The Science Behind Beards – What Your Facial Hair Says About You


A fairly recent phenomenon some of you may have noticed is that beards seem to be springing up all over the place. Literally EVERYWHERE:

Celebrities have them…

Bar tenders have them…

Even models have them!…

Personally I’ll blame (thank?) Jason Momoa, AKA Khal Drogo. I mean seriously, he’s delicious both in and out of character. The beard only adds to that effect (not to mention the scars). He is the definitive ‘lumbersexual’.

My auntie was visiting recently and exclaimed about this ‘ridiculous fashion’ with a fervent hope that it would all be over soon. In some ways I can understand her frustrations. When you walk into a coffee shop and all you see is beards everywhere, even in your coffee, it’s kind of obvious that there’s something not quite right. They are, however, becoming more and more popular.

A study by Janif, Brooks and Dixson (2014) found that rare facial hair styles are the most attractive (i.e. beards are attractive when they are rare), and the researchers suggest that this may be one reason for the trend. A few years ago, it was quite rare to see a lot of bearded men. Beards were rare, and so became more attractive to women. Men cottoned on to this and began to grow them. This trend continued until now, when the world is becoming saturated by facial hair. I believe that we’ll soon see the trend going in reverse, but until then I’d like to discuss the impact beards can have on society. Beards are actually very powerful tools, and I’d like to tell you how.

  1. They can enhance ‘manly’ characteristics 

I think we all know that men like to prove that they are the manliest men of all (come on guys, you can’t ALL be) and it turns out that beard growth can help with that!

A study by Neave and Shields (2008) assessed how women responded to 5 different levels of facial hair: clean shaven, light stubble, heavy stubble, light beard, and full beard. 60 female participants were shown 15 faces with various beards, and they were asked to rate the men on a variety of attributes. They found that men with full beards were considered to be:

  • The most masculine
  • The most aggressive
  • The most socially mature
  • The oldest

Interestingly, men with a light beard were considered the most dominant, despite not being the most masculine or aggressive (traits which are often associated with dominance). Furthermore, they found that the women found men with light stubble the most attractive, both in terms of long and short-term relationships. This tells us a few interesting things about this sample of women (and potentially women in general, although that might be a stretch with such a small sample).

  • Firstly, despite what some people might think, masculinity is not an overriding factor in determining a man’s attractiveness.
  • Secondly, perceived dominance does not necessarily have anything to do with perceived masculinity or aggression.
  • Thirdly, facial hair is associated with traits associated with men – aggression, dominance and masculinity. This leads me onto one of my own theories as to why beards are suddenly everywhere. The boom in beard growth may be a runaway reaction to seeing a few beards out and about. Man 1 see man 2 with a beard, man 2 appears strong and will have many mates, man 1 must grow beard to show that man 2 is not stronger than man 1, and to steal females from man 2. Eventually all men are bearded idiots, beating their chests and snarling at one another whilst the women sit in the corner sipping cocktails and champagne. Perhaps I’m going a bit over-the-top on the stereotypes here, but you get my point.

If this is the case, however, I think men might be getting it wrong. This research seems to run a little bit counter to what evolutionary psychology would suggest women find desirable, and so men behaving like cavemen might not be the best option for them. The general idea is that women want to find a man who can protect them and provide them with resources, plus provide good genes to their offspring.

A man who has a symmetrical face with ‘average’ features (i.e. no features which are extremely different to the norm) and ‘masculine’ features such as a strong jaw and prominent brow ridge are thought to be features which women generally find attractive (Little, Jones and DeBruine, 2011). Masculine faces are also thought to portray physical dominance, which from a genetic point of view is very desirable. A dominant mate can fight off other potential mates and provide resources and protection to a female. Why then, did Neave and Shields find that dominance and masculinity were not associated? And why did masculinity not correlate with attractiveness?

In fact there is quite a lot of conflicting research about how perceived attractiveness, dominance and masculinity in male faces correlate together, and unfortunately the jury is still out. What does seem clear, however, is that beards portray very specific information to women.

Dixson and Brooks (2013) have tried to collate the research into a theory which makes sense regarding female perception of facial hair, and they seem to have done a pretty good job. They propose that women find heavy stubble the most attractive, with light stubble, clean shaven beards and heavy beards as similarly less attractive. They also found, quite amusingly, that men think full beards are as attractive as heavy stubble, and that clean shaven and light stubble are the least attractive.

It’s good that men and women are on the same page about heavy stubble, but I’m glad I get to inform men that heavy beards aren’t winning for them (unless, of course, you’re Khal Drogo and have a whole other world of sexiness going on).

2. Facial hair influences perceived trustworthiness and expertise

Being trusted in a massive social leg-up for anybody. Trusted people are more likely to have information shared with them, their motives are less likely to be questioned, and they are more likely to have opportunities than people who are not trusted. In the past, research has suggested that facial hair significantly reduces perceived trustworthiness, but that now seems to be changing.

In a study by Bakmazian (2014), participants were asked to choose which faces they found most trustworthy from a selection of bearded and non-bearded photographs presented two at a time. It was found that bearded faces were more likely to be chosen over clean-shaven faces when rating trustworthiness. The photos were matched for attractiveness and the models all had a neutral expression to try and eliminate confounding variables.

Please not, this infographic is purely for entertainment and is in no way related to any of the research I am discussing!

Another study by Van der land and Muntinga (2014) found that beards also increase perceived expertise. They created 3 job vacancies (one job requiring expertise, one requiring trustworthiness, and one requiring attractiveness) and asked participants to assess candidates based on these three attributes. They found that candidates with beards were rated as having more expertise compared to clean-shaven candidates, and expertise was also associated with a greater number of job interviews.

It seems that having a beard can actually help you to get a job, and your employer will trust you to do that job well. Not a bad result from not shaving!

3. They can make men look older

In this drinking culture, thousands of people try to trick the bouncers every night into letting them into the local dark, sweaty club or bar to get drunk, spend all their money, and forget everything that happened (I’m not judging. I go to bars every week) (I may have a problem myself…)

In order for these people to be admitted into said club or bar, bouncers need to believe that they are 18 (or 21 in America, or *insert age here* in *insert country here*).  Most bouncers, you’d think, would check IDs and that would trip up most would-be tricksters, but some don’t. Here’s where a beard can come in handy.

Dixson and Vasey (2011) asked two different ethnic groups (Eurpeans in New Zealand and Polynesians from Samoa) to rate male faces on a number of different characteristics. It was found that there was no difference between the groups on ratings, and that bearded men were thought to be significantly older than clean-shaven men.

4. They make you look like a great father

A bearded man with a baby is like a soldier snuggling a kitten – the ultimate marriage of masculinity and nurture. JUST LOOK!

I know I sound like a ridiculous hormonal woman, but that’s because I am one. Science says so.

Dixson has been at it again with another beardy study (well, two actually). In the first, Dixson, Tam and Awasthy (2012) investigated whether women preferred beards at different times in their reproductive lives. They found that young fertile women were more likely to find men with beards attractive compared to pregnant and post-menopausal women. This effect was particularly noticeable just before ovulation, which strongly suggests that there is something biological going on between women and beards.

Dixson went on to explain this interaction with a study in 2013. Dixson and Brooks (2013) asked male female participants to rate attractiveness, masculinity, health and parenting ability of men with a variety of facial hair styles. They found that both men and women agreed that full bearded men had the best parenting ability. This is based purely on looking at a photograph, suggesting that facial hair does trigger some kind of innate reproductive selection process.

So what have we learned?

Although much of this research has been conducted by the same person (make of that what you will, maybe nobody else could get funding :P) and some of it does make researchers pull their hair out looking for a straight answer, it appears that beards have a serious psychological impact on both men and women.

Full beards can make you look older, aggressive, masculine, trustworthy, expert, and a great father. They don’t, however, make you look more attractive. That’s up to the stubbly guys.

For those of you sporting this beardy trend, I hope you find this information interesting, and if you manage to use it to your advantage I’d love to hear about whether it worked or not. For the ladies out there, I’d love to know your opinion on beards, and whether you agree with what this research says about our gender!

I have no doubt that this trend won’t stick around forever (it wouldn’t be a trend then would it?) but when it does go, I’m equally sure it will be back! History always repeats itself, after all.

Gingernut x

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2 thoughts on “The Science Behind Beards – What Your Facial Hair Says About You

  1. Hello Gingernut!

    My name is Susan and I am the content manager of Clapway.com, a US based online publication. I came across your blog and really enjoy the content you have on your site. We would like to discuss a potential collaboration with you. Would you be able to talk to us on Thursday via Skype? If so, I am available at content@clapway.com.

    Looking forward to hearing from you.
    Best,

    Susan Xu
    Content Manager at Clapway
    195 Plymouth St #6/17
    Brooklyn, NY 11201
    sx@clapway.com

    Like

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