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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Go on, grow it in a bit

There's a paper in Behavioural Ecology at the mo which is making the rounds of the popular, mainstream press. The main conclusion is thus: beards are not attractive to females, and their evolutionary history lies in complex visual signalling to other rival males, rather than in their heightened ability to attract mates of the fairer sex. (I say fairer; its not true).

 The study took photos of 20 bearded men, had them shave and took another set - both were presented to approximately 200 females from New Zealand (reprezent!) and Samoa, both of which conclusively, consistently chose the clean shaven faces as being the more attractive for each of the men.

The authors (Dixson & Vasey) do allow that people still consistently rate bearded men as belonging to a higher social status group and the bearded version of the same man to be perceived as older. Also, in what I bet was fun to pose for, the men gave an 'aggressive' pose in both bearded and clean-shaven states, the bearded version of which was (again) consistently chosen as being more aggressive by the women, despite being the exact same expression.

The first two paragraphs of the paper give a delightfully droll summary of the types of hair on the human body throughout its entire development from fetus to adult (coughpubertycough) and moves on to the theories as to why we lost our thick matted pelts to evolution. As a delightful aside - did you know that in the UK, men experience a 50-60% increase in beard growth during the summer? One briefly mentioned theory suggests protection from UV damage - but then what about the fresh-faced females of the species? (See? Proof that you should stay in the kitchen - out of the sun! Its for your own good).

Some more awesomeness - due to the beard providing a opportunistic yanking-lever during a fight and its attributes for an ideal parasite home; men with beards may be signalling to women both their ability to outfight even a beard-yanking opponent and a superior immune system to fight off parasitic infection. Things we look for in a man already, right? 

The study itself used European only NZ females, and Independent Samoa-native females. I loved this: "NZ is a modern industrialized country with a population of more than 4 million people and has a high exposure to Western popular culture". Gosh - we have a high exposure to Western popular culture?! I thought we were Western popular culture.

Any way - my point is thus: I like a bit of facial hair.
"Hey! I know that dude!" 

However, the more I study the picture, the more I notice about each face, and the more I imagine about their personality and intelligence, which changes my vacillating opinion. Perhaps this has to be a snap-decision-rating sort of thing?  How much would my decision change if there were a couple of facts included with each face? Or over 100 faces, including the same dudes with and without beard, so you don't even realise you are seeing the same people twice - I bet I would contradict myself hopelessly depending on arbitrary information.
Wait, which one did I like? 

See? This is why Psychology was my minor, and Genetics my major.

So, do I prefer the beards because I just genuinely find them attractive, or am I attracted to the subliminally perceived heightened ability of the male in question to fight off other males, and protect myself, my children and my home? Or is my physical attraction dependent on how I perceive the man's personality? (it needs be said that I have loved a man I thought to be hideous on first meeting). Am I a product of evolution or learned, conscious thought? Do I like what I like...or do I just think I do?

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...urgh, glass of red time?

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