by Nathan Hook, PhD candidate.
[This was this first runner-up in the competition for a free ticket to the Male Psychology Conference.
The question Nathan Hook addressed was What first got you interested in the psychology of men and boys? ]
At an early phase in my life I was a pupil in a boys-only grammar school, and in the evenings went to a boys-only Scout group and a tabletop historical wargames group that attracted only had men and older boys interested in strategy. After a degree in a different subject at a conventional university, I was drawn to psychology and later in life was an Open University Psychology student. Due to the huge gender imbalance in psychology I was sometimes the sole male learner in a tutorial class. These very different learning environments with contrasting gender balance of learners highlighted to me different classroom behaviour styles – some people engage in learning by combative debate, challenging what is presented as a way to digest and absorb ideas actively.
When I conducted my student experiments at Open University summer schools, one simple addition I proposed regardless of what the experiment was – digit span recall of abstract symbols in my case – was to note the participant’s gender. This then gave the option to split the data on this and do a gender comparison test, as an easy way to add secondary analysis to undergraduate coursework. It was these experiences that lay the seeds for my interest in the psychology of men as a distinct group.
In my working life as a data analyst for Ofsted I came to see how boys are underachieving in assessments across education, from age five up to university admissions. Meanwhile my interest in male psychology flowered later in my academic life, as a part-time distance PhD student doing experiments in how readers/players identify with fictional characters. Starting with a hypothesis that people would identify more strongly with characters with the same identities as themselves, I designed an experiment to test if this was true for the identity of gender. This design meant I needed to split male and female participants to see if they identified more with their own-gender of character, but I wasn’t expecting a gender difference in results.
The surprise finding was that females did identify more with a female character than a male character (‘in-group bias’), but males had no such bias; I had unexpectedly discovered a gender difference. I expanded my literature review to and found a similar pattern of female own-gender bias but no male own-gender bias had been discovered experimentally in remembering faces, with a visual processing domain-specific explanation offered. Having found the same gender difference in a completely different field suggests there may be a deeper underlying mechanism.
I had never intended to look at gender differences when I started my PhD research, but I followed where the data led. My next step was to test for this gender difference in identification with a different identity, and I settled on religion as another strongly held identify for many people. This time I found evidence of an in-group bias for males, but no evidence of an in-group bias for females. Once again, a gender difference in identification.
My current conceptual model for explaining these results is that in-group bias occurs for identities people invest in. We all have characteristics we don’t meaningfully identify with; most people don’t strongly identify as ‘blue eyed’ or ‘brown eyed’ (unless pushed to by being in a blue eyes-brown eyes experiment). Males don’t invest so strongly in their gender identity so don’t display own-gender bias, but Christian males and males of ‘no religion’ do invest strongly enough in their religious identity so display religious in-group bias. I’m using ‘group’ in this context to mean ‘shared identity,’ not limited only to social grouping.
While there is a cognitive benefit in judgement not being clouded by in-group bias, not investing in gender identity would also imply less ability to generate self-esteem from enacting that easily accessible identity, leaving men at higher risk from depression (lack of self-esteem) when unable to fulfil their other identities. This might explain why depression and by extension suicide is more common in men – by not investing in gender, they lack one major relatively easy and secure source of self-esteem.
My interest in the psychology of men then comes not from being drawn to certain constructions or socio-political agenda, but from applying the scientific experimental model of formulating testable hypotheses and following the results where they led, foreshadowed by my earlier life experiences.
About the author
Nathan Hook is a British Social Psychologist who trained with The Open University, UK and is a current distance Ph.D. student at the University of Tampere, Finland. His research interests include role playing in games and how the psychology of players can be changed by ludic experience. Alongside this, he also designs and publishes board and card games, and has a published a series of game-like psychodrama scenarios under The Green Book series. He currently works for Ofsted, the education inspectorate for England. His chapter in the Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health, May the force of gender be with you: Identity, Identification and “Own-Gender Bias”, is one of the most downloaded of the 32 chapters in this volume ( DOI10.1007/978-3-030-04384-1 ).