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Aggression Not As Attractive As Men Believe

New research finds males mistakenly believe aggressive behavior is admired.
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To the long list of unfounded assumptions widely held by men, we can now add the alleged attractiveness of aggressive behavior.

According to a paper just published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, men overestimate how appealing such behavior is to women. They also overestimate the combativeness of their fellow males and the extent to which their same-sex peers approve of aggressive acts.

The researchers, led by psychologist Joseph Vandello of the University of South Florida, describe a culture of misperceived machismo, where some men behave aggressively due to unfounded fears that passive behavior will be frowned on by their peers.

They conclude that "men who may be privately reluctant to escalate conflict to the point of aggression may set aside these misgivings in order to conform to erroneously perceived social norms."

Their findings emerged from a series of studies conducted at the University of South Florida, in which students were presented with scenarios in which someone like themselves was challenged in public. One takes place in a crowded restaurant; it involves a student who finds himself in a confrontation with a peer who accidentally spilled soda on his shirt. He asks for an apology, but the student who is at fault dismissively refuses.

"Participants were asked to estimate the probability that they would punch the offending party," the researchers report. "Next, they were asked to imagine 100 same-sex students on their campus and to estimate the number of students who would punch the offender."

Among men, 28 percent of the men said they'd be likely to take a swing at the jerk. But they estimated that 45 percent of their fellow male students would do the same. In other words, guys overestimated how aggressively other guys were likely to behave.

(Of the women, just under 30 percent said they'd slug another co-ed who had dissed them in such a way. That was quite close to their estimate that 36 percent of their fellow female students would do so.)

The men's disconnect between perception and reality was confirmed by a second study, in which their feelings about someone who walked away from a fight were "significantly less negative than the evaluations they predicted others would have."

"One implication of men's inflated belief that others will perceive them as weak or wimpy for not using aggression is that they might resort to violence even when they do not privately internalize pro-aggression norms," the researchers write. "In this way, male norms about violence might be perpetuated despite not being strongly endorsed by most men."

Adding to the problem is the male misunderstanding of what women want. "Though women greatly preferred a non-aggressive response to an aggressive one, men thought that women would prefer an aggressive response," the researchers write. "There was a dramatic gap between men's guesses about the views of women and women's actual views."

The researchers concede their test subjects may not be representative of the population as a whole, as their youth and cultural backgrounds may predispose them to favor aggression. Before generalizing too, umm, aggressively, it would be wise to see if similar results are obtained from samples of older men and men from other regions of the country.

But even if the results aren't universally applicable, the study has interesting ramifications for law enforcement personnel and policymakers dealing with the issue of violence among young men. The findings suggest "it is important to consider the social context in which aggression occurs, particularly in terms of audience or bystander composition," the researchers write. A seemingly senseless act of aggression may, in fact, be a misguided attempt to impress a young man's peers or potential mates.

The scholars also come to one unassailable conclusion: "Norms can be very powerful, even when they are illusory."

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