There is apparently a widely held belief that facial masculinity can reliably indicate whether a man will be more or less involved as a parent. According to this view, men with more masculine features are regarded as “healthier” but potentially less likely to be involved as a parent, while men with feminine faces are likely to stick around more. However, a new study blows a hole in this belief as it finds no significant relationship between facial masculinity and self-reported paternal involvement or perceived involvement.
Where did this idea come from? Well for some time there has been a view that a man’s face can indicate whether they are healthy or not. Facial sexual dimorphism, the masculinity of a male face, has been associated with health and overall disease resistance, which has made researchers believe that women should show a preference for men with more masculine faces. But other research has shown mixed results for how women judge a potential partner based on their faces. According to some studies, women prefer men with masculine faces, while others prefer faces with more average features or even faces that are significantly more feminine.
These mixed results have led some to suggest there are costs associated with choosing a man with more masculine features. This is because these men have tended to report higher rates of infidelity and interest in short-term relationships. In contrast, men with feminine faces are thought to be preferred by women seeking a partner who will be invested in parenting. The implicit assumption here is that men with masculine faces may be healthier but make poor parents when compared to feminine-faced men.
But what does the evidence say? In short, not a lot, according to the new study conducted primarily by Ronja Bartlome, an MSc student at the University of Stirling, Scotland, and Dr Anthony Lee, a lecturer in the division of psychology at the same university.
“A common stereotype is that masculine men are less involved fathers,” Lee told PsyPost. “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).”
In order to study this, Bartlome recruited 259 men (156 of which were fathers) through social media advertisements and the Prolific research platform. These men were then asked to self-report their paternal involvement. Those who identified themselves as fathers were then given some additional questions about their families, including the ages and numbers of children they had. Facial images were then rated by a separate group who assessed them on their overall masculinity, attractiveness, and perceived paternal interest.
Geometric morphometrics, a statistical approach for studying shape, was also used to calculate the shape sexual dimorphism of the images. With this approach, landmarks on each face are selected and then projected onto a continuum of faces that went from male to female. The higher a face scored, the more male-like it was thought to be.
The results showed that there was no significant correlation between how an individual reported their paternal involvement and how others perceived their involvement to be based on these images alone. This indicates that facial masculinity on its own is not a reliable way to judge a man’s potential parental involvement.
However, the study did find a significant negative association between a person’s attractiveness and their perceived paternal involvement. In essence, the team responsible for rating men’s faces believed attractive men were less likely to be involved with their children. Interestingly, there was also a significant association between men with more attractive faces and their desire to be an involved parent.
“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.”
While the study did focus on direct paternal care, it did not examine indirect versions, such as providing financial support. This is also regarded as a critical form of parental investment, so future work will need to examine this more closely.
The study is published in the journal Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology.