Accelerating the New Macho

What social change leaders can learn from behavioral science and the experience of the 21st-century tough guys.

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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  • chris's avatar

    BY chris

    ON June 6, 2014 12:06 PM

    The real problem is that men are flooded with conflicting views on how to behave.

    Its really no wonder why most of us don’t know how to act.

    While you cite studies that men are taking up more housework, consider OTHER studies which point to more DIVORCE from both parties in the relationship when house chores are split.

    Why would any man choose the “New Macho” when the “New Macho” is LESS ATTRACTIVE to women in the first place?

    Celebrities are a horrible example of “success” in this endeavor.  Not only do they have bountiful wealth, which most men do not have, they also are attractive from their fame alone.


    There are studies pointing toward unhappiness of BOTH wife and husband when the wife earns more money than the husband.  These marriages have less sex and less sexual satisfaction.

    Not to mention the studies on how “dominant” the male is in the relationship, as related to the wife’s hormonal cycles.  Ovulating wives were significantly unhappier with a submissive husband (this is how you get cheated on, husbands!)

    Before you start telling men how to act, make sure men stand to gain even acting the way you want.

  • Alexander's avatar

    BY Alexander

    ON June 10, 2014 11:02 AM

    In many ways I agree with Chris. The fact of the matter is, for an overwhelming majority of heterosexual men, men are motivated by their desires to have sex and to experience romantic intimacy with females.

    If, as social activists, we want to engineer the established behavior of heterosexual men to be something that is seen as more in line with the goals of our society today, we MUST appeal to them by ensuring that men who follow those behaviors are rewarded with sex and relationships with women.

    Human beings are influenced far more readily through positive reinforcement. Negative reinforcement only breeds resentment, disenfranchisement, and ultimately withdrawal from the source of the negative reinforcement.

  • BY Bonnie Erbe'

    ON June 10, 2014 01:34 PM

    This is fabulous. We need a global movement towards the New Macho!

  • Alexia's avatar

    BY Alexia

    ON June 11, 2014 05:50 AM

    To chris: For women there is nothing more attractive than a confident man.

    Confidence can be transmitted by being happy for your partner if she earns more than you do, sharing housework or letting a woman take lead without feeling undermined.

    Hitting your chest won’t work for us on the 21st century.

  • Alexia's avatar

    BY Alexia

    ON June 11, 2014 05:50 AM

    To chris: For women there is nothing more attractive than a confident man.

    Confidence can be transmitted by being happy for your partner if she earns more than you do, sharing housework or letting a woman take lead without feeling undermined.

    Hitting your chest won’t work for us on the 21st century.

  • no one is beating there chest here; this is how things are.  You ignoring the fact that women cannot respect a man who cannot provide does no one good - at all. 

    Alexander is exactly right - and I think you know he is right as well.

    You look at small, insular cases of rare men who abuse women and generalize this wrongdoing with the entire population of men.  You start advocating for feminizing campaigns on the majority of INNOCENT men when the same rare cases of bad men continue being bad - why?  Because they have incentive to do so!  Every man learns rather quickly that its “good to be bad” - women are very heavily attracted to men who do bad things!

    In the end of the day, men will continue to act the way that gets rewarded with love, affection and sex from women.  And the way it is currently: status whoring over social media and being aggressive with women is what WORKS!

    So the next time women wonder why socially engineering men the way *you* want isn’t working out, they should try looking in the mirror and consider what type of men attracts them.  I’ve gone bad and there’s no turning back.

  • As a woman I too want the men in my life to be happy, successful, confident—without feeling like they need to place something or someone under them to be propped up. Same goes for women—why the need for anyone to be submissive at all, what about partnership?

    There are always going to be conflicting studies, conflicting behavioral examples. This article just boils down motivation in a positive, digestible way that isn’t tell men how they should or should not be—but acknowledging very real characteristics and calling for a way to create situations that benefit them.

    What I want to know next is how (and how soon…) can we integrate this into existing structures…

  • In response to Chris who wrote: “And the way it is currently: status whoring over social media and being aggressive with women is what WORKS!”

    What planet do you live on?

    Status whoring and being aggressive are possibly the two most unattractive qualities I could look for in a person, man or woman.

    Its time to recognise that our attitudes and social norms have already changed around this issue of what Macho means and we need to work together to make it a new social norm.

  • I’m sorry Jenna, that post did not make sense to me.

    “Its time to recognise that our attitudes and social norms have already changed around this issue of what Macho means and we need to work together to make it a new social norm.”

    Do you not realize how this does not make sense?  If your social norms have already changed around this issue why do you need to work together to make it a new social norm in the first place?

    Which is it?  The norms have already changed or you would like to change them?  Or are you saying you don’t even know what you want until its dropped at your feet?

    I live in planet Earth, and I speak english.  I also base my claims on the world I see around me, and from experience.

  • I admit my concluding sentence was written in a rush and I should have given a little more content to that- and English is not my first language!

    What I meant was that our perception of what macho is has in a way already changed- women today look for very different things in men than they did even 50 years ago. Therefore the basis on which men and women form relationships has changed, and as have social norms such as decided who in the family goes to work, cares for children etc..

    What still needs to change is the universal -acknowledgement- that things are now different, and as a result culturally re-define “macho” to fit with the modern day dynamics of the way in which men and women interact with one another.


  • Sorry that was supposed to say “such as deciding” not “such as decided”

  • Ah, the emasculation movement continues unabated. Let’s all just ignore nature. Sorry, gender is NOT a social construct. No wonder The West is dying.

  • BY Boysen Hodgson

    ON August 18, 2014 02:06 PM

    Thank you for this article!! I agree with you that things are changing - and this shift toward a new macho is a good thing!

    In 2010 - in response to a number of articles being published at the time about the state of men and masculinity - I wrote a piece called “The New Macho” You can read it here: http://mankindproject.org/new-macho-newsweek

    This poem has now been shared over 50k times on facebook, has been published in more than one book, and was the inspiration for a piece in the Sunday Times of London last year.

    The personal work and culture shifting needed to embody this kind of masculinity is happening more and more. ‘Men’s Work’ has gone mainstream. And I am grateful and hopeful for a safer, less violent, more equal society.

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