Beards are one of the more in-your-face differences between the sexes. Pun intended. As such, scientists have been trying to figure out why beards evolved since we discovered they evolved. Darwin thought beards were an attractive way of signalling to mates1, like a peacocks tail.
Other ideas have been put forward, my favourite being that beards evolved as facial protection for fights. However, there isn’t strong evidence for these alternatives. Darwin’s sexual selection theory remains at the top of the pile, more than 150 years later2.
However, even Darwin’s theory might be on shaky ground. It turns the attractiveness of a beard isn’t as straightforward as we thought. New research suggests that in some circumstances, beards can make you seem less attractive to some people2.
The issue here isn’t the beard, but the jaw underneath. Larger jaws are generally seen as more masculine, dominant and attractive by both males and females2. But if the guy is wearing a beard, can we still tell the size of the jaw?
Some speculated that beards might make it hard to figure out someone’s jaw size. This might be great for those with smaller jaws, hiding an unmasculine trait. But for those with a larger jaw, the beard might be covering up their best asset2. Alternatively, some research finds we are actually really good at figuring out how big a bearded jaw is3, so this wouldn’t be an issue.
So some scientists decided to side-step the whole issue. Who cares if we can figure out how big a jaw is, does it actually influence our view of how attractive a beard is? So they measured some male jaws and took pictures of them shaved and bearded. They showed these photos to people who rated their attractiveness and masculinity2.
Who hates beards?
The results were . . . complicated.
As mentioned, people did find larger jaws more attractive and masculine. Beard attractiveness ratings also varied with jaw size, suggesting people were able to detect jaw size through the beard. However, there wasn’t a simple relationship between jaw size, attractiveness, and beard status2.
Instead, people ranked super-small and super-large jaws as less attractive than average jaws. Adding a beard to the extreme jaws boosted their attractiveness up to the average jaws’ level.
However, average jaws gained no such benefit from a beard. Instead, average jaws were judged as more attractive when clean shaven. At least by males. Females gave a slightly bigger boost to adding a beard, so even average jaws were more attractive with one, although barely2.
So are beards attractive?
Based on all this, should I whip out the callipers to figure out if I should shave to become more attractive? As the graph above shows, the results were all fairly small (even if still statistically significant). So it might only be worth doing if you’ve already got callipers to hand. Not enough benefit to justify buying a pair.
And of course, with any study on what people like we should always look at the people questioned. In this case, it was pretty good, featuring more than 750 people across a broad age range. Nevertheless, they were all American users of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk2. How well you can extrapolate this data to other countries (or even Americans who don’t use the service) is debatable. As I keep saying.
This inability to extrapolate also raises questions about whether this is some innate evolved preference amongst people. So for the meantime, I’m going to keep working towards my ultimate life goal.
- Darwin, Charles (2004). The Descent Of Man And Selection In Relation To Sex. Kessinger Publishing. p. 554.
- Dixson, B.J., Lee, A.J., Sherlock, J.M. and Talamas, S.N., 2017. Beneath the beard: do facial morphometrics influence the strength of judgments of men’s beardedness?. Evolution and Human Behavior, 38(2), pp.164-174.
- Geniole, S.N. and McCormick, C.M., 2015. Facing our ancestors: judgements of aggression are consistent and related to the facial width-to-height ratio in men irrespective of beards. Evolution and Human Behavior, 36(4), pp.279-285.