By Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor
Want that Sir Walter Raleigh look to entice the opposite (or even the same) sex and alleviate your morning shaving bump ritual? Well, you can avoid the shaving but your attractiveness to the object of your affections might depend more on the frequency of your biological competitor’s facial hair than your own or so says a new study out of Australia. Evolutionary biologist Zinnia Janif wanted to know if sexual attractiveness was enhanced by facial hair and if so to what degree. Her researchers at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, showed photographs of 36 men who volunteered to grow facial hair for a month to 1453 women and 223 men. The photographs were filmed at identical angles and with exactly similar lighting conditions and depicted the subjects at four stages of growth: clean-shaven, light stubble (5 days), heavy stubble (10 days), and full hipster beard (4 weeks). The female viewers were either heterosexual or bisexual and the male viewers were all heterosexual.
Janif’s premise was that evolutionary biological traits might depend on the frequency of the trait among a given population to decide its advantage or disadvantage. Biologists have long known that some traits don’t depend on the frequency of their occurrence to provide an evolutionary advantage. Things like stronger wings or longer leg bones always provide an advantage for predators in chasing down prey but studies of color variations in guppies suggested that oddball colors were only an advantage to this aquatic prey if the frequency was small. Predators, it seems, get better at deciding what to eat if the differently colored guppies aren’t too numerous. So the advantage of the rare coloration begins to disappear as the trait becomes more common.
Janif and her team asked the survey takers to rate the faces on an attractiveness scale. But like every good study, the researchers threw the test takers a curve ball. Instead of each survey taker receiving the same set of photographs, Janif directed her researchers to vary the array by changing the frequency of facial hair observed. Some people saw mostly clean-shaven men, while others saw mostly heavily stubbled or bearded subjects.
And the results showed definitively that beauty lies in the context of the beholder. When the array depicted few subjects with facial hair, those sporting the beards and heavy stubble were rated 20% more attractive than the remainder, but when beards were common in the photo array compared to the clean-shaven faces, the latter got the sexiness bump. The pattern held true for both men and women reviewers and across sexual preference lines.
“This study breaks new ground,” says Peter Frost, an anthropologist at the Interuniversity Centre for Aboriginal Studies and Research in Quebec City, Canada. Although previous studies have shown that people prefer novelty for certain traits, such as the color of clothing, this study shows “that the novelty effect applies not only to colors but also to other visible features [of the body],” he says. But hipsters shouldn’t let their beards get too gnarly. “There are certainly limits to this effect,” Frost says. “Something can be novel but also disgusting.”
In the legal profession, beards are fairly rare. In central Virginia, we once had a judge who refused to permit attorneys to practice before him if they sported facial hair. Yes, he was a weird guy. I do notice more and more facial hair features from some in the profession including mustaches and an occasional goatee but the frequency is till low. Our criminal law practicing brothers seem the most willing to forgo the razor in my unscientific observation but that varies, too.
Hey! Do you think those guys know about the guppy studies?
So what do you think? Do beards make men more attractive ?
~Mark Esposito, Weekend Contributor