition of a ‘gang’. Although similarities exist between two commonly used definitions – displayed in figure one – there are clear differences. The link between gang violence and violent crime requires further investigation.
Despite the rising tide of weapon-related crime, minimal research has been conducted within a UK-context with the majority of research, displayed by the WHO, guiding mitigation strategies based on American gangs and associated violence. The social and legal context of these two countries differ, particularly around availability and use of firearms. Therefore, this research has limited use .
Multiple risk factors have been identified, including but not limited to: race, gender, gang membership, deprivation, social media, and adverse childhood experiences (ACE). However, risk factors lack clarity, are yet to be collectively analysed, and require a systematic assessment and evaluation.
Violence is a complex issue as many risk factors are interlinked, thus determining each predictor’s overall influence difficult to characterise. However, the results of the systematic review suggest an unstable environment – within a family, community, or society setting – derived from a multitude of risk factors is a key driver for involvement in weapon-related crime. This is the first systematic review to assess a wide range of literature to identify risk factors for weapon-related crime, collating and analysing information surrounding a topical and growing public health issue.
Ethnicity and community factors
Results did not identify a strong relationship between ethnicity and youth violence when controlling for confounders, such as SES [20, 25, 31], which contrasts information displayed in the media. While ethnicity had no association, community and societal factors such as economic deprivation did, and these characteristics tended to correlate with certain ethnic minorities.
For example, results showed migrants and refugees recently entering the UK were at higher risk of victimisation  – this may be a result of discrimination these individuals face when entering a new community. It has also been shown that gangs are homogenous and often mirror the demography of the community they associate with . This relationship between risk factors may lead to the overrepresentation of ethnic minorities as perpetrators and victims of weapon-related crime within police-recorded data and the media.
This systematic review did not reveal a clear association between gender and youth violence. The societal pressures of males to display masculinity may provide a possible explanation for their increased threatening behaviour . Research papers investigating the link between gender and weapon-related crime have shown there are multiple aspects of behaviour regarding knife crime, for example ownership, type of weapon, and use. However, due to the mixed evidence in this review alone, it is not possible to confirm this relationship or if gender is a risk factor.
Adverse childhood experiences
Seven studies identified ACEs as significant risk factors for weapon-related crime, which strongly supports the relationship between early childhood trauma and violence. It can be argued that trauma and an unstable family life create an environment which is likely to manifest aggression and poor mental health, increasing the risk of violent behaviour . This coincides with previous knowledge regarding the long-term effects of traumatic childhood on health within adulthood, including economic deprivation, anxiety, and aggression [35,36,37].
Gangs may also provide a sense of security that is lacking from their family environment and, as mentioned by Public Health England, a sense of belonging which is fundamental for an individual’s social identity . Furthermore, two studies highlighted the protective nature of strong parental attachment [20, 22] which further supports the importance of a stable home environment and may counteract the effects caused by ACEs. Similar results were found in US-based studies with parental monitoring being negatively associated with gang membership, reducing the effect of other risk factors on adolescents .
This is further supported by the association between poor mental health and weapon-related crime, identified by Bailey et al, Barlas et al, and Clement et al. Poor mental health may be on the causal pathway from ACEs to violent behaviour as those suffering from trauma are more likely to experience poor mental health . Therefore, these individuals are more likely to act aggressively and those with suicidal thoughts might not consider the repercussions of their actions.
Original Research: Closed access.
““Be a Man”: The Role of Social Pressure in Eliciting Men’s Aggressive Cognition” by Adam Stanaland and Sarah Gaither. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin