Accelerating the new macho

Stanford Social Innovation Review

Lisa Witter & Michael Feigelson


As players stride onto the pitch at the World Cup in Brazil later this month, they will enter hand-in-hand with a child. Kids have become the brand of one of the most competitive global sports. The iconic FC Barcelona even sports the UNICEF logo on its jerseys.

This is one example of how men who have historically been symbols of toughness are embracing a new archetype of manliness—one in which they care for their kids, are sensitive with their partners, and share power without losing respect. A “new macho” is emerging, and change is spreading. A 2013 Pew Research study on the “new American father” illustrates several examples:

  • In 2010, 82 percent of adults approved of men who put their families before everything else.  And 89 percent valued caring and compassion as very important male traits, compared to 41 percent for the ability to provide a good income.
  • Fathers’ time with children nearly tripled from two-and-a-half hours per week in 1965 to seven hours per week in 2011. Fathers’ time doing household chores more than doubled from four to 10 hours per week.

There is still a long way to go. Traditional stereotypes of strong men—dominant, physically forceful, unemotional—still perpetuate problems such as sexual assault, domestic violence, and bullying. However, rather than focusing on bad behavior, social change leaders should be looking for answers in the experience of the tough guys who are changing.

What motivates men who embody the new macho, and how can we combine the answers with new insights from behavioral science to accelerate the transformation?

Detective Chief Superintendent John Carnochan, a recent retiree from the Scottish Police, is one example. After 30 years, Carnochan decided that it was time to start stopping murders instead of solving them. Soon he found himself at the helm of a specialized department called the Violence Reduction Unit.

Today, the former murder detective has become a passionate advocate for positive parenting programs. Carnochan scours the country teaching everyone from gang members to elementary school children his favorite refrain: “The most important four years of a child’s life are up to age three.” He has helped make early childhood development a policy priority for Scotland.

Carnochan is not the only tough guy who is into toddlers. Leading men like Brad Pitt and Will Smith are portrayed in the media as caring dads taking their kids to school and on weekend excursions. They talk openly about their role as caregivers, while continuing to grow their status as icons and highlight their sex appeal.

Don McPherson is another example. McPherson played quarterback at Syracuse University, finishing second in the 1987 Heisman Trophy voting. He then pursued a professional career, until becoming the executive director of Sports Leadership at Adelphi University and a TV commentator for Big East football.

Like Carnochan, McPherson has all the credentials of a traditional man’s man, but for the last 20 years has dedicated himself to tackling men’s violence against women, speaking at college campuses across the country.

Last year, McPherson joined men such as hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings as spokespersons for the Ring the Bell Campaign, which aims to collect one million promises from one million men to end violence against women.

Carnochan and McPherson reflect individual stories and a growing trend. Both speak to common attributes of new macho men. They:

  • See power-sharing as an opportunity, not a threat
  • See caring for and loving their partners and children as a sign of strength
  • Solve problems through dialogue and collaboration
  • Thrive on competition, but not at the expense of partnership.

Why are some men taking on these new attitudes and behaviors?

The answer is likely a combination of factors, including changing workforce needs, the economic necessity of two-income families, advocacy campaigns focused on equality, and increased recognition for basic principles of human rights. These trends have created conditions in which abandoning the old and embracing the new macho benefits men, their partners, and their children.

For example:

  • Men who are emotionally engaged during pregnancy and participate more in childcare live longer and experience less illness.
  • Toddlers of men who are engaged in supportive caregiving roles from the month after childbirth have stronger language skills and higher IQs.
  • Men who report more gender-equitable attitudes and open communication with their partners are happier and have better sex lives.
  • Families where women are supported to work have higher household earning potential and cope more effectively with economic shocks.

If the new macho is good for men, women, boys, and girls, then how can we accelerate the transition?

In collaboration with Behavioral Scientist and Professor Paul Dolan of the London School Economics, we have compiled a list of insights to help individuals and organizations answer this question. Think:M.A.C.H.O. M.A.N.

Messenger: Men’s trust is motivated by group affiliations. For example, men trust men that went to their university even if they have no personal connection. This mirrors the way men organize in the military or sports—a clear distinction between “us” and “them.” Initiatives aimed at changing old macho behaviors should make sure that the targeted men see the messengers as part of their “in-group.”

Affect: Emotion is a powerful force in decision-making, but we often focus on appealing to men’s rationality. When we do invoke emotions to address old macho behaviors, we frequently focus on negative feelings such as fear, shame, or guilt, provoking self-defensive biases. It’s important to offer emotional carrots too, appealing to qualities such as hope and gratitude. What’s the emotional cost of perpetuating the old macho? How will he feel by transitioning to the new macho? Be explicit.

Commitment: Public commitment is important in behavioral science. Strategies need to encourage men to make public commitments in line with the new macho. This act should be a sign of strength and power, helping tap into an “honor code” that is already closely tied to traditional conceptions of manliness.

Honor: Don’t repudiate the honor code that influences men’s social behaviors— use it. Make the behaviors we want to change come into contradiction with it. With honor comes integrity and selflessness—we need to invoke these traits under the auspices of honor to drive positive social change.

Opportunity: Well-framed messages are not enough to change behavior. Men also need to practice. As the old macho is still the dominant norm, it’s important to manufacture opportunities to practice new macho behaviors. Provide “channel factors”—convenient opportunities for men to act the new macho and experience the rewards.

Motivation: Understand what incentives men have to act the old macho—a desire for respect, power, friendship, sex? Work toward situations where old macho behaviors put these outcomes at risk. As men are highly averse to loss, this strategy creates the need to reconcile desired outcomes with a new ideal of manliness. It will help generate demand for new macho alternatives.

Abilities: If we tap into men’s emotions and motivate them to change, we must also understand how they process this information.  For example, a campaign may trigger an empathic reaction, but the male brain may then shifts gears and problem-solve until it can “fix” the situation.  ‘Fixing’ the situation will then cause the brain circuits to register victory – a satisfactory resolution.  This means helping men learn new skills such as negotiation and mindfulness to deal with familiar problems such as conflict and anger.

Norms: In his 2004 study, “The Social Norms Approach,” Alan Berkowitz asserts: “What men think other men think is one of the strongest determinants of how men act,” but “these perceptions and beliefs are [often] mistaken.” Making new macho men more visible in society helps shift perceptions that drive behavior by establishing the new macho as the salient norm. This is why role models such as Detective Carnochan and Don McPherson are so important.

Of course, it is important to view these insights with sensitivity, particularly in relation to culture and sexuality. That said—whether the task is to promote father’s involvement in early childhood, curb bullying, or address another behavior patterned on the old macho—we believe these insights can help social change leaders design more effective strategies.

The new macho does not mark the end of manliness but its redefinition for the 21st century. The benefits are clear for men and for women, boys and girls, and society at large. Let’s make it happen.

Join us in conversation about men you see as the #newmacho on Twitter.

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