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It's an oft-spoofed scene: young men who fail to 'score' wailing on each other outside a nightclub.

A new paper suggests that manhood is a precarious status-and when it's threatened, men will often become aggressive to re-assert it. In several studies, University of South Florida psychologists had men perform "feminine" tasks, and recorded the fallout afterwards.

In one experiment, they had some men braid hair (that's feminine, they said) and others braid rope -- that's more masculine, or gender neutral, they argued.

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The men were then all given the options of punching a bag or doing a puzzle. Overwhemingly, the hair-braiders chose to punch the bag.

When the puzzle wasn't an option and only the punching bag was on offer to all the men, the hair-braiders lashed out harder than their rope-braiding counterparts.

When all the men were forced to braid hair but only some got to punch a bag, the non-punchers reported being more anxious on a subsequent test.

In another experiment, the researchers had men and women read a fake police report in which either a man or a woman attacked someone of their own sex after that person insulted their manhood, or womanhood -- the latter being a difficult exchange to wrap your head around: how does one insult womanhood, anyway?

The woman attacker was found by both sexes to be immature; women also said this about the male aggressors.

But when the attacker was a man, the men believed that humiliation forced him to defend his manhood.

"Gender is social," University of South Florida psychologist co-author Jennifer Bosson said in a release.

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"Men know this. They are powerfully concerned about how they appear in other people's eyes."

She added: "When I was younger I felt annoyed by my male friends who would refuse to hold a pocketbook or say whether they thought another man was attractive. I thought it was a personal shortcoming that they were so anxious about their manhood. Now I feel much more sympathy for men."



Prof. Bosson argues that her research reinforces that rigid gender roles have negative effects on men including anxiety, low self-esteem and violence.



The paper is published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

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