Only developed societies prefer highly masculine men and feminine women

Published: Wednesday 24 September 2014
Only developed societies prefer highly masculine men and feminine women
Research suggests that preferences for highly masculine men and feminine women may emerge only in highly developed environments

New research by a team of psychologists, anthropologists and biologists led by Brunel University London suggests that preferences for highly masculine men and feminine women may emerge only in highly developed environments.

It’s a popular assumption that certain perceptions - for example, that highly feminine women are attractive, or that masculine men are aggressive - reflect evolutionary processes operating within ancestral human populations.

But the new study, which surveyed 12 populations around the world of varying economic development, shows that these preferences for exaggerated sex-specific traits were found only in the highly developed environments.

Lecturer in psychology at Brunel University London, Andrew Clark, said: “We digitally morphed masculine and feminine faces from photographs of people to find out what choices people from small-scale societies made.

“We found that they didn’t place the same emphasis on ‘sex typicality’, that is, on highly feminine women and highly masculine men. In fact, they often favoured the neutral face, and sometimes the least “sex-typical” one.”

The team also found that the perception that masculine males appear aggressive increased with urbanisation.

A total of 962 participants were shown sets of three opposite-sex composite and digitally manipulated photos. For each set of photographs, representing five different ethnic groups, participants were asked which face was most attractive and which appeared most aggressive.

“This data challenges the theory that exaggerated sex-specific traits were important for social and sexual selection in ancestral environments,” added Dr Clark.

“Preferences for sex typical faces are a novel phenomenon of modern environments. It’s probably not a consistent thread in human history.”

The team suggest that highly developed environments with large, dense populations may have exposed individuals to a greater range of unfamiliar faces, providing the opportunity - and perhaps motive - to discover subtle relationships between facial traits and behaviour.

The paper ‘Human preferences for sexually dimorphic faces may be evolutionarily novel‘ is available here: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2014/09/19/1409643111

Page last updated: Friday 26 September 2014