Does sexual dimorphism in human faces signal health?

Gillian Rhodes, Janelle Chan, Leslie A. Zebrowitz, Leigh W. Simmons

Abstract

Evolutionary psychologists suggest that a preference for sexually dimorphic traits in human faces is an adaptation for mate choice, because such traits reflect health during development. For male faces, this claim rests on the immunocompetence-handicap hypothesis, which states that the increased testosterone levels needed to develop large masculine traits stress the immune system. We examined whether masculine traits in adolescent male faces are associated with health during development, and also whether feminine traits in adolescent female faces signal health. Feminine traits are attractive, but it is less clear whether they should signal health. Rated masculinity in adolescent male faces correlated modestly with actual health, and was perceived as healthy, but not as attractive. Rated femininity in adolescent female faces did not correlate with actual health, although it was perceived as healthy and attractive. These results support the immunocompetence-handicap hypothesis for male faces in that masculine traits signalled health during adolescence. However, they suggest that any health-related evolutionary benefits obtained from preferences for attractive facial traits may be weak.

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