Years ago, social psychologist Sapna Cheryan read an article at the gym that caught her eye: In it, men were asked how much weight they could bench press, and then were tested on it. Many, it became clear, had exaggerated.
The story made Cheryan, PhD ’07, wonder how men would respond when their masculinity was questioned, and she designed two studies to find out. The research, conducted at Stanford with psychology professor Benoît Monin and two other scholars, suggests a couple ways men try to compensate for threats to their masculinity. They distance themselves from products stereotypically favored by women, and they exaggerate about their height or other perceived metrics of manliness.
In a questionnaire, men exaggerated their height by more than three-quarters of an inch.
In one study, men who were told they “failed” a multiple-choice test measuring their masculinity were more likely to reject certain products as compensation for participating, such as a gift certificate to a clothing store or a day at the spa.
Another study gave participants false feedback on a handgrip strength test, showing their results to be below average for men but average for women. In a questionnaire that followed, the respondents—all men—exaggerated their height by more than three-quarters of an inch. They also reported having had more romantic relationships and claimed higher levels of aggression and athleticism than did the control group.
Cheryan, now an associate professor at the University of Washington, admits the implications of the research are “kind of funny”—that even an objective quality like height is fair game for fudging. But she notes that masculine ideals can be “just as constraining, if not more constraining, than the feminine gender role.”
“If you want to understand gender disparities,” Cheryan says, “you have to understand both men’s and women’s choices.”