To beard, or not to beard?*
You may have seen that we recently achieved, or possibly surpassed, ‘peak beard’. Quite a monumental achievement, for one half of the population at least. I add that caveat as the story refers to the growing trend for men to grow beards. A research study reported that when beards are more common in the population, they may, however, lose their novelty and are subsequently rated as less attractive. The study was particularly well-covered by the media, and was so important there were at least 3 reports or commentaries in the Guardian alone around the day of the research being released: here, here, and here (they even predicted the impending approach of peak beard back in 2013!). BBC News online devoted a lengthy article to the research too (also available as a video). So, is it time for gents to ditch the facial hair? And might the research tell us something more than male grooming trends come and go?
What did the media say?
I’ll focus on the BBC article for clarity, but there is full, lustrous coverage across both UK and international media outlets (do have a look). The BBC reported that the study, conducted in Australia, showed that when asked to rate male faces for attractiveness, “the more beards there are, the less attractive they become – giving clean-shaven men a competitive advantage”. That is, whichever was the least common of clean-shaven or full beard was rated as more attractive.
The BBC article reported that the study used an experimental design, and recruited participants via their Facebook site. Each participant (both female and male participants were recruited as raters) saw a number of male faces that they were asked to rate. The faces could have one of four levels of “beardedness”, from clean-shaven, through light stubble and heavy stubble, to full beard. The BBC piece has a good example of the images used. In the experiment, participants were either given groups of faces to rate that included lots of full beards, lots of clean-shaven faces, or an even number of the four different types. The BBC reported that when heavy stubble, full beards or clean-shaven were less common, they were rated as more attractive.
The BBC article included a number of quotes from one of the authors of the study, Professor Rob Brooks, who considered what might underlie these findings: the preferences might be linked to the evolutionary advantages of rare traits. As a characteristic becomes more common (in this case, the trend for increasing beardedness over recent years), it loses its appeal. This, Professor Brooks explained, would be an example of negative frequency-dependent preferences. It might also underlie the observed patterns in male facial hair preferences, which Professor Brooks noted might follow a roughly 30-year cycle (think 70s handlebars, 80s Tom Selleck, 90s clean-shaven, apparently).
The BBC article concluded by considering the financial crisis of 2008 as a potential trigger for the current resurgence in beardedness. Professor Brooks speculates that “Young men are competing to attract someone when work is not easy to come by. So we might expect some aspects [of masculinity] to get turned up to eleven.”
What about the actual research?
The study was conducted by researchers at the University of New South Wales, and published in the journal Biology Letters (these were both mentioned in the BBC article). The BBC coverage actually contained a good overview, though the published study obviously has the finer details. For example, they used photographs of 24 men from a larger group of 36 who were photographed four times (for the four beardedness types): clean-shaven, five days growth (light stubble), 10 days growth (heavy stubble), and at least 4 weeks growth (full beard). None of the raters saw the same face with a different level of beardedness. Participants rated each face they were presented with for attractiveness using a scale from -4 to 4. In addition, of the 24 images each participant saw, 12 were used as the experimental set, that is, with more full beards, more clean-shaven, or even, while 12 were used to gauge that participant’s preference for beardedness. In total, there were 1453 female raters and 213 male raters.
In terms of pure beardedness preference, full beards and both types of stubble were rated as more attractive than clean-shaven. However, and as noted above, the frequency of beardedness appeared to impact the overall attractiveness ratings: “when clean-shaven faces were rare, clean-shaven faces received higher attractiveness ratings… full beards were more attractive when beards were rare”.
The bottom line.
Given that the coverage by the BBC was so clear, it seems only fair to allow a quote from that as a sign-off. Professor Brooks was quoted as saying, “The idea is that perhaps people start copying the George Clooneys and the Joaquin Phoenixs and start wearing those beards, but then when more and more people get onto the bandwagon the value of being on the bandwagon diminishes, so that might be why we’ve hit ‘peak beard’.”
I can’t help thinking he missed a trick not saying beardwagon, but other than that, a genuinely thoughtful and detailed piece of coverage, especially given the speculation on the origins of joining the beardwagon – it’s just all about trying to get that little advantage in a competitive world. The bottom line would seem to be, if something becomes a trend, maybe you should change it up.
*On seeing the media coverage of this study, I immediately decided to write a piece under the title “To beard, or not to beard?”. Then I saw this was the heading of the study’s press release. I am clearly in the wrong job.
A second caveat is that I did have what might loosely be described as a beard in early 2011. Though rarely clean-shaven, I can safely say I exited the beardwagon well in advance of ‘peak beard’.
Janif, Z. J., Brooks, R. C., & Dixson, B. J. (2014). Negative frequency-dependent preferences and variation in male facial hair. Biology Letters. doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2013.0958.