Evidence for the stress-linked immunocompetence handicap hypothesis in human male faces
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The stress-linked immunocompetence handicap hypothesis (SL-ICHH) of sexual selection incorporates a role of the stress hormone corticosterone (C; cortisol in humans) in relationships between testosterone (T), immunity and secondary sexual trait expression. In support of this, C has been shown to mediate and moderate relationships between T and immune response and to be inversely related to attractiveness in some avian species. We predicted that female preferences for cues to T in human male faces would be contingent upon co-occurring cortisol levels. In study 1, we tested relationships between T and cortisol and attractiveness, masculinity and health ratings of raw male faces. We found cortisol to be inversely related to attractiveness. In study 2, we tested female preferences for male faces that were parametrically manipulated on the basis of cues to naturally co-occurring levels of T and cortisol across the menstrual cycle. Women preferred cues to low cortisol in general and in the fertile phase of the cycle, and there was an interaction between T and cortisol in general and in the non-fertile phase. Results were consistent with the SL-ICHH but not the original immunocompetence handicap model: females expressed preferences for cues to cortisol but not for cues to T, except in interaction with the stress hormone. Results inform the SL-ICHH by demonstrating female preferences for low cortisol and the nature of its interaction with T in humans, as well as indicating the traits that may be signalled by different combinations of the hormones including immune response, current health and resource acquisition characteristics.