A lot of research has shown how women hide their aggression, lust, and other qualities once considered masculine in order to fulfill the feminine ideal of a chaste and gentle peacemaker. But far less work has been done on whether men conceal their feelings, perhaps because researchers assumed men had no reason to. Women repressed their sexual, violent, and power-hungry urges, the conventional wisdom went, while men let it all hang out.
But this isn't necessarily true, according to research that Christian Vaccaro, a sociologist from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, has done on male mixed martial artists. The study will appear in the December issue of Social Psychology Quarterly.
Mixed martial arts is a modern day pay-per-view blood sport, and after interviewing 121 of its most ferocious competitors, and spending two years with them at gyms, weigh-ins, competitions, locker rooms, and after-parties, Vaccaro discovered that these guys are afraid. Very afraid.
Well aware of the broken bones, damaged organs, detached retinas, and, in at least two cases, fatal brain injuries, that U.S. competitors have sustained during fights, not to mention the public humiliation of losing, the men complain about "nerves" and "pre-fight jitters" before matches, and sometimes choke down the urge to throw up. One or two back out of every fight, Vaccaro found. But you'd never know any of that watching Larry, one of the fighters in the study, enter the arena pounding his fists, as "Born in the USA" roars over the speakers, and yell "I'm taking this fucker to school." But Vaccaro discovered that Larry, like the rest of his well-muscled co-competitors, has elaborate strategies for turning fear into blinding bravado.
The study suggests that contrary to stereotype, men aren't necessarily less fearful than women. They just don't express their fear openly, in much the way women may hold back their anger and agression.
On the surface, at least, women are more fearful creatures. Lab studies show that female co-eds freak out more around a tarantula. Women are twice as likely to develop anxiety disorders, particularly PTSD, panic disorder, and agoraphobia, and they're more likely to overestimate a threat. Teen girls, not shockingly, worry more than teen boys.
Socialization likely plays a huge role in developing this fearfulness. The fear gender gap increases as little boys and little girls get older, and learn better what little girls and little boys should be like. Boys may be more encouraged to confront their fears, and to do so without a whimper, while girls are positively reinforced when they express their anxieties. This may explain why when young men and women watch a horror flick together, men like the experience more when the woman shrieks and turns her head, and women enjoy it more when the guy does not.
But there also may be a biological element. When faced with something frightening, men's bodies actually respond more strongly: their blood pressure rises higher, their adrenaline spikes more, and they produce a little extra sweat. Women's physical reaction isn't nearly so marked.
According to the psychologist Shelley Taylor, men have an innate fight-and-flight response to threats, while women are more likely to "tend-and-befriend." Women's bodies are flooded with oxytocin (the "love hormone"), which calms any extreme adrenal freak-out. Instead, women worry about the threat, and seek out friends and family to protect them and help themselves cope.
This tendency to worry is important: instead of being more fearful than men, women may just be more anxious about being afraid. Their response is more cerebral. This may help explain why men get more of a kick out of watching horror, or entering a cage where they may be beaten violently. A burst of testosterone-adrenaline probably provides more of an enjoyable high than the anxious urge to reach out to your social network for support and safety.
Fear is known as one of the most complex human emotions -- a muddle of genes, hormones, and social norms -- but Vaccaro's study illuminates another layer: the ways in which we express or hide our fear in an attempt to embody a certain identity. Mixed martial arts competitors may appear like fearless monster-men when they enter battle, but that is because they want to appear like fearless monster-men. The terror is there -- men just put a lot of work into appearing as though it isn't.