A preliminary study about hair transplant treatments suggests that the hair restoration procedure can make men appear more successful, younger, and attractive or approachable to casual observers. While it is tempting to make fun of this study, it was actually well-conducted and seems to be an honest effort to spur objective evidence behind some of the purported benefits of hair on looks and perceptions.
In Brief: Hair Transplants
Hair transplants are the most common cosmetic procedure performed on men, often in response to androgenetic alopecia—AKA “male pattern baldness”. There has been a bit of research into the past on the psychological impact of hair loss and restoration but not as much has been conducted regarding the perceptions of other people.
The web-based survey was given to 122 participants who were recruited via social media. They were shown 13 sets of two side-by-side images of a man and asked to compare the image on the left with the one on the right in each case. On a 100-point scale, participants were asked to rate each image on attractiveness, approachability, and perceived successfulness.
For age, they were asked to evaluate how much younger the photograph on the right appeared compared to the one on left. Seven of the pairs showed before-and-after images of men who had undergone hair transplants while six did not and worked as controls. For the hair transplant group, the picture on the right was always the post-transplant image.
Statistical analysis of the results showed that the transplant group, on average:
- Appeared a year younger than the control did (3.6 v 2.6)
- Had a 3.7 higher attractiveness score (58.5 v 54.8)
- Had a 2.1 higher successfulness score (57.1 v 55)
- Had a 1.9 higher approachability score (59.2 v 57.3)
You may have already noticed that the results, while they show the transplant appears to have improved how the men were perceived, do not indicate a very meaningful difference. This is true, but it also doesn’t matter as much as it would in a normal piece of research. The survey was a preliminary study, essentially a type of “proof of concept” investigation. The takeaway from the results is not that a transplant might make someone 3.7 points more attractive, but that there is the potential for an improved perception to occur. In other words, the results are meant to say “there might be something here” rather than “this is what happens”.
Flaws with the Survey
Since this was a preliminary study, it naturally has several methodological flaws that the researchers acknowledge and admit will need to be corrected for in any further research. Aside from the small scale of the experiment (only 13 pairs), the photos lacked standardization and the structure of the study seemed to encourage a bias among participants.
It is well-known that the lighting, background, and expression on display in a photo can influence how it is perceived. Although the photos all showed people with a neutral expression, there were no standardization methods used to properly account for any influence. For example, in the sample photograph pair that was included in the study, the pre-transplant image has distinctly more shadows around the eyes, appears to be squinting more than in the post-image, and the mouth appears to be in a more pronounced frown.
The researchers admit that the way the images were presented, with two side-by-side and the participants instructed to compare the one on the left to the one on the right, created an inherent expectation that there would be differences between the two photographs and would have influenced responses. They pointed to how, even among the control pairs, the photo on the right was consistently rated more favorably. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the images were presented in sets rather than one at a time, which increased the expectation of a difference and encouraged a bias. While it was known this would be a problem, the researchers arranged things this way to better hold participant attention and to reduce fatigue from a longer series of images.
What This Means
People are likely to pitch hair transplants as being able to make men look younger and more attractive regardless of what any number of studies do or do not show. Still, it’s encouraging to see even preliminary steps being taken to add a bit of objective evidence into the marketing mix.
Bater, K., et al., “Perception of Hair Transplant for Androgenetic Alopecia,” JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery, 2016; 10.1001/jamafacial.2016.0546.