How rivalries bring out the good side in tough guys

Monday 28 May 2012

Men who boast classic tough guys looks may be concealing an altruistic streak, according to new research.

A new study by psychologists at the University of St Andrews found that men with a more dishonest and aggressive appearance were more likely to sacrifice themselves in honour of close friends.

The research, led by Dr Michael Stirrat and Professor David Perrett, found that the more masculine looking men put their group first, but only when competing against others.

The study, published this week, lends greater understanding to masculinity and male group behaviour and overturns previous theories that masculine looking men are ‘bad to the bone’.

Dr Stirrat, a researcher at the School of Psychology’s Perception Lab, explained, “Dominant looking men – typically characterised by wide faces – are often portrayed as ‘bad to the bone’, but we wondered whether the relationship between facial width and personality was really so simple. We suspected that men who look aggressive and untrustworthy might actually be good guys in some contexts.”

Previous research has found that men with wide faces are judged to be aggressive and dishonest and facial masculinity is commonly associated with a perceived lack of warmth and cooperation.

The new study turns this picture around, with researchers finding the more robust-looking, wider faced men sacrificed their own needs for the benefit of the group.

The findings suggest that facial width may be related to performance and achievement because these men put more time and effort into groups of close friends and colleagues.

The results support recent research that showed that the facial width of male CEOs predicts their business performance and the facial width of male presidential candidates predicts their drive for achievement.

In the St Andrews study, the researchers gave students money to play a game in groups where they could either benefit themselves or risk their money for the benefit of the group.

Half of the students were told that the outcomes of the game would be compared with St Andrews students, the other half that they would be compared with a rival university. The prediction was that the wider faced men would respond to the rivalry in the second condition and sacrifice their money for their own group.

Dr Stirrat commented, “It was surprising that our predictions were confirmed; when we mentioned the rival university, our participants with wider faces were more cooperative than the other men. When we didn’t mention the rivalry, they were much less cooperative.”

The researchers say that compared with women, men appear to be more sensitive to intergroup relationships, especially when they are being observed.

The results suggest that while more robust males may show more ‘masculine’ behaviour in anti-social ways, such as physical aggression, they are also more likely to make sacrifices to support the groups to which they belong.

“The same characteristics in men predict both anti-social and pro-social behaviour, depending on the context,” Dr Stirrat noted.

The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.


Note to Editors

The researcher is available for interview: contact Dr Michael Stirrat on [email protected] or 07958 089 947.

To learn more about facial perception research being conducted by the researchers at the Perception Lab at the University of St Andrews, visit

Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews
Contact Gayle Cook, Senior Communications Manager, on Tel: +44 1334 467227 or email: [email protected]
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