Guided by evolution?The more beards there are, the less attractive they become, say Australian scientists.
The more beards there are, the less attractive they become, say Australian scientists. When ‘peak beard’ frequency is reached, the pendulum swings back toward lesser-bristled chins—a trend we may be witnessing now, according to a study published in Biology Letters.
In the experiment, women and men were asked to rate different faces with “four levels of beardedness”. Both beards and clean-shaven faces became more appealing when they were rare. The pattern mirrors an evolutionary phenomenon—”negative frequency-dependent sexual selection”, or to more simply, “an advantage to rare traits”.
Scientists at the University of New South Wales decided to test this hypothesis for men’s facial hair—recruiting volunteers on their Facebook site, The Sex Lab. “Big thick beards are back with a vengeance and so we thought underlying this fashion, one of the dynamics that might be important is this idea of negative frequency dependence,” said Prof Rob Brooks, one of the study’s authors. “The idea is that perhaps people start copying the George Clooneys and start wearing those beards, but then when more and more people get onto the bandwagon the value of being on the bandwagon diminishes.”
‘Peak beard’ was the climax of the trend for beards in professions not naturally associated with a bristly chin—bankers, film stars, and even footballers began sporting facial hair.
In this latest experiment, 1,453 women and 213 men were asked to rate the attractiveness of different samples of men’s faces. Some were shown mostly ‘full’ beards. Others were shown mostly clean-shaven faces. A third group were shown an even mixture of all four varieties—clean-shaven, light stubble, heavy stubble and full beard.
Both women and men judged heavy stubble and full beards more attractive when they were rare. And likewise for clean-shaven faces. Negative frequency-dependent preferences may therefore contribute to changing beard fashions, Prof Brooks concluded. “We know beards go through cyclical fashions. People used to speak about a 30-year timescale,” he said. “There is a wonderful paper studying photographs of men from 1871 to 1972 in the Illustrated London News. Sideburns moved on to moustaches, then full beards.”
“In the 1970s it was handlebar moustaches. In the 80s it was Magnum PI moustaches. In the 90s we saw a lot of clean-shaven men, and now big bushy beards are back.”
The recent boom may have its roots in the financial crisis of 2008, Prof Brooks suggests. “I think one of the reasons beards have made a comeback now is that it’s a difficult time. Young men are competing to attract someone when work is not easy to come by. After the Wall Street Crash in the 1920s there is some circumstantial evidence that beards got big again. So maybe economic conditions have set the stage for the recent comeback in beardedness.”
“When Greece’s economy tanked—did beards take off? That’s something we’re going to look at.”
Brooks’ team plan to continue their pogonophilic investigations and are looking for volunteers for their latest experiment testing how people like faces with varying levels of beardedness. “Heavy stubble seemed to be the best in our last study. Maybe a five-10 day growth. But those describe average tendencies,” he said.
“Luckily, we never mate with an average. We mate with an individual.”