Bite Sized Science: Square jawed tough guy?

By Keir Liddle

The image of the rugged, wide faced, square jawed tough guy conjures up all manner of stereotypes about what kind of person they are. But how many of these hold true?

They are often seen as stoic,  lacking warmth, dishonest, and stubborn with some of these  being backed up by existing research into face morphology and personality it’s hard to escape the notion that the square jawed tough guy could be “bad to the bone”.

However University of St Andrews psychologists Michael Stirrat and David Perrett questioned this stereotype and wondered if the link between facial structure and an individuals personality and behaviour was real. Suspecting that men who look aggressive and untrustworthy might actually be good guys in some contexts.

The researchers gave University of St Andrews students money to play a game in groups where they could either benefit themselves and free-ride on the cooperation of others or they could risk their money to benefit their group. Half of the students were told that the outcomes of the game would be compared between 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.

The results of the study confirmed their hypotheses and turned the typical associations with facial width on their head: the more robust looking, wider faced men in the study were more self-sacrificing than other men. The present finding provides a more nuanced understanding of masculinity and male behaviour. Compared with women, men appear to be more sensitive to intergroup relationships and to whether they are being observed. The results of this experiment 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. In short, the same characteristics in men predict both anti-social and pro-social behaviour, depending on the context.

The research seems to highlight that we should always be wary of the biases and stereotypes we hold. These can be useful cognitive heuristics that stop our brains shutting down under an immense cognitive load but no stereotype can cover every situation and context.

As a stereotype by necessity and by design is a mental shortcut nothing more.