Does a man’s neck musculature signal any information? A new study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology found that men with large trapezii were perceived as more protective of offspring, but less nurturing and less interested in long-term relationships.
“I became interested in this particular topic in two ways. First, I had a growing interest in the signal value of men’s formidability and how it shapes perceptions of their social value. With a growing understanding of parental motivational systems, I thought it would be pertinent to understand the possible tradeoffs associated with formidability that we see in other domains, particularly related to the protection of offspring at the expense of nurturance,” said study author Mitch Brown, PhD (@ExtravertedFace), an instructor of psychological science at the University of Arkansas.
“I had previously published on this tradeoff, making it all the more sensible to pursue this topic with other morphological features. For neck musculature, I became interested in the topic both after seeing data from Neil Caton about the evolutionary value of neck musculature and some of my own me-search. I’m a former wrestler who has tried to have a beefy neck my whole life!”
In this work, Mitch Brown & Ryan E. Tracy examined whether men’s neck musculature influenced evaluations of their relationship motives.
A total of 305 undergraduate students (215 women and 90 men) were recruited from a large public university in the Southeastern United States. They rated four portraits of men of varying neck musculature (i.e., trapezius muscles and sternocleidomastoids); these portraits were manipulated from one image. The researchers opted to use one target identity as a means to standardize other physical features that may vary with neck size.
Participants viewed the images in random order, rating them along five dimensions on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 7 (very much). These ratings included perceptions of the target as a good fighter, as being interested in long- and short-term mating, and his effectiveness at protecting and nurturing offspring.
“Men’s neck musculature is informative in shaping perceptions of men in terms of their relationship preferences,” Brown told PsyPost.
“Namely, large trapezius muscles connote greater interest to perceivers in promiscuous mating strategies and a disinterest in the conventions of biparental investment (e.g., monogamy, offspring nurturance). These muscles additionally connote an ability to protect offspring, an effect that mirrors previous findings in my research program that show how perceived physical advantages inform perceptions of men’s protective capabilities.”
“These stereotypes appear to form based on estimates of how well someone would help facilitate or impede specific goals while perceivers seek to weigh the costs and benefits of other people.”
On the other hand, targets with smaller trapezii were rated as more effective at nurturing, which could be reflective of an awareness that men’s motivation for nurturance comes at the expense of the motivation to protect. Morphological features, such as neck musculature. appear to play a role in shaping such judgements.
Are there research questions that ought to be pursued in future work? Brown responded, “The most important thing is that these are merely stereotypes. Although previous research on these dimensions of formidability are robust, a reliance on computer-generated images impedes our ability to know whether there are kernels of truth to these perceptions.”
“Future work would benefit from explicitly assessing the motives of men while similarly measuring their neck musculature. It is additionally important to consider how these stereotypes may or may not generalize across cultures; the current study considered participants in the Southern U.S.”
As for his final thoughts, the research explained, “Formidability is a multifaceted construct that covers many specific perceptions. This work is starting to show how these different components of men’s faces and bodies that connote actual fighting ability have different connotations. It is important for researchers to consider perceptions of strength and aggression, for example, and see which could be driving different perceptions of such features. Such consideration would help researchers understand the basis of viewing formidable men as costly or beneficial across myriad contexts.”
The study, “Preliminary evidence for neck musculature in shaping functional stereotypes of men’s relationship motives”, was authored by Mitch Brown and Ryan E. Tracy.