Can you trust a handsome man’s face?

Lucia F. O'Sullivan, Ph.D.

Researchers have found that men with very masculine faces (prominent brow, cheekbone and jaws, face height and inner face breadth) tend to be perceived by women as low quality romantic partners, that is, less trustworthy and committed (compared to those with less masculine faces).  Women generally find high masculine faces to be more attractive (Buckingham et al., 2006) (especially women in a high fertile phase of their menstrual cycle!), although there are occasions when men with low masculine faces are preferred (Swaddle & Reierson, 2003).

But preferences may vary depending on whether women are judging men for a short-term fling or a long-term partnership. And most past research has examined perceived partner value in a very narrow fashion—using only one or two items. Yet value of a relationship partner is complex. For example, women make judgments of a man’s value as a romantic partner based on their view of his romantic past.

Ashley Thompson and Lucia O’Sullivan had 201 pre-menopausal women (18-45 years) complete an online survey assessing preferences of men’s faces.  Photographs of men with the highest facial masculinity ratings and those with the lowest were used.  Women rated each man in terms of their perceptions of his masculinity, attractiveness, trustworthiness, quality as a parent, level of past romantic experience, speed he would fall in love, and preference for each as a short-term or long-term partner.

Men with high facial masculinity were rated as more desirable as both short-term and long-term partners than were those with low facial masculinity. However, they perceived that men with high facial masculinity would take longer to fall in love and would have more previous romantic partners than would men with low facial masculinity. They did not differ in their ratings of the two groups of men in terms of trustworthiness and parental quality.

In essence, men with an extensive dating history may be judged as more desirable as partners because they have been “vetted” as good catches by other women. Another study with Sarah Vannier found that women judging the attractiveness of men rated photos of those who were labeled as ‘in a relationship’ as more attractive than they rated those men labeled as ‘single.’

Alternately, women may desire men with higher facial masculinity (for short- or long-term relationships) simply because they find them more physically attractive—and that might be a primary sort feature for women choosing men. Perhaps not a surprise overall.