The less popular beards are in society, the more attractive they appear to women, according to a new study, the results of which could also go some way to explain why fashions change.
"When a fashion goes mainstream it loses the advantage of rarity. And so it begins to subside," one of the authors of the research wrote on the academic news site The Conversation. "Innovative new styles," he said, "may enjoy a premium while they are still rare."
This means as the lumberjack look becomes increasingly conventional, it may be time for a shave. Beards are sexy only before they are cool, is the implication.
Looking the odd one out may seem like a recipe for mating disaster, but researchers say it often makes one more attractive.
Researchers in Australia, led by Barnaby Dixson of the University of New South Wales, showed women sets of pictures of men — clean-shaven, with stubble or bearded — and had them rate the men's attractiveness.
The results were published Wednesday in the scientific journal Biology Letters.
Men with beards scored better when they were surrounded by clean-shaved faces, and vice versa, the study found.
"In some cases, rarity in ornamentation can be advantageous," said the paper, which may explain a puzzle of evolutionary science.
Under the theory of sexual selection, female animals choose mates with desirable features, which are often "advertised" through adornments such as colorful tail feathers in peacocks.
Logically, these sought-after features should eventually dominate the gene pool and less desirable variations should be weeded out. But this is not the case.
Instead, genetic variations are perpetuated across generations specifically because they give a survival edge with combinations of "good genes," compared with the mainstream.
Scientists have long been baffled by the apparent contradiction, but they now believe rarity of features, scientifically termed "negative frequency-dependent selection," may explain some of it.
In guppies, fish that have the most unusual color patterns have the most mating success — and they also happen to live the longest.
Researchers have now turned to the question of how the theory applies to humans.
Past studies have suggested that hair color variation spread through Europe on the back of such "novelty" selection, and that men's preference for brown hair increases when it is rare.
Other work has pointed to men's preferences for unfamiliar female faces that, to them, look "exotic."
The new research builds on this, giving a clearer idea of the value in being the odd one out.
It also highlights the advantages of being able to manipulate one's look.
"If men tailored their grooming in order to be distinctive ... that could confer an advantage to rare-beard styles that would decay as a style grew more popular," said the study.
This could explain why fashions keep changing.
Novelty styles boost the chance of reproductive success because they stand out. Conformists then mimic these "influential early adopters," which eventually leads to new rebels emerging in a cycle of change.
Bearded gentlemen can take solace in an earlier study, however. Dwight Robinson, a sociologist at the University of Washington, analyzed the history of men's facial hair and found that the last major popularity upswing of beards, which started in about 1850, lasted about 50 years and that beards didn't fall totally out of favor until 1956, suggesting that the current pogonophilia, or love of beards, may be here for a long while.
Al Jazeera and AFP
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