What's in the “man box?” Increased violence & suicidal thoughts

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What's in the “man box?” Increased violence & suicidal thoughts

An Australian study involving 1000 men aged 18 to 30 has found those who conform to traditional definitions of manhood—dubbed being in “the man box”—are twice as likely to consider suicide and seven times more likely to be violent towards others.

What the researchers say: The lead author said the study revealed the dangers of “toxic masculinity” for men and those around them.

The study defines “The Man Box” as a set of societal beliefs that place pressure on men to be a certain way—like being tough, not showing emotions, being the breadwinner, using violence to solve problems, and having many sexual partners.

Some men, about 30%, are boxed into the stereotypes of being “a real man.” The rest not. And there are remarkable health differences between the two groups.

“According to our survey, young men in the ‘Man Box’ were more likely to have poor mental health (including feeling depressed, hopeless or suicidal),  to seek help from only a narrow range of sources, and to be involved in binge drinking and traffic accidents.

“This accords with many other studies that have found men who endorse dominant ideals of masculinity are more likely than others to have greater health risks and engage in poor behaviors. They are more likely to consider suicide, drink excessively, take risks at work and drive dangerously.”

Key findings include:

  • 44 percent of men inside the Man Box had experienced thoughts about suicide in the past 2 weeks, compared to 22 percent outside the box (still a very high number)
  • 31 percent in the box had been drunk once a month or more, compared to 22 percent outside the box  
  • 47 percent of men in the box had perpetrated physical bullying & violence in past month, compared to 7 percent outside the box
  • 46 percent of men in the box had made sexual comments to a female they didn't know, in public or online, in past month, compared to 7 percent outside the box
  • 52 percent of men in the box had experienced physical bullying & violence in the past month, compared to 15 percent outside the box
  • 38 percent of men in the box had been involved in a car accident in the past year, compared to 11 percent outside the box.

The researchers said the survey showed young men were still greatly influenced by traditional messages of what it meant to be a man.

“For example, young men were particularly likely to agree with statements that society expects men to act strong (69 percent), fight back when pushed (60 percent) and never say no to sex (56 percent),” they said.

“However, some traditional ideals seem to be dropping away. Few young men agreed that society tells them they should use violence to get respect (35 percent), straight men should shun gay men as friends (36 percent), boys shouldn't learn how to cook and clean (38 percent), and men shouldn't do household chores (39 percent).”

The report recommends the promotion of positive alternatives to the Man Box at work, by governments, and by families and communities.

So, what? There is no biological underpinning in society’s idea of what is “normal” for men or women in terms of attitudes or behavior. These all originated at some time in the past to further the interests of some sections of society—usually the ruling elite.

Men in the “man box” would probably be more willing to be brave soldiers and to follow some warrior leader—or in today’s terms a “strong man” such as Putin, Erdogan, Xi, Duerte or Trump. In my observation hunter-gatherer men shared none of these beliefs.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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