Who is the ideal man? A Psychology Today survey report

Who is the ideal man? A Psychology Today survey report

Sam Keen



IS EMERGING, A HERO WHO TAKES THE INWARD WAY TO MANHOOD. In the redefinition of femininity that has engaged us for the last quarter century, manhood has received mostly reactive attention, much of it negative. Men have been condemned for sexism, for insensitivity, for macho attitudes. A new model of the sensitive male, most famously embodied by Alan Alda’s Dr. Hawkeye Pierce, was proposed as a substitute–followed rapidly, maybe inevitably, by his hyper-macho opposite, Rambo.

Both pointed in their way toward the new ideal man who is now emerging, though we have to confess we did not see it until Psychology Today readers pointed him out to us in their answers to the survey on the ideal man that ran in the magazine last March. He is an inward-turning here whose search is for self-understanding, wisdom and compassion. We were surprised to find that men and women have almost identical views of the ideal man. Neither measure him by his works or his chest expansion, only by his commitment to personal growth and his family.

As in most ideals, the new hero is best understood by his deplored opposite who is cynical, materialistic and violent. Unlike traditional men in partiarchal society, the new ideal man has little interest in power politics, or the life of community. Nor does he define himself primarily through his work. His virtue starts deep within, then reaches out to his family and to the hidden pleasures of helping others.

But he is not narcissistic, not in your definition. When asked where an ideal man finds his primary sense of meaning, what theologian Paul Tillich called his “ultimate concern,” you replied:

Self-exploration and personal growth 48.7%

His family 26.4%

Helping others 11.6%

Religion 6.8%

His work 4.0%

Artistic pursuits 1.2%

Financial success 0.6%

Play, sports, leisure 0.2%

Political action/power 0.2%

In Search of the Ideal

This portrait emerges from a long and searching questionnaire that examined the philosophy of the ideal man, looked at our current ideas about which rites of passage men must confront in the journey from boyhood to manhood, and explored the ideal man’s key traits and his beliefs about women, sex, family and violence. To find out how ideal the ideal is, we also asked what makes a man score lower: What are the traits that make him good, average or inferior?

The questions obviously struck a chord. Although answering the survey took a fair amount of work, 4,466 of you responded, hundreds taking the time to include thoughtful letters. To give both sexes an equal shot at defining THE ideal, we tabulated and analyzed random samples of 500 men and 500 women who responded.

PT readers are too affluent and far too well educated to represent the average American (see “Who Answered”), but you do give us a sense of what ideal means to some of the nation’s best and brightest pacesetters, people with a strong interest in nature and in the development of the inner life. And in your lists of famous men who are ideal (and also good, average and inferior) you identify both the positive and the negative models you look to (see (see “The Men of Our Dreams … and of Our Nightmares”). There are some fascinating differences in the lists of nominees from the men and women respondents and some amusing and telling reflections on the images of our four most recent presidents (see “Presidential Portraits”).

Not that some readers didn’t wonder whether the search for an ideal man, like the quest for the Holy Grail, might be mythic at best and presumptuous at worst. Ideal men, a number of you suggested, exist only in Platonic heavens or romantic novels. The very concept can be dangerous.

“May husband is an excellent man,” a woman from Seattle writes. “His problem is he thinks he ought to be ideal. He says to me, `Good enough isn’t good enough.’ He is tortured by the ideal of perfection.”

“There aren’t any ideal men,” writes a Spokane woman who supervises a government office, “and the good ones I encounter occasionally in the gym, at the office, in the car pool, are facing everyday reality. They don’t negotiate peace treaties, show people the way to heaven, make a fortune in the stock market, kiss strange women. They are too busy paying for the new car and balancing budgets.”

And a Michigan man who is an international education consultant asks, “Does anyone know ANYONE who is ideal for all occasions?”

Some women confessed that even if they could find an ideal man, they probably wouldn’t be attracted to him. “I want a few endearing imperfections,” wrote a New Jersey college student. “I admire intelligent men, but it doesn’t bother me if a man thinks Thornton Wilder and Friedrich Nietzsche were receivers for the New York Giants.” In a more troubled vein, others told us that the men they were sexually attracted to had many qualities they judge inferior, if not evil.

We shouldn’t wonder that the quest for the ideal man met with resistance. Alexis de Tocqueville noted more than a century ago that the American character is constitutionally suspicious of elitism and aristocratic virtues. Our faith in the common man predisposes us to reject the notion of what Aristotle called the “great-souled man.” While we admire heroes, we are not entirely comfortable with men who aspire to the heights. The ancient virtue of honor was mentioned as a defining characteristic only once by any respondent.

Yet for all of those who felt that the ideal was out of reach, a substantial number reported that they needed to look no further than across the room or the Thanksgiving table to find one. A significant 37% of women consider the man they’re closest to (husband, lover, father, brother, friend) ideal, and an additional 52% call him good. We received an exaltation of letters in praise of men. Listen to the larks:

“My father made me feel so loved and so important that I feel ideal enough about myself to enjoy living and growing,” says an Ohio woman in retail sales. A clerk from North Carolina writes: “I couldn’t think of any man famous or infamous, living or dead, who could hold a candle to my husband. He supports me no matter what I choose to do.” And a Missouri engineer adds, “My husband has always stood by me, and his by-words are, `You can do it.’ After 11 children, he changed jobs so we could relocate and sent me off to obtain my university degree. He may not be a `10,’ but neither am I, and he’s all ours.”

Men are more modest: While 15% feel they’ve lived up to their conception of the ideal man, 74% say they’re good and a mere 9% call themselves average (an almost matching 8% of women so describe the man who is closest to them).

Though Aristotle would barely recognize today’s ideal man, as we shall see, a strong new vision is forming. What follows are its outlines.

Philosophies of Life

We started by trying to define what distinguishes the ideal man’s philosophy from that of the good man, the average man and the clearly inferior. Only four of the 19 world views we listed ranked high enough to place its holder among the ideal.

The ideal man, you explained, believes he should leave the world better than he found it, that life is a gift to be shared. Reverence for life and belief in the Golden Rule are also important.

A good man, by contrast, believes that a man’s most important duty is to his family. He values doing his duty and obeying the law and feels that God helps those who help themselves. Interestingly, a good man may also challenge authority or hold the Marxist belief, “From each according to his ability; to each according to his need.”

The average man doesn’t want to rock the boat. He can espouse liberal views (“Take it easy, go with the flow,” “If it feels good, do it”) or conservative ones (“May country right or wrong,” “Time is money, money is power”).

Inferior men, not suprisingly, are cynical and materialistic. Like Gordon Gekko, the villain of the movie Wall Street, they look out for number one, take whatever they can, and believe that life is hard and then you die and that whoever has the most toys wins.

Rites of Passage

Manhood traditionally has been something that had to be earned, to be won. Do we still believe that certain pivotal events, experiences and social rituals are necessary to turn a boy into a man? For an average man to become an extraordinary one, must he undertake an additional quest, in the spirit of Joseph Campbell’s “heroic journey” to achieve a mature realization of his powers?

Your answers told us that average men are still defined by the traditional rites of the warrior–initiation into manhood through the ordeal of circumcision, getting a gun, going to war and achieving mastery over women.

A step up the scale, good men are practitioners of what might be called the householder’s virtues. They have successfully completed the tasks of becoming sexually active, moving away from home, getting married, fathering a child, supporting a family, forming friendships with other men and becoming active in community affairs. Very good men do more; they dare to defy authority, to undertake an adventure. Also at that level is having found a life’s work and achieving spiritual grace.

At the top of the scale you clearly recognize a kind of ideal that is heroic and spiritual but not specifically religious. The two experiences you rank highest as characterizing the passage of the ideal man are developing wisdom and becoming compassionate–exactly the virtues held in highest regard in Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism. You also agree that the ideal man must have established his own values, be aware of his shortcomings, become a mentor for the young and face death with dignity. And you add a contemporary virtue: He must enjoy equality with women.

The Me-and-Mine Generation

At this point the portrait you paint begins to take on a distinctly modern hue–not exactly narcissistic, but definitely introspective and apolitical.

Your responses suggest that while the ideal man does not belong to the “me” generation, he might be said to belong to the “me-and-mine” generation. Self exploration and personal growth are where he’s most likely to find his primary sense of meaning, as we saw earlier, but family ranks second, well above helping others.

Being a good husband and father, in fact, is central, 75% of you noted in a section of the survey that looks at the ideal man’s feelings about family. And 62% think the ideal dad–no Willy Loman–would refuse any job that would require him to be away from his family a great deal. But you are not ready (70%) for him to become a househusband. Your ideal man is still supposed to win the bread, although he doesn’t have to strive to provide his family with a high standard of living. Yet, though you vote Jesus No. 1 on the ideal man list, only 6% believe that an ideal man might choose not to marry in order to be free to devote his all to his work.

More Like a Woman

The other traits you most often list are those that stress receptivity, feeling, willingness to accept help and sensitivity. It is not until we reach 11th place–a doer–that you begin to list qualities traditionally thought of as cornerstones of masculinity (see “What and Ideal Man Is … Most Like,”).

PHOTO : Martin Luther King Jr., an American ideal.

PHOTO : Alda: Women’s ideal.

PHOTO : George Bush: We see him variously as ideal, good and average.

PHOTO : Bill Cosby: Ideal, say women; good, say all.

Your judgments echo a popular feminist theme that one Connecticut teacher, a woman, put this way: “Most men I know seem to identify masculine traits with violence. Those traits that make us human are considered feminine.” Despite the widespread support for this sensitive model of the ideal, some find it less comfortable. “We have convinced men that to be men is somehow not optimal,” writes a woman from Seattle. “They should try very hard to be, well, sort of, women. But not wimps, you understand, just not quite so much the way they are. It’s a damn shame.” We seem to have reversed Henry Higgins’s famous question and now ask: Why can’t a man be more like a woman? Less than half the responses list “a commanding presence” as one of the traits of the ideal man.

In fact, the straight-ahead, damn-the-torpedoes, Type A personalities that have been admired in many leaders of the past now rank near the bottom of the qualities we seek in this “New Age” ideal. Although few see him as an introvert (16%), he is more interested in his health than in being where the action is, and in cultivating his feelings than in being critical, culturally sophisticated or urbane.

Attitudes Toward Women

The big surprise here is that both men and women believe the ideal man, while he’s not traditional in most ways, has relatively traditional ideas about women. He sees women as more nurturing and intuitive than men, as less aggressive in bed and less aggressive in general.

One of the few significant differences between men’s and women’s pictures of the ideal man emerges in a question that assessed his feelings about women in business. More than half the men attribute to him the view that business will change women more than women will change business; only 15% of women feel this way. It seems we have been watching different movies: Women still hope the ideal man will espouse the 9 to 5 point that women can change the system. Men have watched Working Girl and conclude that even an ideal man would believe that power corrupts regardless of gender.

Love and Sex (In That Order)

The good news: Over 90% of you agree the ideal man cultivates intimacy and friendships. The bad news: He’s not terribly sexual. Goodbye James Bond, Warren Beatty, Lady Chatterley’s lover. Not surprisingly, the ideal man doesn’t go in for one-night stands, but that’s not all you say. Only 58% of you think sex is an essential source of pleasure for the ideal man. In fact, when we asked for a list of ideal men and their qualities, only 13 women and not a single man wrote in “sexy.” But earthy sexuality still lives in Texas. A 28-year-old married nurse writes that her ideal man does not panic when she takes the initiative. “He doesn’t mind when his lover chases him around the bedroom wearing nothing but thong underwear,” she writes, and he’s playful enough to “walk into a dark bedroom wearing nothing but a glow-in-the-dark condom.” And a homemaker lusts for her ideal husband in the kitchen: “There are many times when I find him sexually attractive. But when he is at the sink, preparing dinner or doing dishes at the end of a particularly tiring day, somehow that hip action at the sink or that genuine concern for me is the ultimate turn-on,” she writes.

A retired teacher from West Lafayette, IN, whose first choice for ideal man is John F. Kennedy, pinpointed some of the ambivalence we feel about sexuality and the masculine ideal. She notes that the charismatic men with take-charge personalities who have the potential of achieving greatly also have another side–a built-in capacity for infidelity, the need for challenge even when family is important to them.

“While I would, as a woman, desire the `ideal man’ to exhibit the characteristic of fidelity,” she concludes, “it seems that to attain all the other personality traits one looks for . . . one has to be willing to compromise on that one point.” A look at some of the men nominated as ideal confirms that conundrum.

Quite unexpectedly, when it comes to judgments about the kind of women ideal men would find attractive, men seem to be more idealistic in the feminist sense than women. According to men, the ideal man will be more sexually attracted to partners who are powerful and accomplished than to those who are physically beautiful. Women believe the opposite. Even in their fantasies, it seems, women cannot hope that an ideal man could move beyond society’s stereotypes. Maybe the hope for our society is in the optimism of men.

This new sexual ideal for men reflects the values of a generation that has passed through the sexual revolution and learned caution in the era of herpes and AIDS. Also changing, but only slowly, is our sense of how the ideal man views homosexuality. Nearly half of you agree that he would see it as a legitimate choice; only a third think he would call homosexuality abnormal. Yet two-thirds of the survey firmly state that the ideal man is heterosexual.

The survey gave the opportunity to check off all possible varieties of sexual orientation for the ideal man, from “may be celibate” (47% concur) to bisexual (9%) and homosexual (8%). By contrast, 11% of the men and 1% of the women who answered the survey identify themselves as homosexual, a number fairly close to what experts believe is their proportion in the population as a whole.

We suspect that the letter from a male professor of religion in Florida expresses some of the tangled feelings about homosexuality that the majority of respondents continue to find themselves holding, liberal attitudes notwithstanding.

“I was surprised to find that I did not believe that homosexuality would characterize an ideal man,” he writes, “though I believe on reflection that it can characterize a good man.”

Anger and Violence

Wise and compassionate he may be, but the ideal man is neither wimp nor Dirty Harry. Most of you (85%) agree that he can feel and express his anger without resorting to violence, unless he must fight an intruder.

You are not as certain about his relation to the traditional male rite of warfare. A majority of you (59%) say he would go to war for a cause he believes in, but 22% of you see him as a pacifist. More than 90%, however, agree that he no longer engages in those ritualized forms of violence that were a crucial part of the education of the warrior. Today’s ideal man does not enjoy violent sports, doesn’t fight with other men and does not hunt.

“My ideal man,” writes a woman educator from the Philadelphia area, “rarely raises his voice in anger, refuses to fight even verbally, has a keen sense of humor and is able to adapt to the crisis of the moment. He hardly ever criticizes, but offers helpful, tactful suggestions.”

The Inward Way

Historically speaking, the most startling finding of our survey is the degree to which the current ideal of manhood is apolitical. The new ideal man may be compassionate and wise, but the sphere of his caring and action is actually very narrow. Like the Epicureans, he is more likely to be found tending his own garden and looking after his own family than he is to be deeply involved in political action.

As we considered these findings we couldn’t help thinking of Aristotle’s definition of man as a political animal. During the time in classical Athens when democracy was born, manhood was defined by political participation (we’ll ignore for the moment the Athenian denial of citizenship to women and slaves).

During the writing of this report we paused frequently to watch the dramatic news of the democracy movement in China where thousands of young men and women without weapons were facing down armed soldiers and tanks. Their example made us wonder what would become of a nation whose ideal men remain within the ghetto of privacy.

Can ethic of personal growth create a sufficiently strong sense of community to preserve freedom? We doubt it and so, in a sense, do you. Your view of the hero within is less limited than it might appear from some of these results. Accompanying his commitment to inner growth, you say, is a philosophy of life that stresses leaving the world a better place than he found it. And while few of you consider that an ideal man finds his primary sense of meaning in religion (6.8%) or politics (2%), you place Jesus and Gandhi at the top of your list of admirable men. In fact, political figures occupy the first 9 places in men’s affections and 6 out of 10 in the women’s list.

What we are seeing is a new ideal of manhood in the making, born of the chaos of shifting world views, gender roles, goals and dreams. It’s been a rough ride from the ’60s to the dawn of the ’90s. Something’s dying, something’s being born.

At long last the ideal man has escaped the compulsive extroversion that has shaped the minds of men since somebody invented clocks and score-keeping. He has lost some of his involvement in the traditional “masculine” public world–his striving for success at any cost, his obsession with power–but has gained access to the “feminine” inner world of feeling, receptivity and spirituality. He is more sensitive, has more and is no longer such a tower of strength–unbending, substantial and solid.

As a male writer from Pennsylvania suggests, “The ideal man is not hard and unyielding as a piece of granite, but is rather fluid like a body of water, able to change shape, freeze or boil, yet still retain the watery essence. He can become what the situation demands. If there is a need for an authoritarian leader, he can play that role. If there is a need for a diplomatic peace finder, he can be that too. Inherent here is the ability to discern the need of the moment.”

You told us in many ways that you want the obsolete but habitual connection between masculinity and violence severed. But you have not yet found a way to connect the kinder and gentler virtues you admire with that untamed quality–wildness and passion–that seem necessary for virility. Poet Robert Bly, the bard of the men’s movement, also has noticed this trend. Many modern men, he says, have developed softness but lost “the wild man” in the process.

In these days of rapid change in gender roles, men no less than women are faced with impossibly high expectations. If the new superwoman is supposed to combine all the aggression, dedication and ruthlessness necessary to succeed in business with the ability to nurture, the new superman is supposed to be sensitive and self-actualizing, not too concerned with money or career–but he must still be ready to fight to protect home and country and competitive enough to make a decent living for his family. No one says how these apparently contradictory qualities could fit within the same psyche. As a married college student from White Plains, NY, told us, “Men have it rough emotionally. Women want them to be strong, rugged, tough, aggressive and very successful at their careers, but if they are, they are thought of as being overly macho or sexist.”

A final word of caution. We think the vision of the ideal man presented here–kinder, gentler, receptive, apolitical–is widespread in American culture.

A woman who writes romance fiction tells us that the trend in her field has “moved away from the tall, dark, wealthy, powerful, enigmatic, moody, macho hero to ones who are successful (although not necessarily rich), friendly, compassionate, humorous. The macho John Wayne types seem to be on the wane, but neither are the editors looking for too-wimpy Alan Alda types.”

When we compare your views with the results of additional research we’re planning with less affluent, blue-collar and military populations, we may find the picture shifts somewhat.

Quite a few of you thanked us for inviting you to pause and think about your ideal of manhood. Men said the questionnaire helped them clarify their values and goals; women, that it suggested standards by which they could evaluate what they wanted in their relationships with men. And that is really the purpose of this conversation. Ideals are distant stars by which we can set our compass. If we never reach them, they nevertheless help us travel more wholeheartedly in the direction we desire to go.

PHOTO : Martin Luther King Jr., an American ideal.

PHOTO : Alda: Women’s ideal.

PHOTO : George Bush: We see him variously as ideal, good and average.

PHOTO : Bill Cosby: Ideal, say women; good, say all.

PHOTO : Jesus is #1.

PHOTO : No one loves the Ayatollah.

PHOTO : Oliver North: Merely average.

PHOTO : Nixon: Still inferior after all these years.

PHOTO : Reagan: The only person to make all four lists.

PHOTO : Jimmy Carter: Good, not ideal.

Sam Keen, Ph.D., contributing editor of Psychology Today, is working on a book about men. Ofer Zur, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist in private practice in Berkeley and Sonoma and is on the faculty of the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. Survey results were tabulated with the assistance of Steven Pulos, Ph.D., a research associate in the Psychotherapy Research Project, Department of Psychology, University of California at Berkeley.

COPYRIGHT 1989 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group