After every national tragedy committed by boy or young man, we ask "why" or "what made him or them do it?" We probe their family, school, peer, and religious life seeking signs of pathology. More often than not, we find what we are looking for to confirm our homegrown theories about why boys commit such violence. What we rarely do, however, is listen to the boys themselves. I don't mean just the boys who committed the acts of violence, since they are often dead as a consequence of their actions, but also boys in general. When boys and young men are listened to, as social scientists such as Michael Kimmel, Pedro Noguera, William Pollack, and I have found, the answers to our "why" questions become apparent. The violence that boys commit, according to the research, often reflects a toxic mix of social isolation, loneliness, and cultural norms of masculinity.
The hundreds of boys in my interview studies over the past 20 years make the direct link between not having close friendships -- friendships in which "deep secrets" are shared -- and going "wacko," committing suicide, doing drugs, and "taking it out on others." They speak at length about the difficulties of finding friends with whom they can trust, the pressures to "man up," and the fear that expressing their desires for connection will make them look girly or gay. These themes are not simply heard among the boys who are "loners," they are also heard by the popular, sports-playing boys. These themes are evident in the research with boys as well as in the diaries of boys who have committed suicide.
Boys don't want to appear weak, so they express their anger rather than their sadness. When asked what happens when his friend stands him up, a boy in one of my studies says: "I will get mad... but I'm not gonna get mad 'cause he dissed me. I'm gonna get mad 'cause I missed him but I will probably show it to him like I'm mad." Boys tell us, furthermore, that their anger leads them to feel violent. When I asked a classroom full of 12-year-old boys why Adam Lanza killed the school children in Newtown, Conn., the boys responded by telling me it because he was "lonely" and then preceded to tell me their own stories of feeling lonely or excluded and how angry these experiences made them feel.
My studies also reveal that as boys become men, they grow increasingly isolated and pressured to act like a man in all of its stereotypic connotations of being emotionally stoic, autonomous, and physically tough regardless of the circumstances. It is not a coincidence that the vast majority of tragedies we have been reading about lately are committed by young men between the ages of 16 and 26. These are the ages when loneliness and the cultural pressures to prove one's manhood appear to be at its peak.
Social psychologists such as John Caccioppo have also shown us that social isolation and loneliness can promote anger and a perception that others are threatening or punitive. Experiences such as relocation and discrimination can, furthermore, intensify feelings of isolation. Social psychologist Naomi Eisenberger has revealed that the experience of social rejection stimulates the same area of the brain as physical pain. Sociologist Michael Kimmel and many others have found that the pressures of "manning up" discourages boys and men from seeking help and normalizes violence as a response to sadness and anger.
The deadly mix of loneliness, social isolation, and cultural norms of masculinity is suggested not only in research studies. It is also suggested in the "data" we get from the boys involved in such violence. Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brothers accused of being the Boston Marathon bombers, suggested these themes in their posts and tweets. The older brother posts a message that speaks of not having "a single American friend. I don't understand them." The younger brother tweets that he doesn't like it when people ask him "unnecessary questions" such as why he is sad and needs cyanide pills. He also tweets: "Do I look like that much of a softy? Little do these dogs know that they're barking at a lion," or "I won't run, I'll just gun you all out."
In response to a friend who didn't respond to his text, the younger brother texts: "Hey, stop ignoring me. Come back. Don't make me suffer alone." While the younger brother apparently had "close" friends, it is obvious from the simple fact that none of them knew about his inner life that they were not close in the ways that most boys want to be close. Religious fervor may have provided a justification for the brothers' alleged plan, but at its root, their plan reflected a human problem and not a religious one.
The deep secrets of boys and men, according to the research, is that they have the same desire for connection and close friendships as girls and women and that many of our cultural norms of masculinity are hurting rather than helping boys find what they need and want. Until we expose these secrets and act on what boys are telling us by fostering their genuinely close relationships and changing our definitions of manhood to include their own humanity as well as the humanity of others, we will continue to face the tragic consequences.
Niobe Way is professor of applied psychology at New York University and the author of Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection (Paperback, 2013, Harvard University Press).
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
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