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What’s in a beard?
When it comes to the relationship between perceived personality and facial hair, beards matter — and the
effects are mainly negative. Therefore, a shaven Santa would be much better. — Wiseman

Generous, cheerful and caring. These are the qualities we associate with Father Christmas, but we might have to think again. Research has shown that the jolly fat man is in desperate need of a makeover if his charitable image is to persist into the 21st century.

One can trace the famous growth back to iconic images of Saint Nicholas of Myra (circa 270-343), the primary inspiration for the Christian figure of Father Christmas. Billowing, white and luxuriant, it has been tugged by countless children and stroked endlessly by its owner as he ponders who has been good, who has been bad and just how to deliver all those presents.

But now, after analysing more than 5,000 results from an online experiment, Prof. Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire in the UK has come to a radical conclusion: the beard should go, because those bristles send out unseasonal signals. Participants in the study were asked to judge three faces on several qualities, including intelligence, cheerfulness and generosity. Although they did not realise it, they were being probed on their attitudes to facial hair.

Wiseman discovered that beards have a huge effect on how people are seen. When compared with the clean-shaven, those sporting white beards are seen as less generous (by 28 per cent), cheerful (39 per cent) and caring (29 per cent). “When it comes to the relationship between perceived personality and facial hair, beards matter — and the effects are mainly negative,” says Wiseman. Therefore, a shaven Santa “would be much better”.

The findings build on a surprising amount of basic research relevant to Santa’s beard. Scientists have even looked at the most basic question of all: does facial hair obscure our ability to communicate emotions to others?

Research by Dr Mark Changizi of America’s Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has suggested that we may have evolved our particular brand of colour vision to discriminate between slight changes in skin tone due to blushing, rage and blanching.

A survey of our primate relatives suggests that this kind of vision is only found in those with bare faces, such as humans, and is tuned precisely to detect changes in skin tone.

But even a beard as luxuriant as Santa’s should not hinder his ability to send out a colour signal, such as a healthy glow. After all, says Dr Changizi, we could have evolved to sprout hair anywhere — for example, on the cheeks, forehead and nose, which are the first areas to go red.

“But facial hair doesn’t end up there,” he points out. “You can really appreciate what beards don’t do by looking at men with the condition of hypertrichosis, when their faces are covered with hair. “In terms of Father Christmas, note how the songs mention his rosy cheeks. Even Santa can colour-signal, despite his facial hair, because evolution has made sure that his beard and moustache got out of the way.”

What other signals could Santa’s beard send? As Wiseman points out, throughout history men with facial hair have been thought to possess wisdom, sexual virility or high status.

A famous 1973 study by the psychologist Robert Pellegrini investigated the effects of facial hair on perceived personality, using eight young men with full beards who were happy to have them gradually removed in the name of science. “There was a positive relationship between the amount of beard, and adjectives such as masculine, mature, dominant, self-confident and courageous,” reveals Wiseman.

But there have been some worrying signs that beards are sending out a sinister sign. Recent surveys show that more than half of the Western public believe clean-shaven men to be more honest than those with facial hair.

“Apparently, beards conjure up images of diabolical intent, concealment and poor hygiene,” says Wiseman.

“Although there is absolutely no relationship between honesty and facial hair, the stereotype is powerful enough to affect the world — perhaps explaining why everyone on the Forbes 100 list of the world’s richest men is clean-shaven, and why no successful candidate for the American presidency has had a beard or moustache since 1910.”

But at least there was one consolation for Father Christmas in the survey — if we distrust those with white beards, the effect is even worse for those who have not gone grey. People with dark beards are seen as far less generous (a drop of 38 per cent), cheerful (51 per cent) and caring (36 per cent).

There was one other surprise: the beard has no effect in terms of perceived intelligence, undermining the stereotype of the clever beardie established by famously hirsute thinkers such as Hippocrates, Pasteur, Freud and Darwin.

This shows that most people are unaware of a striking correlation between possessing a flowing beard and being a professor, as described by a study in the Pharmaceutical Journal.

Inspired by her “impressively hairy” supervisor, Sarah Carter, of the Centre for Applied Science in Pharmacy at the University of London, studied whether facial furniture influences future academic status with fellow doctoral student Kristina Åström.

Their survey of almost 1,800 male academics revealed that senior staff are more likely to be shaggy, with professors being twice as likely to be bristly as lecturers. While 10.5 per cent of lecturers had beards, the figures rose to 13.6 per cent for senior lecturers, 16.7 per cent for readers and 21.4 per cent for professors. The researchers extrapolated this finding to speculate that Father Christmas may have impressive academic credentials.

But for me, the discovery that Santa’s extravagant beard could signal that he is smart came as no surprise. Beard or no beard, he deserves a Nobel Prize.

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