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Lynch School of Education

Men and Masculinity

James Mahalik

James R. Mahalik, professor of counseling, developmental, and educational psychology and associate dean of faculty and academics in the Lynch School of Education, has had a very busy year. But even with his new role as associate dean and ongoing role as professor, he has still made time for important research. He sat down with us to talk about some of the work he’s been doing in his field.

Can you tell me briefly about your area of expertise and your research specialty?

My general area of research focuses on how gender roles and social groups influence males and females in a broad number of ways—from mental and physical health issues to career choices, and how the influence of same-sex others contributes to why people, for example, choose education majors, why they don’t get help when they’re depressed, why they drink too much, etc. So, how gender affects a variety of things that we care about.

What have you been working on most recently?

I’ve been focusing most of my energy over the last four or five years to answer the question, “Why do men engage in more health-risk behaviors?

In third-world countries, women die earlier than men. We can tie this statistic to various cultural and economic reasons. However, in industrialized or (wealthier) first-world countries, men consistently die earlier than women. In some countries, Russia for example, there is a 17-year difference. In the United States, I think it’s down to a 6-year difference now, but still—that’s a big difference. The question becomes, why do men die earlier?

One of the things we know is that health-risk behaviors, i.e. smoking, drinking, not wearing seatbelts, are very important. An article by the Journal of the American Medical Association about 10 years ago found that 50% of variance in mortality and morbidity were due to health behaviors.

Now, the next step is to look at the sex differences on health risk behaviors. If you pick any of [the health risk behaviors]—and there’s a review of about 35—men are worse than women are for all except weight lifting, [men] lift more weights. But they are more likely to smoke, drink to excess and more frequently, eat poorly, and they are less likely to visit the doctor, use seatbelts, or generally engage in self-care.

So how are you connecting this data with health-risk behaviors?

We’ve suggested it’s a reasonable conclusion that one of the reasons that men live fewer years and are less healthy is that they engage in more health-risk behaviors. 

One of the basic questions within this conclusion becomes: How much does being “masculine” contribute to men’s health-risk behaviors? If you think in terms of how we view health-risk behaviors, they can often be seen as a way of demonstrating masculinity.

There are a lot of ways in society that the arena of health behaviors and health is seen as a gendered-type of a thing. For men, this way of being perceived as masculine in that health arena tends to be engaging in these health-risk behaviors: smoking more, chewing tobacco more, drinking more frequently and in higher quantities, pick anything.

Another potential factor to consider is that men’s social groups may influence them to engage in health-risk behaviors. And what we’ve found is that the most important of these social groups is other men. So if their fathers, brothers, and best male friends are engaging in health-risk behaviors, then they are more likely to do so as well.

Conversely though, when those men engaged in health-promoting behaviors if their best friends and male family members typically get an annual physical exam, they were more likely to get an annual physical exam.

So is that what you’re working on currently?

I have been working with Rebekah Coley, professor of counseling, developmental, and educational psychology in the Lynch School of Education, to examine a longitudinal study of adolescents in their health risk behaviors at four different time points in their lives. The question that we are asking is: If it is the case that, in fact, males engage in more health risk behaviors at what point does that start to occur?

Logically we presume that male and female infants are engaging in the same amount of smoking and drinking—which is zero. But at what point does that start to diverge? That’s what we’re looking at—the time points where males and females and their engagement in health-risk behaviors diverges and converges.

What are some findings that may contribute to positive solutions to the underlying problem?

In terms of solutions, I would suggest three things:

  1. We should utilize critical times in which to intervene. For males, in particular, this would be before they start to engage in these health-risk behaviors.

  2. We should start to investigate and use the power of social groups to try to instead influence positive health behaviors. We need to try to redefine what it means to be masculine in our society. If it means being strong, for example, then what are some things that help you stay strong? Eating well, taking care of your body—how would you treat a car that you were trying to keep running? You would have it checked out; you would maintain it well, etc.

  3. We’re suggesting that questioning and reconstructing masculinity to be something different than risk-taking may be helpful. So if you can reconstruct “what it means to be a man in society” and use the power of groups to communicate normative messages about self-care and if you can intervene at a time before health-risks start to rev up, then those are three potential things you could use out of those findings.

Do you have goals for the future of this research?

Well, we are trying to develop a more complex understanding using the data from this longitudinal study to unpack the dynamics over time: How do social groups and gender norms influence behavior over time? What are the critical periods to influence for different health risks? What are the different issues for males and females during early adolescence through adulthood and what influences the different trajectories of health behaviors?

Eventually, what we would like to do is to develop, implement, and evaluate tailored interventions around prevention or remediation of health-risk behaviors for different age groups.  But for now, the research that we’re doing is going to help us figure out specifics, we don’t just want to bluster into a “one-size-fits-all” intervention.