Do prevailing environmental factors influence human preferences for facial morphology?

Barnaby Jw Dixson, Anthony C. Little, Henry Gw Dixson, Robert C. Brooks

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Citations (SciVal)


Prevailing environmental factors influence preferences for attractive traits across many species. In humans, debate surrounds the role of environmental pathogens and economic development in determining facial attractiveness. We tested whether women and men's preferences for facial dimorphism, symmetry, skin tone, and adiposity differ among Melanesian participants from 3 islands (Espiritu Santo, Efate, and Tanna) in Vanuatu in the South West Pacific. These islands vary in their historical malarial pathogens respectively from pronounced to almost absent and are characterized by within and between island differences in economic development, ranging from urbanized market-based economies to remote rural horticultural communities. We found no support for the hypothesis that masculine male faces or feminine female faces are more attractive in environments with higher exposure to malarial pathogens or urban development. However, preferences for facial symmetry were highest in islands with higher malarial rates, possibly as symmetry indicates health and guides mate selection in disease rich environments. However, past evidence linking symmetry and health is weak, and we therefore interpret our findings cautiously. Women from peri-urban communities preferred male faces with lighter skin to rural and urban participants. Men from urban areas stated higher preferences for symmetry than peri-urban and rural male participants. All other effects were not statistically significant. While cross-cultural studies comparing preferences between disparate cultures provide evidence of associations between environmental effects and preferences for some facial traits, our results suggest these associations might not always persist at more fine-grain scales within small-scale societies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1217-1227
Number of pages11
JournalBehavioral Ecology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2017


  • cross-cultural
  • evolution
  • facial attractiveness
  • human development
  • pathogens.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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