You see a man with spiders in his beard: shag, marry, kill?

This story was making the rounds last week, about a study that had found that women who are creeped out by bugs are less likely to be attracted to men with beards.

According to a new study, if a woman runs screaming from hair-dwelling creatures such as lice, ticks, fleas and the like, she’s likely to find men with beards much less attractive.
It’s on an unconscious level, of course. But from the viewpoint of her inner animal brain, who wants to pucker up to a mouth fringed by a thicket of hair that might contain tiny, squirmy, maggot-like creatures?

I’m taking this personally, as a bearded man with a fondness for creepy crawlies. For the record, my beard is respectably groomed and does not contain any squirmy maggots, and I find the implication offensive and unfounded. Do we go around suggesting that women grow their hair longer than men (usually) in order to provide a nesting ground for ticks and lice, or do we consider tastefully coiffed hair to be an attractive feature? Why assume that beards or any other hair repulsive?

So I read the paper, A multivariate analysis of women’s mating strategies and sexual selection on men’s facial morphology, by Tessa R. Clarkson, Morgan J. Sidari, Rosanna Sains, Meredith Alexander, Melissa Harrison, Valeriya Mefodeva, Samuel Pearson, Anthony J. Lee and Barnaby J. W. Dixson. I was even less impressed. In particular, they are trying to associate a phenomenological study of women’s reports of their preferences of a set of photographs with an evolutionary effect of sexual selection, which is a rather long reach. We know that fashions in hair styles vary wildly with time and location with a rapidity that cannot be associated with reproduction — shall we look at big hair styles from the 1980s and draw inferences about paleolithic mating preferences? Beards go in and out of fashion all the time, so a sample taken in 2019 of Western women’s taste in North European male faces (yes, they explicitly used only faces of a small ethnic subset) is only a snapshot of a narrow cultural preference in a tiny slice of time that cannot be interpreted as a significant biological factor.

Here’s the abstract.

The strength and direction of sexual selection via female choice on masculine facial traits in men is a paradox in human mate choice research. While masculinity may communicate benefits to women and offspring directly (i.e. resources) or indirectly (i.e. health), masculine men may be costly as long-term partners owing to lower paternal investment. Mating strategy theory suggests women’s preferences for masculine traits are strongest when the costs associated with masculinity are reduced. This study takes a multivariate approach to testing whether women’s mate preferences are context-dependent. Women (n = 919) rated attractiveness when considering long-term and short-term relationships for male faces varying in beardedness (clean-shaven and full beards) and facial masculinity (30% and 60% feminized, unmanipulated, 30% and 60% masculinized). Participants then completed scales measuring pathogen, sexual and moral disgust, disgust towards ectoparasites, reproductive ambition, self-perceived mate value and the facial hair in partners and fathers. In contrast to past research, we found no associations between pathogen disgust, self-perceived mate value or reproductive ambition and facial masculinity preferences. However, we found a significant positive association between moral disgust and preferences for masculine faces and bearded faces. Preferences for beards were lower among women with higher ectoparasite disgust, providing evidence for ectoparasite avoidance hypothesis. However, women reporting higher pathogen disgust gave higher attractiveness ratings for bearded faces than women reporting lower pathogen disgust, providing support for parasite-stress theories of sexual selection and mate choice. Preferences for beards were also highest among single and married women with the strongest reproductive ambition. Overall, our results reflect mixed associations between individual differences in mating strategies and women’s mate preferences for masculine facial traits.

Among the flaws are the aforementioned narrow set of sample images — sorry, you’re not going to get to choose whether you’d like a one-night stand with Idris Elba vs. a long-term relationship with Hugh Grant — but also, the study was executed using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which is going create unanalyzed biases in the respondent population. It also apparently created a far more diverse respondent population than was represented in the target images, so who knows what effect that had.

And really, the game they played was a variation on “shag, marry, kill”: would you have a quickie relationship with this face? Would you like to live with this face for months and months? Is this face totally unattractive to you? It’s the most superficial analysis possible. How many of you chose your mate because of their appearance, and nothing else, and prioritized conventional attractiveness over all other attributes? This is a meaningless study. You can’t say anything about human evolution with a study that reduces a complicated process, courtship behavior and reproduction in humans, to such a trivial scope.

Yeah, sure, you can talk all you want about Tinder and swiping left or swiping right, but that’s about transient relationships and not long-term investment in offspring.

Anyway, you want the results? Here you go.

Mean ratings (±1 s.e.m.) for attractiveness when judging short-term (a) and long-term (b) relationships for bearded (black circles) and clean-shaven (white circles). The composites were manipulated to appear 60% and 30% feminized, unmanipulated, and 30% and 60% masculinized. Note that the full rating scale ranges from 0 to 100.

Oh, wait, maybe the study isn’t so bad, since it found that bearded men are generally preferable to clean-shaven men, both for long term and short term relationships, clearly the correct result. Also women prefer the unmodified or slightly masculinized photographs, so men — be yourself, or use just a little subtle makeup.

But no…you know this result is going to vary across time and cultures. Wait a decade, and those results could flip.

This leads into the next part of the paper, which is to look at how the results vary with women’s phobias about disease and parasites and sex and morality. They even suggest a hypothesis: “The ectoparasite avoidance hypothesis proposes that ancestral humans underwent additional loss of body hair as it lessened the potential for disease-carrying ectoparasites to proliferate.” But they can’t test this hypothesis! These data are so ephemeral that you can’t use them to describe human behavior during the long period of our evolution, and further, I’d argue that it doesn’t even hold up, given that a) we don’t know much about the timing of hair loss in the human lineage, and b) they’re examining a persistent phenomenon, male facial hair. If there was selection to get rid of beards full of squirmy maggots, how come we still have them? The beards, that is, not the squirmy maggots. I’d also ask what’s special about humans, since most mammals are covered with hair; are chimpanzees uninterested in selecting mates lacking in parasites?

The authors administered a test to measure respondents attitudes about 4 dimensions of disgust and then correlated that with their measures of attractiveness. The idea was that if a woman was particularly repulsed by the sight of arthropods (“ectoparasite disgust”), then they ought to rate men with beards as less attractive, because who knows what might be lurking in that thatch?

That was sort of the result they got, that excited the popular press the most.

The associations between women’s ectoparasite, moral, pathogen and sexual disgust and their attractiveness ratings for male beardedness when judging bearded faces (red line) and clean-shaven faces (green line). Data show regression lines (±95% confidence interval). Note that the full rating scale ranges from 0 to 100.

Look at the ectoparasite avoidance and pathogen disgust graphs on the left. The attractiveness of bearded men did decline as the women subjects exhibited increasing queasiness about parasites…but I also notice that no matter how sensitive the women were, they still (on average) found bearded men more attractive than cleanshaven men. Which I interpret to mean that if I cultivated spiders in my beard, I might be slightly less attractive to more women, but I’d still be prettier than the beardless boys. I don’t see how it provides evidence that beardlessness has a selective advantage; I take it to mean that the forces behind the growth of male facial hair are more complex and diverse than can be accounted for by one simplistic hypothesis.

The moral disgust graph is complicated. Increasing moral disgust means the respondent attaches more importance to upright behavior, that they are repulsed by criminality, for instance. Those women find both bearded and clean-shaven men more attractive, and that may be a consequence of, for instance, avoiding homosexuality, to speculate a bit. Every man looks prettier when you’re afraid of falling for the wrong sex.

The sexual disgust scale is the only one that shows a preference for clean-shaven men over bearded ones at the extreme end. Sexual disgust is a measure of the importance of sexual propriety (no incest, for example) and also of the desirability of an individual for reproduction — again to speculate, maybe beards are a way of concealing biological defects, so they are less attractive.

Finally, though, these measures of attractiveness are so deeply subject to trends and fashions and wildly varying personal taste that they cannot be used to test hypotheses of human evolution. This would have been a better paper if they’d avoided making the unwarranted claims of deep biological meaningfulness…but then, it wouldn’t have been picked up by the tabloids and news agencies, now would it?


  1. says

    No, no, no. It’s more like it doesn’t matter what kind of result they get, they’ll be able to fit it afterwards into some kind of hypothesis. There are no miracles here, only post hoc reasoning.

  2. anthrosciguy says

    Wonder why the PR department didn’t write up the release the accurate way; it’d be an attention grabber: “Women prefer bug-infested bearded men to clean-shaven men”. Now THAT’S clickbait!

  3. Artor says

    Barnaby Dixon is one of the names on this study? I thought he was a puppeteer, not an awkwardly confused researcher.

  4. hemidactylus says

    Whatabout lambchops or sideburns?

    My superficial interest is in any cultural fluctuation in beard sporting. I had noticed long beards had seemingly erupted in the cultural landscape of the US in the past decade (based on poor observational memory). My initial “theory” was military engagement in Afghanistan where soldiers began sporting beards to blend in better with the locals. Somehow this Afghani influence migrated to the US by soldiers themselves or popular media depictions. Then on a very boring day I started watching Duck Dynasty for the spectacle. I expected to take great offense to the show, but it had some sort of rustic charm. Nonetheless my Afghani influence theory was refuted. I found the locus of the megabeard trend in rural Louisiana. One wonders if Papa Phil would have sported a beard as a popular NFL QB instead. Dolphins QB Ryan Fitzpatrick pulls it off.

    The Duck hunting swamp monsters may have chunks of who knows what waterborne detritus stubbornly attached to their faces, but one only needs look at Andrew Weil to see the most luxuriant well groomed beard ever. One doubts he’s carrying hitchhikers. Dennett’s is OK but not quite up to the Weil standard of excellence.

  5. says

    It is obvious, since spiders are the inspiration, that the title should read: You see a man with spiders in his beard? Shag, marry, kill!

  6. hemidactylus says

    I just briefly skimmed the paper and it seems they focus on the dichotomy of clean-shaven and fully bearded, though did do something with a range of sideburns, soul patches, goatees etc, but that complexity didn’t seem to factor much into the bigger picture. At the risk of sounding facetious, I would find a study addressing the impact of 90210 characters Brandon and Dylan sporting sideburns on Gen X men in the early 90s more interesting. I recall seeing sideburns everywhere back then. It had the opposite effect on me as to this day I insist on having my hairline cropped up to my ear-line, triggered by 90120 still.

    How does sideburned Dylan and Brandon factor in to 90s fashion in an environment of evolutionary adaptedness scenario alongside Duck Dynasty in the present day?

    Or let’s regress to the Boz era with his clean shaven face and flat-top. Or the two to three day stubble of Sonny Crockett and pastel colored wardrobe. Stubble bearded Crockett vs Andrew Weil.

  7. unclefrogy says

    as a study of what ever they were interested in the one thing that can be said was it was short and cheap.
    they got “data” of sorts but as PZ points out the subject is way to big and old for there to be any useful meaning to be gleaned.
    I would have thought that it would be more useful to do a study on cultural fashion over time. because that is what they are in fact looking at with their snapshot survey . that study would take a very long time because it would have to include as many cultures as we have data on and would compare how each changed over time have any useful meaning.
    uncle frogy

  8. stroppy says

    Well on the one hand, if you’re clean shaven and bald-headed, there’s nothing for an adversary to grab on to and use to their advantage, so it signals that you’re an alpha, fight’n male and will make the ladies swoon.

    On the other hand, if you look like you’ve just eaten a muskrat, it signals that you’re likely a good provider and will make the ladies swoon.

    Clearly this issue needs further study, because the paper failed to fully control for the extent of the role that spiders play, positive or negative, in determining male attractiveness to females of the species.

    Just as a for instance, if you have spiders in your beard and cute kittens want use it as a hunting ground, does that cause positive attraction in females? These types of questions need to be answered.

  9. nomdeplume says

    Really to study shows that yet again the media will grab at any shiny bauble and report it in all seriousness as “science”. One of the reasons (remember the boy who cried wolf) that the public don’t take seriously the deadly serious scientific findings on climate change. To see what nonsense the study involves, imagine it done in the 1880s – pretty much all men wore beards in western countries. If women had been asked then they might have rationalised the fashion with the proposition that beards demonstrated masculinity and these scientists would have created a narrative about testosterone levels.

  10. davidc1 says

    @9 I heard somewhere that dogs don’t like men with bald heads and beards you could lose a Badger in .They
    seem to think they have their heads on upside down .
    And i don’t think any nice young lady would run screaming from Dr poopyhead .

  11. Zeppelin says

    I have an alternative just-so story to explain these results that is more parsimonious because it doesn’t make assumptions about prehistoric human evolutionary pressures:
    Women who are fussier about tidiness and hygiene are more likely to be disgusted by bugs. Since beards can be perceived as unkempt and unhygienic, these women also show a lower preference for bearded men, and probably for body hair in general. Admittedly I have no data to back up this hypothesis, but then neither do the authors.

  12. DanDare says

    Did they show any photos where the beard was drawn on? Ooh or some bearded women? Goatees? Just a mow? Gah. Is there any value in the data gathered? My daughter put her PhD into neuroscience on hold to do a catch up on statistics and data science. Maybe she can have some fun with it.

  13. jrkrideau says

    @ 8 unclefrogy
    it was short and cheap.
    It looks like an MPU (minimal publishable unit) of a larger study. See Beards and the big city: displays of masculinity may be amplified under crowded conditions where Dixson is 1st rather than last author and various other references.

    Actually if you scan the reference list there seems to be a lot of related work by the same gang.

    Rather than a PMU it also could be the result of a word/page limit in the journal. I have no idea of the prestige of this journal but Science and Nature can have such restrictive page limits that a comprehensive research program comes across as nonsense because of the limits.

    The paper above actually addresses one of PZ’s criticisms.

  14. jrkrideau says

    @ 13
    Did they show any photos where the beard was drawn on?
    See the pretty picture in the paper (Figure 1).

    My daughter put her PhD into neuroscience on hold to do a catch up on statistics and data science. Maybe she can have some fun with it.

    See if see can figure out why Analysis 1 used repeated measures ANOVA and Bayesian ANOVA where ratings for short-term and long-term attractiveness were the dependent variables. Section 2.1. Statistical Analyses, pg. 8.

    My stats are pretty rusty but this seems weird unless I have misunderstood what they are doing.

  15. hemidactylus says

    Let me preface this by saying I’m happy I won’t be boycotting the Super Bowl this year. But more topically I am watching the NFC Championship. Shutdown DB Richard Shermanator sports a beard.

    And he’s a Stanford grad. His current game nemesis Aaron Rodgers has one too. And Rodgers is dating sportscar Indy and NASCAR legend Danica. Probably irrelevant as I have no idea her views on potential facial hair-borne hitchhikers.

    I see both black and white players who are razor challenged in this game. Just happy no Patriots regardless of attention to addressing their excessive facial hair outcroppings. One thing that triggers me worse than 90210 sideburns is the Patriots in playoffs. Probably an ev psych angle there somewhere. Sideburns are bad though, especially lambchops.

  16. Ridana says

    Beards are irrelevant. Every girl crazy for a sharp dressed man.
    – Gibbons B, Hill D, Beard F. Sharp Dressed Man 1983 Eliminator, Warner Bros., Side 1:Track 3

  17. says

    beards you could lose a Badger in

    Don’t go there. Badger would find its way out any human beard. Whether it left a recognizable face behind is another question.

  18. Stuart Smith says

    The last I heard, the line on facial hair was that it pays to stand out (in terms of attracting maximum interest from women.) So, if beards are fashionable, you should shave, while if being clean shaven is the norm, you should grow a beard. Now, I haven’t personally done any experiments in this area, but it seems to me that a beard full of spiders would stand out from the crowd due both to its uniqueness and the eye-catching motions of the spiders, so logically that should be the most attractive option of all.

  19. hemidactylus says

    Ridana that is funny even then late in their careers given that drummer Beard was ironically the one lacking a serious outcrop. But at the point they published that research, with two heavily bearded guys who could scare shit outta Duck Dynasty they had seen their best days go behind them. They remind me too much of AC/DC in that the 80s popularity misrepresented what they were with their best days behind them.

  20. wzrd1 says

    @2, PZ, I’m reminded of my mother, born in 1934 and my father, born in 1930, telling me “beards are dirty”.
    Having had a beard for decades, on and off, beard in temperate summer, too hot, beard in desert and equatorial regions, not so much.
    Now, a study, with data that was tortured into “admitting” the preferred view.

    To the study authors, here’s a quarter. Want to call someone who gives a flying fuck?
    Shit! My bad, intergalactic calls are a bit more, here’s a preferred calling card.

    Torturing data is bad. Torturing your fact sources is good, if trying to disprove your view.

  21. woodsong says

    I haven’t read the study, but I don’t think the authors were thinking of beards like these:

    Personally, I think that if a beard inspires a person’s distaste for parasite and excites disgust, that’s more likely a reflection on the beard wearer’s perceived personal hygiene (or the personal hygiene of someone the viewer is reminded of). Scruffy and unkempt beards might indeed be less appealing than precisely groomed (for an observer who is concerned about careful grooming).

    The models in the article I linked don’t look like they’d inspire such fears, ever. “WTF? You look weird!” maybe. Especially the second one.

    If you want to think about hair treatments to make you think about parasites, keep this in mind: The hairstyle that my generation mostly thinks of as a “Princess Leia” hairstyle used to be called “Cootie Garages”!