Attractive persuasion of the rare beard

Attention all men who grow beards. You’re cramping my style.

Science backs me up on this. It’s something called “negative frequency dependency”. It means that I, who have a beard, am more likely to maintain my attractive edge if everyone else stays clean-shaven.

Negative frequency dependency is an evolutionary genetics term to describe how rare traits earn more advantages than common traits. Not that I’m an expert in evolutionary genetics. Nope, I’m just a guy with a beard.

It’s not even a particularly beardy beard. It’s what I’d call a snug fit.

I know quite a few guys with similar snug-fit beards. According to negative frequency dependency, the closer I stand to any of them, the less attractive I’ll get because we cancel each other out.

I can stand next to my bearded friend Ben, though. His beard is what I’d call a supernova. It’s an unruly marvel that I like to imagine harbours sage wisdom and magical secrets.

There’s enough variation between our two beards to keep us both competitively attractive, each in our own way.

I’m not making this up. It’s science, straight out of a paper published last month by Rob Brooks and his fellow biologists from the University of New South Wales. Their paper is wonderfully titled ‘Negative frequency-dependent preferences and variation in male facial hair.’

Quite a mouthful. My non-scientist translation is: ‘Why beard fashions come and go.”

The paper describes a simple experiment in which people were shown pictures of men in various states of facial hairiness and asked to rate the attractiveness of each.

The experimenters concluded that a beard is perceived to be more attractive if there are fewer beards around. A rare beard is better. Conversely, so is a rare close shave.

To stay ahead of the attractive curve, all I have to do is make sure my facial hair is doing something different to the other facial hair in the room.

How helpful is this to me? Well, not very. I’m hardly going to launch into a frantic cycle of shaving and growing just to maintain a theoretical level of perceived attractiveness.

More importantly I don’t need to, because everything on the home front is just fine, thanks.

It was my wife who encouraged me to grow my beard in the first place. One morning she suggested I not shave my long weekend’s worth of stubble. I didn’t much like this idea. It was Monday. You should never launch a beard-growing campaign on a Monday.

But she was persistent and for a moment there I actually convinced myself that I had turned into the Wolverine.

The delusion was promptly shattered when I got to work. Negative frequency dependency will do that to you. There was no stubble to compete with me at home.

Growing a beard is a terrifying process. The old “I forgot to shave” excuse fools no one. People know exactly what you’re up to and they all wonder why.

Some guys are able to treat their faces like living canvases, sculpting and changing their facial hair from month to month. That’s never been me. I’d been mostly clean-shaven my whole life, so the sudden appearance of my fledgling beard was disconcerting for everyone, myself included.

I have to admit though, it grew on me. Three years later I still rather like it, and so does my wife. With that in mind, I take back what I said about bearded men cramping my style. Science has some good theories about attraction but a wife can be even more convincing.

 

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 16 May 2014. Reproduced with permission.

 

Ministry of Ideas cover