Attention all persons sporting a full visage of facial hair: If you're trying to attract a mate, you might want to rethink your beard. That is one takeaway from a new study published this week in Biology Letters.
"We may well be at peak beard," researcher Robert Brooks told the Guardian Australia. Brooks is part of a facial hair research team at the University of New South Wales; previously the team found that beards signaled virility. This year they discovered a different behavioral effect related to facial hair: If everyone is bearded, women prefer a clean shaven man. The same principle also works in reverse.
The researchers selected 1,453 bisexual or heterosexual women and 213 heterosexual men to participate in the study. Subjects were shown 36 images of male faces. The first 24 pictures were used to condition the participant: They were either shown solely bearded men, clean-shaven men, or a mixture.
Subsequently, participants were shown 12 images of men on the beard/clean-shaven gradient and asked to rank their attractiveness.
The researchers found that the attractiveness ranking was highly dependent on their previous exposure. If women were shown images of 24 bearded faces, they preferred beardless men. If they were conditioned with the clean-shaven men or the mixture, participants found bearded men more attractive.
Researchers believe this is an example of "negative frequency-dependent sexual selection.” Or as Brooks explained, "It appears that beards gain an advantage when rare, but when they are in fashion and common, they are declared trendy and that attractiveness is over."
But before you grab that beard trimmer, it is important to recognize that this result may not be applicable to the real world. "Whether this scales to more nuanced judgements in the more complex and varied real world remains to be seen," Brooks told the Guardian Australia.
The aim of the research was to uncover what is driving the beard fad. “These trends usually move in 30-year cycles from when they are first noticed but, with the internet, things are moving a lot faster,” Brooks explains. The group, which consists of Brooks, Zinnia Janif and Barnaby Dixson, is also interested in the function of beards for men. The attractiveness of facial hair is a divisive and seemingly arbitrary preference.
"That underlying component will wax and wane when it comes to beards," Brooks says. "If guys aren’t getting any joy with their beards, they will quickly change."