Has Science Explained Why Hipsters Grow Beards? Well, No. | Vol. 2 / No. 22.1

One of my favourite hipster beards, the one belonging to Woodkid. Photo: Flickr user Birte Fritsch, CC BY 2.0
One of my favourite hipster beards, the one belonging to Woodkid. Photo: Flickr user Birte Fritsch, CC BY 2.0

In this week’s #SkepticalTuesday post, I take a look at whether science has cracked the case of hipsters and beards. TL;DR — not so much.


So this week the Telegraph (yeah, I know, I know) decided to let the world know that, as you might have guessed from the title of this post, “Science explains why hipsters grow beards.” Much as you’d expect, however, it doesn’t do anything of the sort, and it doesn’t take a degree in evolutionary biology to explain why. In fact, all it takes is a copy of the new study out this month in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, and a little reading time.

If you don’t have a copy, I’ll explain what the study says. Written by Cyril Grueter, Karin Isler, and Barnaby Dixon, and titled “Are badges of status adaptive in large complex primate groups?” the study looked at 154 species of primates that exhibit conspicuous ornamental sexual dimorphism (the males and females look markedly different, with the males having flashy but maybe not terribly functional differences, things like beards for instance, or enormous noses), and found that, even when they controlled for other variables, there seemed to be a correlation between greater ornamental sexual dimorphism and greater sizes of the groups of these primates. That is to say, when there’s more males around, markers of difference become more pronounced.

That’s an interesting finding. But it’s not what’s being reported. Even phys.org wanders off the purpose of the study:

In their paper, the authors argue that the popularity of moustaches and beards among British men from 1842 -1971 rose when there were more males in the marriage pool and beards were judged to be more attractive.

No, they don’t argue it. Aside from the fact that it’s Nigel Barber that argued that in 2001, arguing would involve some kind of support (which is what they do for the real point of their paper) about badges of status in large primate groups. No, when it comes to human beards, the authors don’t so much argue it as mention it offhand in a couple of buried paragraphs, supporting it with a sentence that begins with the word “interestingly.” As in, “this is interesting, and we’d love to say more, but we don’t have the evidence to back it up.” Take a look.

Berglund, Bisazza, and Pilastro (1996) proposed that male–male competition is a stronger selective force acting on male ornaments than female choice, which may have emerged as a secondary selective factor. A similar argument has also been made for how sexual selection has shaped men’s secondary sexual traits (Puts, 2010). While men lack the pronounced canines that characterize high levels of male–male competition in other primates (Plavcan, 2012), sexual dimorphism in muscularity, craniofacial shape, and beards could play analogous roles in same-sex competition as signals of dominance that secondarily influence attractiveness (Dixson et al., 2014, Puts, 2010 and Scott et al., 2013). Thus, beards receive higher ratings for facial aggressiveness, age, masculinity, and social dominance, but not attractiveness compared with clean-shaven faces (Dixson and Brooks, 2013, Dixson et al., 2013, Dixson and Vasey, 2012, Muscarella and Cunningham, 1996 and Neave and Shields, 2008). While male patterned baldness may also lower men’s attractiveness, it augments ratings of men’s age, masculinity, and aspects of non-threatening social dominance (Muscarella & Cunningham, 1996). Although beards and baldness do not aid directly in fighting, they could signal of masculinity, age, and dominance that curtail agonistic interactions from escalating into costly fights. Success in intra-sexual competition can determine detection rates of high quality mates and result in direct benefits such as resources and territory quality (Wong & Candolin, 2005). Among Hadza hunter-gatherers, men with physically stronger upper-bodies had greater reproductive success and were most likely to be nominated as better hunters by women (Apicella, 2014). Thus, like male nonhuman primates men’s secondary sexual traits may have evolved primarily under intra-sexual selection and secondarily influence their attractiveness to women.

The origins of human social organizations likely reflect more closely those found in contemporary hunter–gather societies, wherein social networks were comprised of closely related kin and individual recognition of group members was high (Apicella, Marlowe, Fowler, & Christakis, 2012). However, the pronounced social integration within contemporary societies (Grueter & White, in press) coupled with their larger group sizes and greater ‘anonymity’ (Moffett, 2013), may also act as a strong selective force for the display of male ornaments associated with age, dominance and attractiveness. For example, while beards are androgen-dependent secondary sexual traits, their signalling is strongly culturally determined (Reynolds, 1949) and subject to temporal variation (Barber, 2001). Interestingly, the popularity of styles of moustaches and beardedness among British men from 1842 to 1971 rose when there were more males in potential marriage pool (Barber, 2001), and beards are judged to be more attractive when beards are rare relative to clean-shaven faces (Janif, Brooks, & Dixson, 2014). Cultural cues of intra-sexual status may also aid in the recognition of allies, indicate group membership, and delineate a parochial group against out-groups (McElreath, Boyd, & Richerson, 2003; Moffett, 2013). Future research exploring how variation in social cues of status predicts male attractiveness cross-culturally would be valuable. [emphases mine]

The first paragraph is about how male-male competition might have shaped what beards ‘mean’ (my term, not theirs) in human societies, and from that ‘meaning’ (masculinity? social dominance?) women might have selected men with them. The second paragraph says that despite the fact that the development of the beard doesn’t really fit their model because of the social networks in early human societies, in today’s world the fact that there are so many of us might act as a selective force for growing a conspicuous beard. Then they throw out that line about beards being popular during the period 1842-1971 “when there were more males in the marriage pool,” and we’re left to make inferences that they aren’t comfortable committing to paper. And for good reason.

The numbers of mays and coulds pops out as a sure sign of lacking data, I’ve already mentioned the significance of the word “interestingly,” and when you add the “future research… would be valuable” bit it all sums up to one thing: the authors would love to be able to tell you about why men have beards, but they can’t.

But they do cite some interesting previous studies. The 2001 study by Nigel Barber in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, “Mustache fashion covaries with a good marriage market for women,” argues that men grow facial hair when they have a hard time finding a spouse, and then shave again when “illegitimacy ratios” are high (i.e. when having another woman on the side becomes more common). The 2014 article by Zinnia Janif, Robert Brooks, and Barnaby Dixon in the journal Biology Letters, “Negative frequency-dependent preferences and variation in male facial hair,” finds that people find beards better looking when fewer people have them, and vice-versa. Unfortunately neither of these studies is enough to pin down just why men grow beards, or to prove that people are growing more beards today because “guys are under pressure.” And it’s pretty simple to see why.

Humans — modern humans especially — are incredibly complex social animals. Why one man grows a beard may be as simple as he feels like it. Or he thinks women will find it attractive. Or he thinks men will find it attractive. Or his face gets sore when he shaves. Or he likes the aesthetic. Or he wants to be part of a social in-group. Or he wants to set himself apart from a given social group. Maybe he shaves because the man or woman he’s with doesn’t like the feel of it when they kiss, or maybe he grows one because his partner thinks it looks sexy. What’s considered generally attractive shifts temporally, like fashion, and not always for easily understood ways. It’s as much an anthropological, sociological, and psychological question as an evolutionary one. And the people who wrote the study knew it — that’s why they cited studies about so many of these things.

So no, the study doesn’t explain why hipsters grow beards, or why non-hipsters do, or why anyone doesn’t. It’s not even really trying to. But it does point out that in large populations of nonhuman primates, ornamental markers of maleness are more prevalent. And that’s about as much as I, and the authors, are really willing to commit to.


Richard Ford Burley is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s writing about remix culture and the processes that generate texts in the Middle Ages and on the internet. He was recently saved from a promising career as a hikikomori by a brilliant renaissance woman who swept him off his feet, and now he lives with her and their completely mental cat in Brighton.