Think of the stereotypical tough guy: broad-faced, square-jawed, uber-macho. Research even bears out this convention, linking wider, more masculine faces with characteristics like dishonesty, lack of cooperation and perceived lack of warmth.
But a new study challenges the notion that wide-faced men are always the bad guys, finding that in certain situations, they’re actually the most self-sacrificing of the bunch.
For the study, researchers from the Perception Lab at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland gave 54 male students money to play a game in groups. Each man was given £3 to play with — they could either keep the endowment to themselves, or invest as much as they wished in the group. The participants were told that if the group as a whole invested more than £12, then each member would lose his initial investment, but receive a £5 return. If the group failed to meet the £12 minimum, then each man could lose his investment without any return.
So, basically, the participants could either benefit themselves by taking a free ride on the cooperation of others or they could risk their own money to benefit the group as a whole. To mix things up, the researchers told half the men that the performance of their group would be compared to another group of University of St. Andrews students; the other half was told their group’s outcome would be compared to that of a group from a rival university.
Researchers hypothesized that the wider-faced men would actually be more likely to sacrifice their own funds in the second context — in the competition with the rival school. They were right: men with wider, more masculine faces were more likely to cooperate with their group when victory over a rival group was at stake; but in the situation with no such rivalry, wider-faced men were less likely to sacrifice than the other men.
“This experiment shows that more dominant males, identified by high facial width-to-height ratio, are significantly more self-sacrificing than less dominant males under conditions of group competition,” the authors write. It is thought that high facial width-to-height ratio is an indicator of higher levels of testosterone and a marker of “masculine” tendencies like aggression.
The findings offer a more nuanced understanding of masculinity and male behavior, the authors say. More so than women, for instance, men appear to be particularly sensitive to intergroup relationships, and to whether they are being observed or judged. So while macho guys may be more likely to behave antisocially or aggressively than other men in some situations, they may also be more likely to make sacrifices to benefit their group in others — namely, when their group is in competition with another.
“We seem to think that dominant looking men are difficult and aggressive, but maybe there are contexts where we trust them implicitly. We might be right to do so as well” — at least if you’re in the same group, and not an outsider — says study author Michael Stirrat, a psychologist at the Perception Lab. He adds: “We rely on the snap judgments of others we make in many social contexts and there is always an interplay between how we judge the character of the person, the social context and what we want to happen.”
The authors note that the findings are particularly interesting when cast against other data showing that wider-faced male CEOs perform better and that facial width of male presidential candidates predicts their drive for success. Perhaps the width of a man’s face correlates with performance and achievement because broader-faced men tend to sacrifice more for the good of their group.
Stirrat plans to continue researching how facial characteristics relate to leadership behavior, trust and cooperation within small groups that are either competing with other groups or that share a common identity.
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.