Masculine Facial Features, Testosterone Levels, and Social Selection

OCTOBER 07, 2014
Andrew Smith
Do women prefer the sort of masculine faces that indicate high testosterone levels? New research suggests that the answer may depend upon where you live, but if you live in an advanced market economy, the answer is probably “yes.”
A team of academics from around the world asked 962 adults from 12 very different societies to choose the most attractive face in a series of 3-face pictures. In each case, all the faces were very similar except that they were altered to present 3 distinct levels of masculinity or femininity.
Women from every society expressed a significant preference for one particular level of masculinity, but their preferences differed. Women from two Latin American peoples, the Miskitu and Shuar, consistently chose the most feminine men. The preference was very consistent among the former group (P = 0.00002) and still significant among the latter (P = 0.038).
On the other end of the spectrum were women from North America and Hangzhou (China), along with Kadazan women from Malaysia. They all expressed significant preferences for the most masculine faces. North American women were the most enthusiastic of for manly men (P < 0.00001).
In between the two extremes were Cree, Fijian, Shanghainese, and Tchimba women, who all displayed significant preference for male faces of middling masculinity. For women in some cultures, preferences varied depending on the length of the theoretical relationship. British women expressed a significant preference for neutral faces in long-term relationships (P < 0.00001) and for masculinity in short-term relationships (P < 0.00001).
“These data challenge the hypothesis that facial dimorphism was an important ancestral signal of heritable mate value,” wrote the authors of the study, which appears in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Preferences for exaggerated sex-specific traits are only found in the novel, highly developed environments.”
The study authors offered several theories for the different preferences of different cultures. One of those theories hinged upon the fear of violence in each society.
The Shuar people had a long history of frequent warfare that extracted a devastating toll on their society, said Lawrence S. Sugiyama, PhD, a University of Oregon anthropologist who is one of the paper’s co-authors. It would therefore be natural, Sugiyama continued, for Shuar women to develop a preference for men with lower levels of testosterone, men who were less likely to get themselves and their sons killed in battle.
Richer urban societies, on the other hand, have been relatively peaceful for centuries now, so women can select a masculine man without undue worry that his high testosterone will result in his violent death.
Another possible explanation involves the exponential increase in human contact that comes when people move from small villages to large cities. “Highly developed environments provide novel opportunities to discern relationships between facial traits and behavior by exposing individuals to large numbers of unfamiliar faces, revealing patterns too subtle to detect with smaller samples,” wrote the authors of the study, who believe their work has important and novel scientific implications.
“A large literature proposes that preferences for exaggerated sex typicality in human faces reflect a long evolutionary history of sexual and social selection. This proposal implies that dimorphism was important to judgments of attractiveness and personality in ancestral environments,” they wrote. “These data challenge the hypothesis that facial dimorphism was an important ancestral signal of heritable mate value.”
For men in developed nations, however, the new study only confirms the longstanding conclusions of researchers and casual observers alike: women are more attracted to men whose masculine features suggest higher levels of testosterone and aggression.

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