Aggressor or protector?

Tuesday 28 March 2017


Women who think that men are dangerous to their children prefer less masculine male faces, according to new research from the University of St Andrews.

The study, carried out by scientists at the University’s School of Psychology and Neuroscience Perception Lab, found that the more women agree with the statement “men are dangerous to their children”, the more they preferred feminine male partners.

The work, published this week by the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, is the first to find that women’s face preferences are influenced by experiences and perceptions of violence.

The study measured the preferences of men and women from the capital city of Colombia, Bogota, and surrounding small towns and also asked them several questions related to health, access to media, education, and exposure to violence.

Colombia was chosen as the test site because it is one of the most violent nations in the world; in 2012, its homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants was 30.8 compared to 1.0 in the UK.

The research was carried out by scientists Martha Lucia Borras-Guevara, Dr Carlota Batres and Professor David Perrett.

Martha Lucia Borras-Guevara, who led the research, said: “We found that men and women who strongly believed that men are dangerous to their children preferred less masculine male faces, although this effect was only significant for women.”

“We might have only found a significant effect for women’s preferences since women, relative to men, invest more time and energy in their offspring, hence there would be a strong selective pressure to recognise any facial cues in men that relate to a violent or dangerous disposition.”

Previous studies have suggested that masculine men may be effective protectors for women when they feel at risk. However, these studies have ignored the fact that when women prefer a more masculine man, they may also put themselves at risk of increased antagonistic behaviours in the context of a romantic relationship.

Dr Carlota Batres said: “More masculine men have been found to be more aggressive and therefore, in places where partner violence is high, women would benefit from preferring more feminine male partners.”

The study also found that thinking that men are dangerous to their children explained significantly more of the variation in women’s masculinity preferences than education, health, and access to media.

Professor David Perrett, who runs the Perception Lab, said: “These findings hint at different effects of domestic violence and/or violence outside the home on masculinity preferences. Moreover, these preferences may reflect women’s strategy to avoid male violence, demonstrating that exposure to violence influences who we find attractive.”

Notes to news editors

The paper ‘Aggressor or protector? Experiences and perceptions of violence predict preferences for masculinity’ is published by the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

Image caption: Men’s facial averages (25 faces, average age 25, from Bogota and nearby towns): (left) Colombian, (centre) rural Salvadoran and (right) European.

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office, contactable on 01334 467310/2530 or [email protected].

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