Men’s emotions in Australia: what new survey data says

Hello everyone interested in research on emotions, men, and masculinities,

I would like to draw your attention to my new publication (co-authored with Vern Smith and Kai Soh) which has just come out in the journal NORMA – this makes use of new national Australian survey data on emotions to generalise about the emotional and affective experiences of men within a national population. 



Title – Generalising men’s affective experiences


Existing approaches to understanding gendered emotions have inadequately identified the complexity of masculine affective experience on a macro-social (population) level. The division of social science into quantitative surveys of singular emotions (e.g. happiness) at the macro-social level, or qualitative examinations of multiplex feelings (i.e. multiple emotional/affective sensations experienced simultaneously) at the micro (local) level leaves existing studies unable to generalise and challenge stereotypes about the gendered affective experiences of the population. This paper uses national data from the 2015–2016 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes to show that men’s reported affective experience is characterised by a multiplex of conflicting primary and secondary emotions at the macro-level. Men’s primary surface emotions seem conventional, in that they are relatively more likely to report ‘work’-oriented emotions like enthusiasm, confidence, pride, and assertiveness. However, men are also more likely to report ‘care’-oriented emotions like care and sympathy, stress, loneliness, and anxiety as secondary emotions. Men who report primary feelings of tiredness and frustration are also more likely to report secondary feelings of love. These findings suggest that, at the macro-social level, men experience a multiplex of emotions consistent with being affectively engaged in family as much as working life, and challenge many stereotypes about men’s affective experience.

Full paper:

Generalising men’s affective experiences

Free copy (up to first 50 downloads): 

Boy, Girl, Straight, Gay … Starved, Groomed, Altered?

How do you know if you’re a boy or girl, straight or gay, or something else altogether? Is it just obvious biology, something you’ve always known instinctively? Or is it something you’ve learned? What about your sexuality? Or what about your image of yourself as a sexual person?

While conventional perspectives focus on a hetero-normative image of men and women accompanied by prescribed male and female behaviours, and other perspectives gave range to a number of alternative conceptions – gay, lesbian, queer, transgender etc – the origins and repercussions of our sex, gender and sexuality are contested.

Some say that sexuality is fluid and eroticism is plastic, changing over the life course and in different contexts. Others point out that ‘obvious biological’ parts of our existence – our bodies – are increasingly altered to confirm to socially derived gendered stereotypes. Many women continue to alter themselves in ways ranging ‘beach ready body dieting to labiaplasty in pursuit of the perfect female form. Similarly, eating disorders, cosmetic surgery, and sales of protein enhancement and grooming products are steadily increasing amongst men.

What do you think? How much of our sex, gender and sexuality is innate and biological, and how much is environmental and social?

#S327UOW17 #Tut4

Are we happy yet?

Who doesn’t want to be happy? The last few decades have seen a great rise in the pursuit of happiness. Not the Aristotelian pursuit of a virtuous, well rounded emotional life, nor the Jeffersonian pursuit of happiness through liberty as an ‘inalienable right’, nor even the Utilitarian pursuit of happiness as the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’. Rather, there has been a surge of interest in measuring and planning for the happiness of nations. The OECD now tracks wellbeing measures across countries, Bhutan has pioneered in interest in Gross National Happiness (GNH) over GDP as a measure of societal progress, and the UK is interested in finding ‘happy places’ by measuring wellbeing and happiness by geographic location. Happiness is clearly now an important measure of social progress.

And yet happiness is still largely individualised as an emotion. Despite studies by world happiness experts like Ruut Veenhoven showing that happiness is clearly linked to social structural conditions in that it varies substantially across rich, poor and unequal nations, the treatments for happiness are still largely individualised. Medication and therapy – including mass therapy, or a societal/national foci on promoting mindfulness, positive psychology and CBT – are put forward as the means for resolving unhappiness, even when changes in economic and work conditions, family, gender, ethnic, and age structures, and urban and social connection may be the primary culprits in causing unhappiness. Can the proliferation of lists on how to be happy in 5, 7, 13, or 25 ‘science-backed’ easy (and obviously non-contradictory …) steps really compensate for broader social change?

And what about other emotions? How much of our unhappiness is about rising anxiety, depression, stress and anger? How much of our happiness depends on peace, contentment and love? And how much does our happiness – in all its related emotional forms – depend on what we are doing, rather than how we might sum up our lives on a 0 to 10 scale of satisfaction? In previous research, my colleague Kimberly Fisher and I found (unexpectedly) that Americans would enjoy their time less if they lived like Australians, because they would spend more time doing unpleasant things like housework, and less time doing fun things like having people over for dinner. We also found that the GFC seemed to have the effect of helping Americans re-evaluate the quality of their time, and enjoy the grind of work less and the pleasantness of social and family time more. Clearly, reflecting on and adjusting the social circumstances and lives that make us happy is an important element of our actual happiness. Mary Holmes calls this emotional reflexivity, or “an embodied, cognitive and relational process in which social actors have feelings about and try to understand and alter their lives in relation to their social and natural environment and to others.”

I say – as I always do with regards to all matters sociological – that structure and agency go hand in hand in the consideration of our happiness. We can change the world – and we can change ourselves – one emotion at a time, with reflection and awareness. I say that we need to be reflexive about what makes us happy (how society affects us), what makes others happy (how we affect society), if there are contradictions and inequalities in happiness, and when it is appropriate to beshow, or change our happiness, unhappiness, or other emotions – rather than assuming we should always try and be simply happy as a default for living. If we can do these things, I think we can start to really understand what it means to be happy in today’s society, and to understand and build truly happy societies.

What do you think?

#S327UOW16 #Tut12

Lonely Women and … Lonely Men?

An article by Jean Hannah Edelstein featured in the Sydney Morning Herald today opens with the line ‘Loneliness kills’. She is referring primarily to women. Edelstein draws on literature compiled by Judith Shulevitz in the New Republic, and suggests that women experience loneliness more deeply than men.

Edelstien then goes on to discuss the implications and the strategies many women undertake to ensure that they don’t lead lonely lives. She reflects on how important it is for women to have friends, a supportive community, a life partner, and love.

Central to her argument is the belief that women (unlike men) draw much of their sense of personal self-worth and value from the relationships in their lives, and it is the loss of these supportive and affirming relations that induces the worst experiences of severe loneliness.

Some might take this as somewhat disempowering of women. It might be interpreted as saying that women’s happiness depends on others, whereas men can derive satisfaction from some innate sense of confidence and self-worth associated with their achievements at work, sport, civic life, just being a man etc.

I would suggest, however, that where loneliness is concerned, humanity trumps gender. The need for human connection vaunted by Edelstein is as prevalent amongst men as women. This is, in fact, the line taken in most of Schulevitz’s article. Loneliness is associated with a host of not only mental but also physical illnesses, for men as much as women. There is no gender distinction made in the literature she reviews; Schulevitz in fact makes only the briefest mention of gender in her article, noting that ‘studies’ (unreferenced, and from unspecified countries and times) suggest that women are lonelier than men, with the exception of single women and men.

In Australia, this is not the case. Analysis of the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes by Adrian Franklin from the University of Tasmania shows that men endure loneliness as a serious problem for longer periods than women, are less able to deal with loneliness, and that loneliness is particularly serious amongst separated men.

My own work analyzing various Australian national surveys shows that older men report less social support and social contact, while separated men experience less social support, are less likely to have friends to confide in, and feel less likely to have say in family members compared to partnered men, and either partnered or separated women.

Australian men also spend less time in social contact with friends and family outside the household, and it is time-pressured, partnered fathers who spend the least time in this activity.

It is possible that men simply prefer less social contact, and that this doesn’t translate to more loneliness. However, a unique survey run by the Social Policy Research Centre asked Australians not only whether they lacked social contact, but also whether they thought social contact was ‘essential’ for most Australians. Analysis of this survey shows that Australian men were less likely to have social contact that even they themselves said was ‘essential’.

The upshot of all this is that, in Australia at least, while women might experience the feeling of loneliness more deeply then men, men experience the consequences of loneliness more often than women in terms of reduced contact and isolation. This is the classic distinction made by MIT’s Robert Weiss between ‘social’ and ‘emotional’ loneliness – men experience it even if they do not always show that they are feeling lonely.

A final issue is that Edelstien’s claim on the deeper experience of women’s loneliness may also reflect cultural and gender differences in the expression of emotions such as loneliness. Men may just not feel comfortable showing their loneliness, and may feel bound by social rules preventing them seeking our social contact, support and friendship in the same way as women. The evidence showing greater lack of social connection and social loneliness amongst Australian males is clear and disconcerting, and shows that the loneliness question is not confined to one gender.

Loneliness kills men and women alike.

Slander and lies – what some of the research on politics and emotions has to say

As the 2013 Australian Federal election draws nearer, the emotional rhetoric on the failings of one politician or another intensifies. Julia Gillard is warning the country against the Rise of the Abortionists in Blue Ties, while former Labor leader Mark Latham is describing Kevin Rudd as living in a whole new ‘realm of evil‘.

Meanwhile, having successfully wound up his opponents in a little ball of panic and fury, Tony Abbott luxuriates in being able to tone down his normal hubris to appear more rational and statesmanlike. He can take comfortable from the knowledge that Labor will do the job of attacking each other for him. Let us not forget his previous chestnuts however, including such choice phrases as “Gillard won’t lie down and die”, “Climate change is absolute crap” , “Bad bosses, like bad fathers and husbands, should be tolerated because they do more good than harm”, and “Jesus knew that there was a place for everything and it’s not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia”.

(Let us not entertain the outbursts of Barnaby Joyce or Chris Pyne, in a similar vein but of greater magnitude).

Amongst all this fog of heated, emotional exchange, careful and critical debate over policy is lost, and the many untruths propagated by the Coalition on climate change, asylum seekers, and national debt go bizarrely unchallenged. Is this simple Labor dysfunction and implosion? Does no one listen to the Greens? Or does this speak to more subtle forms of emotional manipulation on the part of the Coalition and its political advisors?

I thought it might be useful to look at what some of the social and political research has to say about the manipulation of emotions for political purposes. Here are a few examples of how emotions and politics can interact, and a few thoughts I’ve had on how they might do so in this election: 

  • Anger has been described as the ‘essential political emotion’ (Lyman 1981). A study by Mackie, Devos and Smith (2000) report greater levels of anger and a stronger desire to act on such anger against alternate political groups amongst patricians with strong group bonds. Party members get angrier when they can get angry not only for themselves, but on behalf of their in-group and against the out-group. Think Young Liberals. Or Barnaby Joyce.
  • But why get angry? One reason is that being seen to oppose any action on climate change – regardless of the economic rationality underpinning the policy – has strong emotional appeal to core Coalition values. Bruce Tranter (2012) finds that Australians who identify with Coalition Parties are broadly against commitment to action on climate change. He also finds that those who evaluate Coalition leaders positively are less likely to vote for the Greens in the Senate, even after controlling for party affiliation, background, values and attitudes towards global warming in statistical models.
  • Here’s another good (strategic) reason. The theory of ‘affective intelligence’ in politics (Marcus and MacKuen 1993; Marcus 2000) suggests that anxiety drives voters to gather more information on policies and candidates, and rely less on party identification. THis should mean that the more worried voters get, the more information they should seek out (for example around issues of climate change in 2007, when everyone wanted to see Al Gore’s film).
  • However, other studies (Ladd and Lenz 2008) suggest that anxiety occurs post (rather than prior to) party identification, and directs voters to gather information about parties and candidates that they already like and dislike in specific ways. In other words, anxiety channeled through dislike and anger reduces the accuracy of the information gathered. Valentino et al (2008) find that anger leads voters to close themselves off to new and counter-attitudinal information, while Groen (2011) cites several studies showing that anger leads to people to change their risk appraisals in arriving at political decisions and preferences, and to see major issues (such as war or economic disaster) as less risky, and the solutions to these risks (such as withdrawal or the provision of welfare) as less preferable. Using political rhetoric to promote shame and anger around an issue is thus an effective emotional strategy if one wishes to downplay the risks – and indeed the evidence – involved in that issue. Such as around climate change, asylum seekers, and debt
  • One problem with the ‘get really angry strategy’ is when you are not allowed to show your anger. Thomas Scheff and Susan Retzinger (2000) argue that shame directed at oneself can constrain anger, creating a ‘feeling trap’ whereby one is ‘angry at being ashamed’ or ‘ashamed of being angry’, and one experiences ‘helpless anger’ or ‘humiliated fury.’  This sounds a lot like the situation the Coalition found themselves in 2007, when they didn’t get climate change, but couldn’t openly refute the evidence behind it at the time given the turn in global sentiment at the time. Lucky for them, Tony Abbott came along and found a way to turn helpless anger into useful anger
  • And that brings us to Labor today. Thomas Scheff says that powerlessness results in a heightened sense of shame. This is accompanied by feelings of fear or despair if you blame yourself, or anger if you blame someone else for the cause of your shame. Labor MP’s seem to be exhibiting a lot of despair (i.e. packing up offices) and anger (Gillard vs Rudd) at the moment. Given the spectacularly shameful loss in public support between 2010 and 2013 following one political blunder after another, perhaps we can’t blame them.

As Alan Jones said, “Maintain the rage” …