Beards signal masculine traits. That’s pretty obvious since only men generally can grow facial hair. But why do men grow beards in the first place? Evolutionary biologists believe that beards evolved in order to signal dominance and aggression. In order to assess if such a theory still carries weight in the modern world, researchers devised a series of experiments in which participants had to assess the emotions of bearded and shaven men. Turns out that sporting a beard makes men appear more aggressive and masculine if they’re frowning, but also more prosocial if they’re smiling.
“The beard is arguably one of the most obvious signals of masculinity in humans. Almost 150 years ago, Darwin suggested that beards evolved to communicate formidability to other males, but no studies have investigated whether beards enhance recognition of threatening expressions, such as anger,” wrote the authors of the new study published in the journal Psychological Science.
Australian researchers at the University of New England and the University of Queensland recruited 227 adults who were shown the portraits of various men in four situations or poses: clean-shaven and displaying happiness; clean-shaven and displaying anger; bearded and displaying happiness; and bearded and displaying anger. The same men were used in different poses in order to eliminate biases introduced by facial-structure of expression differences between men who choose to always stay bearded or shaven.
Each participant had to rate as quickly as possible whether the face they were shown displayed happiness or anger. The results suggest that people were significantly faster at classifying angry bearded photos. The researchers hypothesize that the beard enhances visual cues associated with anger in other people. Meanwhile, the participants were quicker to classify clean-shaven faces as happy.
In a follow-up study, the researchers swapped the angry faces for sad faces, finding that the participants were slower to recognize sad expressions on bearded faces than on clean-shaven faces. This showed that the recognition advantage for angry bearded faces does not generalize to all negative expressions.
In yet another experiment, the researchers wanted to investigate if this time there were any benefits associated with positive bearded faces. The authors asked 450 participants to rate the faces used in the first experiment on measures on aggressiveness, masculinity, and prosociality. Not surprising at all, the bearded faces were rated higher for masculinity and aggressiveness than the clean-shaved faces. However, the researchers also found that bearded faces were rated higher for prosocial behavior when they were accompanied by a smile.
So, what this study seems to suggest is that wearing a beard can both intimidate other men but also inspire more warmth and friendliness depending on the person’s facial expression. Hipsters might be on to something.