Preferences for Masculine or Feminine Faces May Be WEIRD

One of the critiques commonly levelled against psychology is that its samples mostly come from Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Joseph Heinrich and others published a highly cited paper in 2010 in which they found that the cross-cultural range of psychological variation was much larger than previously assumed, and that WEIRD samples are actually some of the least representative of humans in general. You cannot test a bunch of Yale sophomores and make conclusions about the universal human condition, as it turns out. A bunch of cross-cultural psychology work ensued. Here’s a highlight from Scott et al. 2014:

“A large literature proposes that preferences for exaggerated sex typicality in human faces (masculinity/femininity) reflect a long evolutionary history of sexual and social selection. This proposal implies that dimorphism was important to judgments of attractiveness and personality in ancestral environments. It is difficult to evaluate, however, because most available data come from large-scale, industrialized, urban populations. Here, we report the results for 12 populations with very diverse levels of economic development. Surprisingly, preferences for exaggerated sex-specific traits are only found in the novel, highly developed environments. Similarly, perceptions that masculine males look aggressive increase strongly with development and, specifically, urbanization. These data challenge the hypothesis that facial dimorphism was an important ancestral signal of heritable mate value. One possibility is that highly developed environments provide novel opportunities to discern relationships between facial traits and behavior by exposing individuals to large numbers of unfamiliar faces, revealing patterns too subtle to detect with smaller samples.”

I take this to mean that in the ancestral environment, it may well have been the case that more masculine men made better mates, but the sample size of men that the average woman had observations of was so small that she couldn’t make the inference. And vice versa for femininity. A number of books have given me the general picture that humans’ preferences and dispositions (for instance, boys’ preferences for rough and tumble play) are mostly genetic and don’t result from social conditioning. Explanations like this, that appeal to the group dynamics of interacting with many more people than we did as hunter-gatherers, seem more convincing to me.

2 thoughts on “Preferences for Masculine or Feminine Faces May Be WEIRD

  1. Hi Sam, great start to the blog. it sounds like you saying that preferences for sexual dimorphism are learned rather than innate, which sounds pretty counterintuitive to me. Wouldn’t such a preference be evolved and be part of our intuition, if it had validity to it as a marker of fitness? it seems unacceptably inefficient to have to learn and rediscover this each time as an individual member of the species.


    1. Hello Gytis! Yes, I am saying that *some* of the preference for facial sexual dimorphism is learned, which was counterintuitive to me also. It’s worth mentioning that the authors give other possible explanations in their discussion section: for instance, that testosterone is higher in industrialised societies (!) due to the reduction in stressors, so facial dimorphism is greater, which leads to women preferring masculine faces. But they certainly seem to be hinting at the possibility that, in small-scale societies, people would have a fitness advantage if they had observed a large sample size of men and women to learn the association between masculinity/femininity and fitness, but that this advantage isn’t so great that it outweighs the difficulty of having more sophisticated masculinity-and-feminity detection.


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