How Do People View Men With Tattoos?

A forthcoming study reveals our altered perceptions of tattooed men.

Posted Dec 08, 2016

bedya/Shutterstock
Source: bedya/Shutterstock

Tattooing has enjoyed a long history, and in many cultures, it has served as a way for people to attract potential mates. But in contemporary society, what does this form of invasive ornamentation really communicate to others about the person displaying it?

This question was the focus of a new study by Polish researchers Andrzej Galbarczyk and Anna Ziomkiewicz. Previous work proposed that such decorations are, technically speaking, honest signals of genetic quality among men. In other words, they advertise good genes and good health. Of particular importance is that they may indicate a stronger resistance to pathogens, which would have been a great survival benefit in our evolutionary past. In preindustrial times, tattooing was a life-threatening endeavor; you had to be tough to survive it. Even today, the process is painful and could give rise to various health problems, most often an infection. Thus, we may still assume that tattoos at least advertise a man's high tolerance for pain, as well as good health, good genes, and a strong immune system. Moreover, it has been suggested that tattoos may influence how men are perceived by others with respect to personality—that is, they are seen as "bad boys."

Building on previous research, Galbarczyk and Ziomkiewicz wanted to see if tattoos would alter how people view men with respect to their physical appearance and personality. They predicted that male and female participants would respond differently to tattooed men because women assess men in terms of whether they would make a good mate, whereas men assess other men as potential same-sex competitors for mates. (This goes back to the two mechanisms of sexual selection, which are mate choice and contest competition.)

The researchers hypothesized that women would rate men with tattoos as more healthy, attractive, masculine, dominant, and aggressive, but less suitable as partners or fathers. At the same time, the team expected that men would rate other tattooed men as more masculine, dominant, and aggressive than males without tattoos.

To investigate these hypotheses, Galbarczyk and Ziomkiewicz photographed nine shirtless men from the waist up. All conditions remained constant: The lighting and background were the same, each model struck the same pose, and each maintained a neutral (non-smiling) expression on his face. None of these models, who ranged in age from 19 to 35, had a tattoo. A professional photographer then digitally altered the images of these men by adding an arm tattoo, which was black, abstract, and neutral in terms of design. The researchers then recruited participants via social media to take part in a “male attractiveness study.” In the final tally, the sample consisted of 2,369 straight women and 215 straight men from Poland. Participants randomly viewed both tattooed and non-tattooed versions of the models, and were asked to rate them for attractiveness, health, masculinity, dominance, aggression, good partner potential, and good father potential.

As expected, men and women in the study responded differently to the photographs of tattooed men:

  • Women rated the tattooed versions of the models as healthier, but the presence of tattoos did not influence their ratings of the men's attractiveness.
  • By contrast, men rated the tattooed versions of the models as more attractive, but the presence of tattoos didn't influence their ratings of good health.
  • Both men and women rated photographs of men with a tattoo as more masculine, dominant and aggressive.
  • But women assessed tattooed men as worse potential partners and parents than men without tattoos—but having a tattoo did not influence men's ratings along these lines.

Galbarczyk and Ziomkiewicz argue that their results demonstrate that women view tattoos on men as an advertisement of better health, which is in keeping with previous studies. These findings are also consistent with research linking tattoos and body piercings to good health: For example, one study found that men with tattoos and/or unconventional body piercings are more symmetrical than individuals without such invasive body decorations. It is thought that low levels of asymmetry signal good health and superior genetic quality. (Remarkably, it's also been shown that repeated tattooing may have potential health benefits because it strengthens one's immunological responses.)

Galbarczyk and Ziomkiewicz's study also revealed that women find tattooed men to be more masculine, dominant, and aggressive, traits associated with both elevated levels of testosterone and overall good health. Studies show that women tend to find these personality characteristics desirable, especially under certain conditions such as living with a consistent threat of crime and violence. In our ancient past, these traits would have been especially valuable because men who possessed them in higher levels could provide greater protection to their mates and children.

Tattoos have evolved as a form of art and personal expression, but they may still alter our perception of the men who sport them, probably far more than we realized.

Vinita Mehta, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. She provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. She is also the author of the forthcoming book, Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

References

Galbarczyk, A.& Ziomkiewicz, A. Tattooed men: Healthy bad boys and good-looking competitors.  Personality and Individual Differences.  Volume 106, 1 February 2017, Pages 122–125.