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Male Stiff Upper Lip - An Urban Myth New Study Suggests

13/06/2014 11:04 BST | Updated 11/08/2014 10:59 BST

Is it still taboo for men to show and discuss their feelings? Should they be afraid to say how they feel and do they even want to? Can '21st Century Man' actually experience the same level of emotion as women?

Popular culture, pop psychology, advertising and the media are full of references to differences in the way men and women display their emotions. The general view is that women are better at expressing emotion, are less aggressive, and have greater empathy than men. While this fits well with stereotypical perceptions of gender differences is it actually true or merely an urban myth?

There are certainly small but real differences in structures and functions of male and female brains resulting in differences in emotion, cognition and behaviour. However, the precise nature and importance of these differences, which most likely arise through a complex combination of hormonal, social and environmental factors, remains unclear.

Furthermore, there is a tendency to oversimplify and exaggerate these gender differences, while minimising and ignoring the many similarities between men and women. What is termed the 'confirmation bias' causes many to focus on examples that support existing gender stereotypes, while ignoring evidence that contradicts this view.

Older men, especially, may be less willing or less able than women to express their emotions due to the way they were brought up. Many suffer from what psychologists somewhat inelegantly term 'emotional constipation'. They are victims of a generational legacy of the stiff upper lip and the notion that 'big boys don't cry'!

The results of this study, however, reveal that when one examines the physiology and neuroscience of emotion, by recording changes in brain activity as well as changes in skin conductance, both men and women actually experience similar levels of emotion in response to positive emotional stimuli.

The Emotional Experiment

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In the experiment, a group of 30 parents (15 fathers and 15 mothers) were shown a series of images and videos that fell into one of four categories: blissful, funny, exciting and heart-warming.

As they watched these, electrodes were attached to their fingers, recording any changes in emotional arousal. Since these responses are largely determined by factors outside an individual's conscious control, the readings were able to show the emotional responses participants really experienced rather than what they claimed they felt.

In three of the categories; blissful, funny and exciting, men demonstrated a marginally higher emotional reaction than did women. When, however, they were presented with heart-warming images, for example a video showing a soldier returning home from war and being reunited with his daughter, their emotional reactions were significantly greater than the women. The men recorded twice the amount of emotion as women.

As part of the experiment, participants also rated the content on how it made them feel. As expected, women said they felt more emotional in response to the content compared to the men. However, the physiological changes in the men showed that even when they reported feeling less emotion than women, in fact the recordings showed men experienced the emotions more strongly.

To back up the lab work a nationwide survey of 2,000 men was conducted, which investigated their attitudes about feelings and expressing emotions, and the extent to which they were able to tell others how they felt. The poll found that over two thirds (67%) thought men were secretly more emotional than they appeared.

It also found that the younger generation is more comfortable with expressing their emotions, with 40% of 18-24 year olds admitting they had cried in the last week and a similar proportion (43%) of those aged 25-34 said they openly discussed their emotions.

So, what does this tell us?

It shows us that gender stereotypes about men being stoic and women being emotional are reinforced by our day-to-day consumption of media and our social interactions.

We tend to exaggerate the perceived differences between men and women and are more likely to focus on evidence that supports our existing gender stereotypes.

This study suggests that men feel emotion just as much as women, sometimes more strongly, but are less willing to express these emotions openly due to expectations put on them by society.

Father's Day

Now we know men can be greatly affected by emotion, what is the best way to tug at their heart strings, and make them feel really loved this Father's Day?

As part of the experiment, the fathers were presented with the type of messages usually written in a Father's Day card to see which ones had the greatest effect on their emotions. As before, their physiological responses were recorded, producing the following results:

1) Number One Dad

2) You're my favourite person in the whole world

3) I love you

4) You're the best

5) Thanks for everything you've done for me

Some may argue Father's Day isn't a particularly meaningful occasion, but if you get the science right behind the message in your card, you've got an opportunity to really move your dad and affect him deeply. Perhaps it's occasions likes Father's Day that will get dads talking about their feelings and allow '21st Century Man' to flourish.