What Signal Does a Beard Send?

Max Pixel

Source: Max Pixel

Perhaps more than any other trait, beards are a sign of gruff manliness. They visibly differentiate men from females, mask emotions, provide warmth, and shield skin from the elements.

While most evolutionary theorists believe beards evolved as a display of dominance, masculinity, and aggression , what signals do they send in the modern world? And, specifically, what socialinformation does a beard convey?

This was the question a group of Australian researchers explored in a new paper appearing in this month's issue of Psychological Science. Here's how they conducted their research.

First, they asked 227 participants to look at a series of photographs of people's faces and rate, as quickly as they could, whether the face displayed happiness or anger. The photographs were of four kinds: clean-shaven men displaying happiness, clean-shaven men displaying anger, bearded men displaying happiness, and bearded men displaying anger. Importantly, to avoid any experimental bias , photos of the same men were used in all conditions. The researchers write, "The men were photographed with happy and angry expressions when clean-shaven and again with a full beard (at least 8 weeks of untrimmed facial-hair growth). […] This eliminated the influence of possible systematic facial-structure or expression differences between men who choose to be bearded and those who choose to be clean-shaven."

Interestingly, they found that participants were quicker to classify the angry bearded photos than other types of photos, suggesting that beards enhance visual cues associated with anger recognition. They also found that participants were quicker to classify clean-shaven faces as happy.

The researchers conducted a follow-up study to rule out the possibility that a general negativity bias toward men with beards could explain the results of their first study. To test this, they replicated the study above, except that they swapped out the angry faces for sad faces. Their idea was this: if the same pattern of results emerged for sad bearded faces as it did for angry bearded faces, it's likely that a general negativity bias toward beards is producing the results. However, if the finding is specific to the anger-beard association, then their original hypothesis seems more likely: that the effect is limited to anger.

"Respect the child. Be not too much his parent. Trespass not on his solitude." -Ralph Walso Emerson

Indeed, the results of the follow-up study showed the effect to be limited to anger. The researchers write, "Participants were slower to recognize sad expressions on bearded faces than on clean-shaven faces, which indicates that the recognition advantage for bearded faces observed in Experiment 1 does not generalize to all negative expressions."

A third experiment tested the possibility that there might be social benefits associated with beardedness. Again, employing a similar experimental design, the researchers asked 450 participants to rate the faces used in the first experiment (clean-shaven men displaying happiness, clean-shaven men displaying anger, bearded men displaying happiness, and bearded men displaying anger) on measures of aggressiveness, masculinity, and prosociality.

Not surprisingly, bearded faces were rated higher on masculinity and aggressiveness. But here's where it gets interesting. The researchers also found that bearded faces were rated as moreprosocial than clean-shaven faces. Specifically, bearded happyfaces were rated as more prosocial than clean-shaven happy faces.

So, what does this all mean? Well, it seems that there is a duality in beardedness. Beards convey a commanding presence, especially when expressing anger or frustration. But this rough edge can be disarmed with a smile, resulting in a face that is judged to be even more helpful, accepting, and friendly than a shaved face. Something to think about next time you or your significant other picks up the razor.

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