Why Do Some Men Respond Aggressively When Rejected?
Are men who hold traditional ideas of masculine honor more likely to respond aggressively to romantic rejection?
Many women will be familiar with this scene:
Tom is at a party. He notices a woman he finds attractive and attempts to catch her eye from across the room. After a few failed attempts of getting her to notice him, he walks over to her and introduces himself. They make small talk and after a while he asks her if he can have her number. She says no.
How does Tom respond? He could walk away. He could feel happy with himself for trying. Or he could react aggressively, calling the woman a name or even assaulting her.
In the wake of well-publicized examples of men aggressively retaliating against perceived rejection — for example, the case of Elliot Rodgers, the Californian student who murdered sorority members and the men he suspected of sleeping with them — some men have felt motivated to point out that #NotAllMen respond in this way. This less than tactful response inadvertently reveals that these men may have something in common with men like Rodgers after all: both seem to be acting to preserve their honor. The #NotAllMen crowd don’t want their gender to be painted as uniformly lacking in chivalry; men who retaliate violently when spurned may do so because they have internalized so-called “masculine honor beliefs”.
At least, that is, according to a team of psychologists at Kansas State University led by Evelyn Stratmoen. They had around 60 male and 60 female undergraduate students complete the Masculine Honor Beliefs Scale. The MHBS is a survey developed in the last couple of years to test whether a person endorses the idea that masculine honor should be defended. Respondents indicate how strongly they agree with statements such as “Physical aggression is always admirable and acceptable,” and “If a man is insulted, his manhood is insulted.”
Next, Stratmoen’s volunteers read a description of a man at a party: the same description you read at the top of this article. Afterwards, they read a list of Tom’s possible responses to his rejection, and rated how reasonable they thought each response was. Volunteers also rated how insulted Tom was likely to feel as a result of his rejection.
Stratmoen found that those who endorsed the masculine honor ideal were more likely to expect that Tom would feel insulted and less of a man, and to think it appropriate for Tom to respond aggressively, for example by grabbing the woman’s arm or calling her a slut.
Men tended to endorse masculine honor beliefs more strongly than women, as we might expect. But, perhaps more surprisingly, Stratmoen also found that the gender of the volunteer was unrelated to their perceptions of the appropriateness of Tom’s responses.
In a follow-up study, Stratmoen was able to show that public rejections were perceived to have a greater impact on Tom’s honor. What’s more, those who endorsed honor beliefs expected Tom to respond aggressively to rejection, unless his response was likely to be witnessed. This perhaps illustrates the strength of the taboo against male violence toward women, although Stratmoen and her colleagues note that those who endorse honor beliefs are much less likely to expect Tom to simply walk away from the woman. This suggests that:
a “man of honor” is expected to “do something” when romantically rejected — merely “walking away” and accepting the rejection is not an option.
The researchers concede that their research cannot reveal whether men’s aggressive responses are intended primarily as a form of retribution, with the aim of punishing the woman, or as a way of restoring the man’s own reputation, and call for future studies to address this outstanding question.
Stratmoen, E., Greer, M. M., Martens, A. L., & Saucier, D. A. (2018). What, I′m not good enough for you? Individual differences in masculine honor beliefs and the endorsement of aggressive responses to romantic rejection. Personality and Individual Differences, 123, 151–162. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.10.018
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