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Does acting macho make men miserable?

Scientists connect conformity to certain macho norms with poorer mental health. How can that science change culture?

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A man shows his stuff on Venice Beach, also known as muscle beach, in Los Angeles.

Robert Harbison / The Christian Science Monitor/File

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Machismo: it’s not just a problem for women.

A new study published on Monday that draws from nearly 80 studies performed on almost 20,000 men finds that men who conform strictly to certain masculine norms are more likely to suffer from mental health problems.

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That’s especially true, says lead author Y. Joel Wong, a professor of counseling psychology at Indiana University Bloomington, when it comes to three norms: self-reliance, "playboy" behavior, and exercising dominance over women.

"The masculine norms of playboy and power over women are the norms most closely associated with sexist attitudes," said Dr. Wong in a release accompanying the study. "The robust association between conformity to these two norms and negative mental health-related outcomes underscores the idea that sexism is not merely a social injustice, but may also have a detrimental effect on the mental health of those who embrace such attitudes."

The authors’ meta-analysis largely echoes what researchers into men’s mental health have been saying for years, and provides an alternative lens for thinking about gender roles – an issue usually argued in religious or philosophical terms. It also raises questions about its application.

“People don’t like messing with traditional norms,” says James Mahalik, an associate dean at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and professor of counseling psychology, who in 2003 developed the conformity measure utilized by the study’s authors. “They put a lot of self-worth into figuring out how to be a man or woman. Traditional norms are a very safe way to do that.”

Not all of the masculine norms on the researchers’ 11-item list turned out to be correlated to poorer mental health: the primacy of work, or a high importance placed on one’s job, wasn’t strongly associated with negative effects, and risk-taking had both negative and positive mental health outcomes.

“We have a tendency to look at masculinity as if it’s kind of homogenous thing,” Wong told Smithsonian magazine. “Some masculine norms are much more problematic than others.”

Other norms that turned up strong adverse effects were a disdain for homosexuality, a tendency toward violence, the pursuit of status, and a desire to win.

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And the researchers found that those men who conformed strongly to norms like those were also less likely to seek treatment for mental health problems.

“What we know about psychological health is that at its center is the hallmark of flexibility,” Dr. Mahalik tells The Christian Science Monitor. “With gender roles, from the time they put pink or blue on you, you get developed for about half of your capacity. Females are encouraged to connect, and boys are encouraged to be self-reliant. In actuality, we need to do both.”

Several states have implemented standards for young children in public schools that put emotional well-being and pro-social learning on par with math and literacy. That’s where science is likely to have its most successful application, says Mahalik.

“When I talk to men, I get the sense that men aren’t going to change for themselves,” he tells the Monitor. Not unless it’s linked to the welfare of their kids. “Men would jump in front of trains for people they care about.... If you can convince men that the way they live their lives can help the wellness of their children, I think that can bring about change.”