To beard or not to beard

16 April 2014

A study published in the journal of the Royal Society Biology Letters has found that when growing facial hair, men might like to inspect the stubble of their peers. The more people with beards, the less attractive they become.

Bearded faces are often marked out as being more masculine and more dominant than those sporting a clean-shaven look; however the role of a beard in male attractiveness is not clear cut. In various studies women have preferred a variety of different looks, having a preference for the clean-shaven in one study, heavy stubble in another and clean-shaven, heavy and light stubble over full beards in another. These changing preferences might reflect tastes which vary with culture or fashion. Although fashions can’t change the genetic basis of preferences, the team of researchers from the University of New South Wales behind this study set out to find if the popularity of beards or other facial hair fashions might confer an advantage on bearded or un-bearded men.

Sometimes the exotic is attractive. In the animal kingdom male guppies with rare colour patterns are not only better at surviving in the wild but also are more successful at mating. Other studies have suggested that female blond, brown and red hair variations spread geographically from where they first occurred when partners had a preference for the novelty of new hair colours. The scientists behind the study published this week hypothesised that the same might be true of bearded men; that when beards were rare they would be deemed more attractive than when they were common.

The team photographed 24 men with varying degrees of facial hair: clean-shaven, with light stubble after 5 days of re-growth, heavy stubble after 10, and full beards after they had left their facial hair to grow untrimmed for at least four weeks. The team collated the photos into three groups with varying frequency of beardedness: one with only clean shaven faces; one with only full beards; and one with 6 faces belonging to each of the groups. 1453 women and 213 men volunteered to take part in the experiment and were asked to rank the faces in one of these randomly assigned test groups and were then immediately shown 12 faces (3 from each of the 4 levels of beardedness) which they also rated on the same scale of -4 for very unattractive to +4 for very attractive.

The researchers’ statistical analysis of the results showed that facial hair had a significant effect on how attractive the faces in the second set of 12 faces were found. Men sporting clean-shaven faces might now consider ditching the razor as the team’s results showed that beards, heavy stubble and light stubble were found more attractive than clean-shaven faces in every test group.

The team’s results showed that how rare a particular type of facial hair was also affected how attractive participants found different levels of beardedness. After seeing a group of faces where beards were rare, participants found full beards and heavy stubble more attractive than light stubble. Those who rated the test group with only clean shaven faces first found the faces that followed more attractive when they sported light or heavy stubble. When participants had been shown 6 faces from each of the photo groups it was those with heavy stubble that came out on top.

The researchers concluded that these frequency dependant effects on how attractive men and women found beards could indicate the influence of novelty in driving changes in facial hair fashion. Influential early adopters of bearded fashions could be conferred an advantage, being found more attractive for their novelty. But those taking up fashions for beards less quickly might not fair as well because their bearded looks become less attractive as the fashion gains momentum.