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Driving a Tank Through It

September 17, 2009
by Eric Simons
art of man sitting on tank turret

Macho men blast overcompensation theory

According to Rush Limbaugh, the work of sociology professor Robb Willer is another volley in the “emasculation” of America’s “normal, red-blooded guys.”

The accused shrugs.

“He misinterpreted the research, unfortunately,” says Willer, who began studying “masculine overcompensation” (the idea that men react to perceived challenges to their masculinity with exaggerated macho displays) as a graduate student at Cornell University. The research that bugged Limbaugh found that men whose masculinity was challenged showed more support for the Iraq War. An indignant Limbaugh decided, and declared on his nationally broadcast radio show, that this meant men who supported the war were insecure about their masculinity.

In his study, Willer asked undergraduates to take a sexuality survey, then gave a random sampling of the men fake feedback saying they were somewhat feminine. (He gave some women feedback suggesting they were somewhat masculine, but found it made no difference to their post-feedback opinions.) Even after he accounted for their political views, Willer found that in a subsequent survey, men whose masculinity was challenged were significantly more likely to support the Iraq War, prefer to buy an SUV, and exhibit homophobia.

That was back in 2005, but Willer’s not done with America’s macho men. He has yet to publish his results, choosing to wait until he can combine his data with a broader look at culture and masculinity based on his recent survey of 2,700 Americans. Preliminary findings show that men who perceive the nation’s masculine culture as eroding or threatened are more likely to express sexist or homophobic views.

In the meantime, Willer has followed a number of urban legend–type research paths. He’s shown that groups of wine tasters will pressure each other to praise a certain wine, despite what they really think about it. He’s worked on a paper about the effect of an author’s status on people’s opinion of his or her writing. Lately, in addition to looking at connections between news sources and support for war in Iran, he’s been examining how altruism works in online giving communities such as Freecycle. Willer identified a “pay-it-forward” ethic in users of what he calls “the biggest naturally occurring altruistic community in history,” meaning that the more people take, the more they tend to give.

The perceived liberal political slant of his research has gotten him into trouble, particularly with conservative bloggers, many of whom, like Limbaugh, label Willer’s work a threat to American masculinity. And as the research shows, when you challenge a man’s masculinity, you can expect postings like this one, in an online conservative forum set up to trash Willer’s work: “I want a tank. With a big cannon. And in MY tank, I want two beautiful topless fashion models as co-pilots. Problems with that?”

According to Willer, many conservatives reacted the same way. “Well, yeah, sure,” he says. “If you’re low in masculinity, you go out and get more of it. What’s the big deal here?” And he carefully points out that there’s nothing shameful in wanting an SUV or supporting a war, even if it’s done to bolster a masculine image. After all, he says, “It’s what men do.”

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