Manly Faces and Aggressive Men

What can you learn from that appealing look of testosterone?
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anneliekeB/flickr

The men featured are young. Most are white. Many have tousled hair, a couple sport grizzly beards, and a few are tattooed. As a rule, the men are good-looking. Their cheekbones would make Derek Zoolander proud, but the models are not sitting for their "Blue Steel" close-ups. They are all posing for their mug shots. They are all under arrest.

The existence of hotandbusted.tumblr.com—recently featured on BuzzFeed as "13 Mugshots of the Hottest Guys Ever Arrested"—undermines the popular notion that criminals are usually unfortunate-looking. When browsing the website's thumbnails, one is struck by a pattern, not of warty asymmetry, but of strong chins.

Scientists have tried to decipher why that pattern exists—to unlock the evolutionary meaning of face shape. Their research suggests "roguish good looks" are actually a cluster of physical characteristics, from wider faces to longer ring fingers.

Undergirding all of this is the influence of testosterone. Facial width and finger ratio have been proposed as proxies for testosterone levels, and both have been used predict to antisocial behaviors ranging from cheating in games to verbal and physical aggression—just the kind of mischief that landed our Tumblr sweethearts a late-night date with the sheriff.

Being hot and busted, then, goes hand-in-hand with masculinity. But why might good looks be packaged with a nasty temper?   

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A sample of faces on Hot & Busted (hotandbusted.tumblr.com)

Evolutionary theorists know that costs (in this instance, anti-social behavior) can obscure hidden benefits. Women prefer men with faces that are more masculine—i.e., more testosterone-inflected—than average, at least for sexual relationships. If these are the same men that are so prone to troublemaking, why would they be worth the worry—why are women attracted to them at all?

Some scientists believe that, like a peacock's tail, more masculine faces signal underlying genetic strength. Presumably, these strong men are better able to get what they want—food, women, status—through aggression. Direct confrontation was historically a winning strategy, triggering coevolution of a psychological makeup that encouraged confrontation. Today we rely on social institutions to resolve conflict, but aggression continues to accompany masculinity.

Genes are famously selfish; evolution acts at the level of the gene, not the group. All things equal, anti-social traits will persist so long as they provide their owners a reproductive advantage. Consider not just the bedroom but also the boardroom, where dominant, masculine physical characteristics are still privileged over merit.

We can even relate the results of the 2004 U.S. presidential election in part to face shape. Voters prefer leaders with more masculine features during times of belligerence. With the Iraq War freshly launched, citizens weren't about to hand control over to John Kerry and his longer, more cerebral face.

Should voting guides include facial breakdowns so that citizens can recognize their own biases? Perhaps, but the affinity for manly faces is built-in for both sexes, so the theoretical voter’s guide would also have to mention that hostile world leaders might be more likely to capitulate to dominant-faced presidents. A threat delivered by Sly Stallone seems—and probably is—more credible than one from Steve Carrell.

Returning to our rowdy heartthrobs—will the NYPD start profiling based on face-width instead of race? Perhaps the police could station female officers at street corners to frisk approaching hot dudes? Luckily, we will probably avoid this porny dystopia. No scientist would testify on behalf of such a program because biology does not equal destiny. Inclination is not action. Genes are neither a promise of reproductive success nor a guarantor of bad behavior. Masculinity may be carried into the present by genetic inertia, but its merit—like any evolved trait—is mediated by our choices, and by the world around us.

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Hayden Higgins does strategy research at National Journal.

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