Body Image / Desire / evolutionary psychology / Gender / media / Race / Sex in the news

Women Hate Beards and Other Times Science is Mis-Read

This week’s award for  terrible reporting of sexuality-based research (should I come up with an acronym? TRSR? Treasure? OOH! We’ll pronounce it Treasure! Let’s use that.) goes to Gizmodo’s Jamie Condliffe. And, more importantly, the copywriter who came up with this genius headline: Scientific Proof That Women Hate Beards.

It was splashed about facebook today, largely by folks who were incredulous at the findings, stating that they personally loved facial hair. And it turns out they were right to be incredulous…..since it is, after all, totally not at all what the study found.

And reading Condliffe’s article, you get the sense that either these astounding findings must prove that we’re all a bunch of liars for being into this or that the scientists behind the study are a bunch of yahoos.

My first argument was that you can’t use a sample of Polynesians from Samoa for a study on beard preference, since they don’t tend to be into beards (many ethnic groups are not able to grow them) and that even if you include “Europeans” from New Zealand, you get the taste preferences of the region, not women of the world at large.

nope, no beards here

My second thought was echoed in the sentiments of others who suggested perhaps the whole study was a shill for a razor company or something. I’m reminded of when the normally reliable sources of news (even the BBC) fell for a fake story about a study on the Beer Goggles Effect. I read about it while taking a research methods course and wanted to see the original study so I could use it in a project. There were no study findings to read. Turns out it wasn’t ever published in a peer reviewed journal. It was actually an ad, bought and paid for by an eye care company that had been written up as a press release of scientific research.

But this is not one of those instances, a fact you can learn by paying to access the original article (or this nice dissection of it). You can ascertain the abject wrongness of the Gizmodo reporting by reading even the abstract of the beard study.

What the study actually finds is further confirmation of evolutionary psychology’s theory that beards are about differentiating male from female, and making men look larger, older and more dangerous. Now, we can have  a whole conversation about the validity of evolutionary psychology and its tendency to confirmation bias. And as a person who quoted David Buss repeatedly in her disseration, I’m in no position to judge. But nonetheless, they found that while having a beard made women perceive a man differently in a number of ways, but it did not make him MORE ATTRACTIVE.

And perhaps the big reveal here is that looking older (and perhaps, as a result, having more resources and power) is less hot to women than just being hot. And that’s something an online dating site argued recently too: that women say that want earning power more than they actually do and really want dudes to be good looking more than they initially think they do.

But here’s what Gizmodo reported:

“The results were conclusive. Women—both Europeans and Polynesians—
said that the men looked significantly more attractive when clean-shaven.”

And here is what the actual study’s own abstract says:

“…women from two very different ethnic groups, Europeans from New Zealand
and Polynesians from Samoa, do not rate bearded male faces as more attractive than clean-shaven faces.”

And that is NOT the same thing. And it is definitely not “Scientific Proof that Women Hate Beards.”

And if you really want to get into this particular study, it sounds like the dudes the women assessed were a bunch of ugsters anyway.  From (emphasis added by me)

The results? These men—and I state this scientifically—
are just not very attractive to women, bearded or not. On average, the New Zealanders
rated their male peers somewhere between “slightly attractive” (just one step above “unattractive”)
and “moderately attractive” while freshly shaved. As a group, these men were rated
below “attractive” and nowhere near “very attractive” or “extremely attractive.” 

And adding to the un-scientific nature: the beards worn by these dudes were unkempt, not trimmed for 6 or so weeks.

So we’re not talking about this guy: We’re probably talking THIS guy:

So what’s the moral of the story? There are a couple things we can learn from this adventure.

  • Don’t believe pop news sources summaries of scientific findings without reading the original study for yourself
  • Beards are, in fact, sexy… if the dude is sexy who has it.

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