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To Build More Compassionate Men, Emphasize Their Role as Dads

New research finds men reminded of the notion of fatherhood express less-hostile political views.

A lot of men feel denigrated these days. Reminded that, as a group, they are less educated than women, in poorer health, and more likely to commit crimes, they often respond with belligerence, propping up their hurt egos by denigrating women, gays, or anyone else they see as weak.

This is hardly a surprise: Disparagement often breeds defensiveness. But if that kind of backlash could be averted, it could lower societal tensions, and help us forge a more compassion-oriented consensus.

Fortunately, new research suggests a way to do just that.

University of Colorado psychologists Bernadette Park and Sarah Banchefsky offer a promising way to stop the destructive spiral in which hurtful stereotypes produce hyper-masculine attitudes. It involves highlighting a major role most men play at some point in their lives: father.

"While women are viewed very similarly to moms, men are viewed as distinct and different from dads," they write in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. It's unfortunate that the word men has taken on negative connotations, but the positive associations around the concept of fatherhood present a real opportunity.

Park and Banchefsky describe three studies, the first two of which show that men and dads are seen differently by men and women alike. "Thinking about men in their roles as fathers resulted in a more positive (evaluation of them as a group) than thinking about their role in the workforce," they write.

The third study has political implications, in that it could negate a major catalyst of support for repressive social policies. It featured 211 American males recruited online. Half began by reading a New York Times op-ed column that asked, "Is Our Biggest Social Problem Men?" The others read an unrelated editorial on driverless cars.

They then read one of two reports from the Pew Research Center: one about "current trends in the workplace," or another about "current trends in fatherhood." The latter emphasized "the changing role of fathers," and increasing involvement of many men in their children's lives.

Finally, all participants gave their opinions on seven public-policy questions, including immigration, equal pay for women in the workforce, the death penalty, and whether gays should be openly accepted in the military.

As expected, men who had read the piece berating males expressed stronger opposition to policies friendly to women, gays, and immigrants (as well as greater support for the death penalty). But that hostile response was significantly reduced if the men also read the article on fatherhood.

In other words, they lashed out less if the image of men as fathers was on their mind. Park and Banchefsky argue this insight could have important implications.

"If the social role of men as fathers was persistently highlighted in the media, in movies, and in the lives of public figures," they write, "this could result in profound and lasting change in terms of what comes to mind when one thinks of men as a social category." And that could, in turn, change attitudes and behaviors.

"With time, increasing the tie between men's social role as fathers should help to redefine the stereotype of men and conceptions of masculinity more broadly," the researchers add. "Such an outcome would seemingly be a win all around."

"Men would be at least somewhat freed from the burden of fighting to maintain precarious manhood, and families would be strengthened," particularly if employers respect the importance of fatherhood and provide their male workers the flexibility needed to be involved parents.

Male-bashing doesn't help anyone. It's more productive to prompt the nurturing behaviors invoked by the notion of fatherhood.