Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Facial Scars: Sexy or Unattractive?

Facial scarring and the “bad boy” effect.

Topics to cover on my Psychology Today blog come to me in one of many ways including while passively watching television. I recently caught the ending of the 1983 classic Al Pacino film Scarface on TV. This triggered my interest to find out whether studies had been conducted to explore the role of facial scars on facial attractiveness, which led me to a 2009 study authored by Robert P. Burriss, Hannah M. Rowland, and Anthony C. Little and published in Personality and Individual Differences.

Prior to delving into the findings of the latter study, I’d like to point out two important issues:

First, the source of a scar is crucially important in judging its attractiveness. A scar associated with a cleft lip might be construed as unattractive as it is a birth defect that arises during fetal development. On the other hand, scars associated with masculinity (e.g., violent combat) are often viewed as attractive. On a related note, some male-based rites of passage (e.g., crocodile scarring in Papua New Guinea) signal the transition of young boys into manhood.

Second, especially on men, scars are often associated both with heroes (as per the latter logic) and villains (e.g., the Joker in the Batman series, several generations of James Bond antagonists; see here for a list of such Bond villains).

Returning to the Burriss et al. study, the researchers altered the images of eight men and eight women such that one version contained a facial scar and the other did not, and showed these images to opposite-sex participants. Given that participants who have facial scars might respond differently from those who do not possess any, such participants were removed from the analyses.

The final sample size consisted of 115 women and 64 men. The scarring manipulation was between-subjects meaning that participants either saw only images of scarred or unscarred individuals (reduces the likelihood of participants guessing the true purpose of the study).

Participants had to evaluate the attractiveness of the depicted individuals as short-term or long-term prospective partners using a 1 to 7 scale ("very unattractive" to "very attractive"). The temporal context of the relationship matters, as numerous studies have shown that the importance of specific attributes varies depending on whether people are seeking short or long term partners (cf. Sexual Strategies Theory, Buss & Schmitt, 1993).

Here are the key findings of relevance to this post:

  1. Men’s ratings of women were unaffected by the scarring manipulation, and this held true across the temporal context of the relationship (i.e., for both short-term and long-term partners).
  2. Women’s ratings of men were affected by the temporal context of the relationship such that they gave higher attractiveness ratings to scarred men but only when evaluating them as short-term partners (p = .022). In the long-term context, scarred and unscarred men yielded equal attractiveness scores.

Incidentally, men’s scars were more likely to be attributed to violent causes than women’s (p < .001) so this suggests that this might be the “bad boy” effect manifesting itself but only when women are seeking short-term partners (see my earlier post here on the attractiveness of men who sport a tattoo).