Conlon co-authors article published in American Journal of Sociology

June 25, 2013

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Dr. Bridget Conlon

PLATTEVILLE, Wis.­­­ – When men feel that their masculinity is threatened, do they behave in a more overtly masculine way to mask their insecurities?

University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s Dr. Bridget Conlon and several other researchers in the field of sociology explored this question in “Overdoing Gender, a Test of the Masculine Overcompensation Thesis.” The article was published in the American Journal of Sociology, a scholarly journal for analysis and research in the social sciences, and was a culmination of more than five years of research, experimentation and writing. Led by Dr. Robb Willer, University of California, Berkeley, article co-authors included Dr. Christabel L. Rogalin, Purdue University, North Central; Dr. Bridget Conlon, UW-Platteville; and Dr. Michael T. Wojnowicz, University of Washington.

“After working on this project for so many years, it is a huge thrill to have it published in such a well-known, well-respected journal,” Conlon stated. “I feel honored to have had the opportunity to work with the others on this important topic.”

Conlon and her academic peers tested the masculine overcompensation thesis, which asserts that men react to masculinity threats with extreme demonstrations of masculinity. Masculinity theorists believe that sensitivity and responsiveness to masculinity threats are common in men because of the strong social pressure to maintain a masculine gender identity that matches the masculine gender identity that is perceived, defined and expected by broader society. They also believe that because masculinity is often so narrowly defined, it is virtually unattainable, which causes men to overcompensate and continually strive for even greater masculinity.

Willer, Rogalin, Conlon and Wojnowicz reviewed the theoretical bases for the masculine overcompensation thesis, established the theoretical claims underlying the dynamic, then tested the idea of masculine overcompensation in four studies that included a series of laboratory experiments and a large-scale survey involving students from the University of Iowa who volunteered to be a part of the studies.

Conlon worked primarily on the fourth study, which found that men who had higher levels of testosterone showed stronger reactions to masculinity threats than men who had lower levels of testosterone. Participants for this study included 54 undergraduate male students.

At the start of the experiment, participants’ basal testosterone levels were measured through saliva testing to obtain a baseline. Participants then completed the Bem Sex Role Inventory, a standard test that measures masculinity-femininity and gender roles and assesses how people identify themselves psychologically.

Participants were then given randomly assigned feedback on the results of their gender identity. Some were told they had scored in the “slightly feminine” range and some were told they had scored in the “average masculine” range. Participants were then asked to complete a political and religious views survey and a post-study questionnaire. At regular intervals throughout the study, saliva samples were taken from the participants.

Results showed that the men who were higher in basal testosterone were more likely to be more attentive and responsive to threats to their status, reacting to them with dominance-related behaviors and attitudes, such as expressing support for war. Men who had lower basal testosterone, however, did not overcompensate with dominance-related behaviors and attitudes.

“Gender identity falls across a wide spectrum,” noted Conlon. “This study helped show that people’s attitudes about their gender identity once they have received feedback about it can affect their behaviors and attitudes.”

“One of the weaknesses of the study is that it only focused on males,” Conlon added. “Women do not have a level of testosterone that is high enough to be reliably measured. Future research could examine hormones more easily measured in women.”

Willer and Wojnowicz completed the three earlier studies. Results from these studies – two surveys conducted in a laboratory setting with a small, homogeneous population as well as a large-scale survey that provided greater demographic heterogeneity – indicated that men whose masculinity was threatened or called into question reacted with more extreme masculine attitudes, in particular with their views associated with dominance.

“These studies showed that some men react to masculine insecurity by expressing desire to enact more extreme demonstrations of their masculinity, such as purchasing a large, powerful vehicle; possessing a subordinate view of those who are perceived as having a non-traditional gender role; or advocating for aggressive military action,” Conlon noted.

Results of all four studies supported the masculine overcompensation thesis, showed how it can shape political and cultural attitudes and identified a hormonal factor influencing the effect.

“This research study was not only about social interaction; it was about the combined effect of physiological and social forces,” Conlon explained. “The results of our experiments showed that there is clear relationship between biological differences and attitudes. Biology does not determine everything, but it is important to social interactions. The cause for specific responses is part socialization and part biology.”

Conlon plans to reference and use the article as a learning tool in her classroom, especially when she is discussing issues related to gender identity. She teaches Introduction to Sociology and Marriage and the Family at UW-Platteville.

Conlon credits her dissertation and master’s advisor, Jennifer Glanville, associate professor of sociology at the University of Iowa, with inspiring her throughout her academic journey, though Glanville was not actively involved in any of the four studies. Conlon stated that Glanville continues to be a mentor for her today.

Conlon received her undergraduate degree in sociology and minor in psychology from the University of New Mexico in 2000 and her graduate degree in sociology from the University of Iowa in 2008. Her specialties are in social psychology, marriage and the family and the sociology of mental health.

Written by: Laurie A. Hamer, communications specialist, College of Liberal Arts and Education, (608) 342-6191, hamerl@uwplatt.edu

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