The findings of a new study call into question the widely held belief that facial masculinity is a reliable indicator of a man’s potential for paternal involvement. The authors of the study did not find a significant relationship between facial masculinity and actual self-reported paternal involvement or perceived paternal involvement. This implies that facial masculinity may not consistently signal higher or lower levels of paternal investment in a reliable manner.
The research, published in Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology, provides insights into the complex interplay between facial masculinity, perceptions of paternal investment, and actual self-reported paternal involvement.
Previous research has shown mixed results regarding women’s preferences for facial masculinity in men, with some studies suggesting a preference for masculine faces, others for average faces, and even some for feminine faces. These mixed findings have led to the hypothesis that there might be costs associated with choosing a highly masculine-faced male as a mate.
The new study was motivated by the trade-off hypothesis that women face when evaluating potential partners. According to this hypothesis, women need to decide whether to prioritize a partner with good health (facial masculinity is theorized to be associated with health and disease resistance) or a partner who is paternally involved (a partner who would invest in parenting and childcare). The trade-off arises because facial masculinity might signal good health but potentially lower levels of paternal investment, while less masculine or more feminine facial features might indicate higher levels of paternal investment.
“A common stereotype is that masculine men are less involved fathers,” said study author Anthony Lee, a lecturer in the division of psychology at the University of Stirling. “This is also an assumption made by existing psychological theories on face perception. However, there is no direct evidence supporting this claim. Here, we assess directly whether facial masculinity in men is used by others as a cue to their potential paternal involvement, and also whether this cue is accurate (i.e., are facially masculine men actually less investing parents).”
“This work was primarily conducted by an MSc student, Ronja Bartlome, who was first author on the paper,” Lee noted.
The study included a sample of 259 men (with an average age of 35.04 years) who were recruited through social media advertisements and the Prolific research platform. The participants answered demographic questions and responded to various measures in a randomized order. Those who indicated they were fathers answered additional questions about their family composition, including the number and ages of their children. Out of the sample, 156 participants reported being fathers, with an average of about 10 years of age for their children.
After completing the questionnaires, participants were instructed to upload a clear facial photograph. These uploaded images were used for subsequent analyses of facial sexual dimorphism (masculinity vs. femininity).
The researchers used geometric morphometrics to calculate objective sexual dimorphism scores from the facial images. This involved extracting shape information from landmarks on each face and projecting each face onto a continuum of male and female face shapes. Higher scores indicated more male-like faces in terms of shape. Additionally, a separate group of raters (422 in total) judged the uploaded facial images for attractiveness, perceived facial masculinity, and perceived paternal involvement.
But the researchers found no significant correlation between perceived paternal involvement based on facial images and participants’ self-reported paternal involvement, indicating that judgments of paternal involvement based solely on facial information might not accurately reflect actual involvement.
“People are prone to make quick judgements about others based on their facial appearance,” Lee told PsyPost. “For men, this involves how investing they would be as a father. Our research suggests that these judgements may not always be accurate.”
Objective sexual dimorphism did not predict paternal involvement or perceived paternal involvement. Similarly, perceived facial masculinity did not predict paternal involvement or perceived paternal involvement. In short, the study did not find support for the hypotheses that facial masculinity (both objectively measured and subjectively perceived) is associated with paternal involvement or perceived paternal involvement.
However, the researchers observed a significant negative association between facial attractiveness and perceived paternal involvement. This means that the raters perceived more attractive faces as being less involved in paternal roles. There was also a significant association between facial attractiveness and the desire to be paternally involved. This finding partially supports the idea that facial attractiveness might be considered as an accurate cue to paternal involvement, at least in terms of desired involvement.
“Contrary to existing theory, we did not find that facially masculine men were less likely to be investing fathers,” Lee told PsyPost. “Interestingly, we found that facially attractive men were perceived as less involved fathers, and partial evidence suggesting that this might be true.
“One major caveat is that we focused on direct paternal care,” he added. “Indirect care, such as providing financial support, are also critical aspects of paternal investment, but are not addressed in our study. Future research should include an extended definition of paternal investment.”
The study, “Facial Attractiveness, but not Facial Masculinity, is Used as a Cue to Paternal Involvement in Fathers“, was published June 2, 2023.