Humans are experts in perceiving information from faces. Our attention to, and preference for, faces is evident from the earliest phases of development. Immediately after birth, infants prefer to look at ‘face-like’ shapes. As adults, we use facial features to make judgements about others. A big smile tells us they’re happy, a strong jaw tells us they’re athletic – but how we come to associate these traits is unknown.
Scientists going all the way back to Charles Darwin have pondered the purpose of beards. Darwin thought beards might somehow help men charm the opposite sex. Scientific research on beards is lacking, but generally beards appear to signal messages of dominance and strength, at least among adults. Research shows that women of child-bearing age, especially women with children, perceive bearded men as better potential fathers.
In an effort to understand how these perceptions of prototypical ‘masculinity’ develop - my colleagues and I were interested in how children view beards. We tested this in ~500 children ranging in age from toddlers to teenagers. We showed them side-by-side photos of men sporting a beard and then that same man, clean-shaven. We asked children, ‘Which man looks stronger?’ ‘Which man looks older?’ ‘Which man looks best?'”
We found that, like adults, even two-year-olds think beards make you look stronger, older, and more masculine. But when asked which face looked “best,” children overwhelmingly avoided the bearded men.
Importantly, experience plays a big role. Children with bearded dads view beards more positively than children without. So, your child will like your face however you have it, whether it's bearded, stubbly or clean. A happy Father's Day to everyone this weekend!
References: Nelson, Kennedy-Costantini, Lee & Dixson (2019); Dixson, Kennedy-Costantini, Lee & Nelson (2019); Mondloch et al (1999)