Cues to sex- and stress-hormones in the human male face: functions of glucocorticoids in the immunocompetence handicap hypothesis
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The stress-linked version of the immunocompetence handicap hypothesis has been proposed to account for inconsistencies in relationships between testosterone and immune response. The model has received some support from studies demonstrating roles of stress hormones in relationships between testosterone, immune function and secondary sexual ornamentation. Such work, however, has relied on artificial elevation of testosterone so may not reflect relationships in natural populations. We created human male facial stimuli on the basis of naturally co-occurring levels of salivary testosterone and the stress hormone cortisol. In Study 1 we tested female preferences for male faces with cues to combinations of the hormones across the menstrual cycle, and in Study 2 we tested perceptions of health and dominance in a novel set of facial stimuli. Females preferred cues to low cortisol, a preference that was strongest during the fertile phase of the menstrual cycle. The effects of cortisol on attractiveness and perceived health and dominance were contingent upon level of testosterone: the effects of the stress hormone were reduced when testosterone was high. We propose explanations for our results, including low cortisol as a cue to a heritable component of health, attractiveness as a predictor of low social-evaluative threat (and, therefore, low baseline cortisol) and testosterone as a proxy of male ability to cope efficiently with stressors. Research highlights ► We test effects of testosterone and cortisol on perceptions of male faces. ► We find an inverse relationship between cortisol and perceived attractiveness and health. ► We find an interaction between testosterone and cortisol on perceived attractiveness, health and dominance. ► Stress may moderate the effects of testosterone on attractiveness.