A woman’s preference for facial masculinity in a man is influenced by the degree of investment she expects from her future child’s grandfather, according to a study published in Evolutionary Psychological Science. The researchers behind the study suggest that this is because men with masculine faces are perceived as less likely to invest in their children, and a higher anticipated investment from the child’s grandfather offsets the risk of selecting a masculine partner.
A wealth of psychology research has suggested that people make certain inferences about men based on the masculinity of their faces. For example, men with more masculine facial features are perceived as more dominant, more aggressive, more unfaithful in their relationships, and less invested as parents. If men with masculine faces are perceived as less invested in their children, it follows that women will be particularly turned away from masculine-looking men when partner investment in children is most important.
Following this reasoning, study author Tamsin K. Saxton and her team proposed that if a woman anticipates her own parents to be highly invested in her future children, this offsets the costs of selecting a partner with masculine features. The researchers conducted a study to explore whether women who expect more investment from grandparents show a greater preference for masculine men compared to women who expect less investment from grandparents.
A sample of 366 heterosexual women between the ages of 18 and 49 participated in the study. The women were each shown images of 15 pairs of male faces that were identical except that one face in each pair was manipulated to be higher in masculinity, and the other was manipulated to be lower in masculinity. For example, a face was made more masculine by increasing the size of the jaw and making facial stubble more visible.
The women were asked to choose which of the two male faces they found more attractive in each set. They were next asked to imagine that they were having a baby and to indicate how much investment they believed their own mother and father would provide this child. They were asked separately for their mother and father, and separately for financial investment, time investment, and emotional investment — resulting in six potential predictors overall.
The findings suggested that, overall, the women preferred the more masculine faces over the more feminine faces. For each face pair, the masculine face had an 84% chance of being selected as most attractive. The researchers next tested the extent that each predictor would impact the probability of choosing the masculine face.
It was revealed that the expected financial investment from the grandfather was positively related to women’s preference for a masculine face. In other words, women who anticipated that their own father would provide a higher amount of money toward their future child were more likely to prefer the more masculine faces. This is in line with the argument that women who foresee greater contribution from their parents are more willing to take the risk of selecting a partner with masculine facial features.
“Women may adjust their facial preferences facultatively, and be slightly more willing to prefer a masculine man, despite the higher risks of a loss of paternal investment, if they feel more confident that investment could be obtained elsewhere,” Saxton and her colleagues say.
Interestingly, the same effect was not found when it came to grandmothers’ expected contributions. In fact, the opposite effect was found. Women who expected a higher financial contribution from their imaginary child’s grandmother were less likely to prefer the masculine faces. However, when each predictor was tested on its own, only the effect for grandfather’s financial investment remained significant, suggesting that the effect for grandmothers’ expected financial investment was unreliable.
Finally, the authors note that there may be an alternative explanation for their findings. For example, studies suggest that women tend to select partners who resemble their fathers. It could be that the women who preferred the more masculine faces had fathers with more masculine faces themselves. Given the positive link between masculine facial features and financial success, these fathers with more masculine features may have been more financially able to support grandchildren.
The study, “Women’s Preferences for Men’s Facial Masculinity and Anticipations of Grandparental Care Provision”, was authored by Tamsin K. Saxton, Carmen E. Lefevre, and Johannes Hönekopp.