I suspected even before the semester began that a breaching experiment might be part of my sociology course. I had already seen several students from other schools mimic one another’s breaching experiments online. I was determined to do something unique, so I grew a beard. Yesterday, I cleanly shaved half of it, starting in a straight vertical line down the middle of my face. For good measure, I shaved my scalp on that side as well. Even though I knew it was just hair, I instinctively felt ill at ease. It turns out there’s a good reason for that.
Humans value bilateral facial symmetry. We subconsciously use it to judge attractiveness and reproductive fitness in potential matesii. One study observed that women preferred facial symmetry over masculinity as a component of attractiveness. But the effects of facial symmetry aren’t just limited to the arena of mating. They can even affect your chances of landing a job.iii Would a really bad haircut affect me in similar ways?
February 3, 2013. My birthday. My family and I had a big dinner at planned at a nice restaurant. Freshly shaven, I walked out to the kitchen with only half the beard they’d finally gotten used to and started talking about our plans. My wife looked up, saw my face and looked confused for a moment, and then looked away. When she looked back, she laughed nervously and then said, “Oh, I know what this is about. This is for your Sociology class, isn’t it?” I moved in for a kiss, and she hesitated for a moment, laughing. “I guess this means we’re not going out to dinner tonight?”
My three-year-old was baffled. Also laughing, she said, “Daddy, you cut your moustache!”
“Isn’t that ok?”
“No, you look silly and ridiculous!”iv
From that point on she made a game of it. She wouldn’t look me straight in the eye, and would only kiss my bearded cheek. She insisted that I tell her bedtime story sitting sideways. It seems that even if our symmetrical preference isn’t strictly biological, the social conditioning takes root very early on. v
We were greeted at the restaurant by a small, timid, young woman who seemed an extremely unlikely candidate for the job. She looked right past me and asked my wife how many of us there would be. I tried, but I couldn’t get her to look at me. I did catch her stealing glances from around a corner later on, though.
The waitress (a different person) took our drink orders ahead of dinner and asked for our IDs. I looked straight at her, and running my fingers through the graying demi-beard at the end of my chin said, “Are you kidding me?” She smiled broadly, the kind of smile you see on someone who can’t laugh uncontrollably, but can’t run away, either. “Ha, ha! Yup, sorry!”
When she came back to take our order, my teenager asked for a full rack of ribs. My wife said, “Did you want the full rack, too?” Turning again to the waitress, I locked eyes and said, “No, I think I’ll have the half.” This was too much. As soon as she made her way around the corner, my entire family burst out laughing.
Later, I confessed to making her the unwitting subject of my little half-bearded experiment. “Oh, it wasn’t that bad,” she insisted. “I hardly noticed it at all.” But she had noticed. Of course she had. Why did she feel the need to downplay it to me, as if I had some horrible, permanent disfigurement? I suspect that it’s because the same mechanisms that automate our personal reactions to asymmetry influence our social responses to it.
That humans are compelled to seek out facial bilateral symmetry seems strongly supported in just my brief anecdotal experience. The reactions of people on the train to school the next day alone would have provided me with more than enough information to write this paper a second time. One woman put her bags down and almost sat across from me. When she saw me, she picked up her bags, turned around and made her way to another car. This happened a few times, and when someone finally did sit across from me, it seemed a final resort—the other seats were already taken. On the ride home, people stood for nearly an hour rather than take the empty seat next to me.
To be fair, I don’t think their judgment is entirely ill-founded. After all, no one would deem it wise to sit next to the crazy-looking guy when there are other options available. The fact remains, however, that I’m not actually insane, and I’m certainly not dangerous. If attribution errors are this easy to make over something as trivial as an odd beard, we might do well to reconsider the harm we inflict when we unfairly judge other people based on their appearance.
Leigh W. Simmons, Gillian Rhodes, Marianne Peters, and Nicole Koehler Are human preferences for facial symmetry focused on signals of developmental instability? Behavioral Ecology (2004) 15(5): 864-871
Robert P. Burriss, S. Craig Roberts, Lisa L. M. Welling, David A. Puts and Anthony Heterosexual Romantic Couples Mate Assortatively for Facial Symmetry, But Not Masculinity C. Little Pers Soc Psychol Bull 2011 37: 601
See her reaction on video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBmddr4hU64.
This seemed reinforced the next day when I dropped my daughter off at daycare. The other kids couldn’t stop staring. When I finally broke the silence, they were all giggles.