An article in i100 last week reported an analysis of the differences between the ages of twenty high earning male actors and those of the women playing their love interests in over four hundred films. The analysis showed that the men were at least ten years older than their female love interests in over one third of the films, whereas it was very rare for the actresses to be older than their male co-stars. The analysis also showed that the average age gap was greater after the actors turned thirty-five. There is a link to the data in the article, so being a psychologist, of course I ran a t-test on it. The age difference after the men reach thirty-five years of age (an average of nine years) is indeed significantly greater than the age difference before they reach thirty-five years of age (an average of one year). So not only are men typically older than their on-screen lovers, as they get older, they are paired with increasingly younger women. For example, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are frequently (and I think very successfully) cast opposite each other as romantic leads, despite their sixteen year age gap.
An interesting aside for film fans: When the actors were under thirty-five, Harrison Ford enjoyed the greatest average age gap between himself and his leading ladies. When the actors were over thirty-five, it was Denzel Washington. I was sure it would be Michael Douglas – though he didn’t do badly at all!
The article made no attempt to explain why the age gap exists, but my reading of it was that sexism was implied, and it has been suggested elsewhere. Yet older male film characters are not paired with younger women simply because Hollywood is sexist and has arbitrarily decided to define female beauty in terms of youth, whilst men grow old and mysteriously remain attractive. As always, art reflects life; what we see on the screen reflects evolved preferences for romantic partners of different ages. Men, and especially older men, generally prefer younger women because such a preference has helped them to achieve greater reproductive success throughout human evolutionary history. Men with these preferences had more offspring, and left behind more copies of their genes – genes which code for these age preferences.
Why do preferences for younger women lead to greater reproductive success? This is because female fertility is strongly linked to age. There is a marked decline in fertility around thirty-five to thirty-nine years of age, and fertility ceases completely at menopause. If a man aged fifty-five prefers women of his own age, his chances of reproducing with her are probably zero. Therefore, men with such preferences would have been less successful in reproduction, and their genes selected against.
In a classic study which examined age preferences across thirty-seven cultures with over ten thousand participants, evolutionary psychologist David Buss found that in every one of these cultures, men (on average) preferred younger women. This suggests that the preference for younger women is universal across cultures, and therefore likely to have an evolutionary basis. However, it is slightly misleading to claim that men simply prefer younger women. Men actually prefer women of peak fertility. Buss’ study estimates this to be about twenty-five years of age, but more recent research suggests it may be around thirty. Consistent with this preference for women of peak fertility, teenage males prefer slightly older women, but as men get older, they prefer increasingly younger women.
The article in i100 claimed that the Hollywood age gap findings are ‘incredibly depressing’ but did not elaborate on why this is. I can only guess that the writer is suggesting that film-makers are somehow discriminating against women because they do not often get to be paired with younger partners. Again, however, this is not discrimination; pairing women with older men accurately reflects women’s mate preferences. In his cross-cultural study, Buss found that women consistently preferred to marry older men. Women can bear only a limited number of offspring in a lifetime. Therefore, they ensure their own reproductive success by ensuring their offspring are high quality and go on to survive and reproduce themselves. This means that acquiring a partner who can protect offspring and invest in them is important.
One of the best indicators of the ability of a man to protect and invest is high status. As men get older, they often become higher status as they perhaps achieve career success or dominance, and this means that men can become more attractive with age. Hence, grey hair is often said to make men appear distinguished. In Buss’ study, as well as preferring older men, women rated status and economic resources as consistently important. This is why women often find themselves seemingly inexplicably attracted to not-so-good-looking older men.
The article in i100 also suggests that such age gaps do not reflect reality. However, this argument is based on data indicating the average age of marriage in England and Wales. The roles these actors play are not those of average men. They are often those of very high status men, who are able to attract younger women because of this. In another article this month, The Independent reported that Leonardo DiCaprio (one of the actors in the analysis) has played ‘rich maniacs’ in nine of his last fourteen films – think Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby and Jordan Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street.
And the actors themselves are not average men either. If we look at their personal lives, the reality often very much mirrors their films in terms of their ability to attract younger women. Michael Douglas married Catherine Zeta Jones, twenty-five years his junior. Tom Cruise’s three marriages (to Nicole Kidman, Katie Holmes and Mimi Rogers) are reported to have all ended when his wives reached thirty-three. I’m sure you can think of many more examples.These men marry younger women because their high status allows them to. Not all men have the status to be able to do this, yet they often still desire younger women.
Evolutionary psychology has, until recently, been very concerned with identifying universal patterns of mate preferences. However, this does not mean that every single person has these preferences. Whilst men on average prefer younger women, within that average, there will be some men who prefer older women. Adaptations are flexible and responsive to circumstances, and there may be occasions when preferring an older women has reproductive benefits. An attractive and still fertile older women may result in a child with good genes, for example. Younger men may sometimes prefer older women in order to gain sexual experience, which will later be useful when seeking out younger women. We’ve all seen The Graduate…
And a young Tom Cruise once dated Cher!
It is also the case that women are now able to make themselves look younger than they really are by using cosmetics, hair dye and even surgery. Men may therefore be attracted to women who appear much younger than they really are. This may begin to operate as a selection pressure, further favouring the genes of men who prefer women who are unmistakably young.
There are also reports of an increase in women marrying younger men. So-called ‘cougars’ have received little attention in evolutionary psychology, but my guess is that as women are increasingly pursuing successful careers, they are less reliant on the status of their male partners to provide for offspring, and may instead seek out good genes and high fertility in younger men.
It is also true that there are other factors that affect our mate preferences beyond evolved genetic influences, and evolved mate preferences are not always expressed in adaptive ways. This means that our mate preferences are sometimes simply maladaptive – granny fetishes, for example?
However, male preferences for younger women have not been engineered by misogynistic Hollywood film-makers. These preferences are much older than Hollywood. It is because I am an evolutionary psychologist that I understand the adaptive benefits of relationship age gaps. Yet it has never seemed a negative thing to me personally. My Grandma once told me that a doctor asked her to marry him (she was a nurse in Sheffield) but she refused because she thought he was too old for her. Instead, she married a men around her own age. I never knew my Grandad, but I always got the feeling that my Grandma regretted her decision. In contrast, her daughter (my Mum) married my Dad, who is fifteen years older than her. They have been married a long time and are very happy. My Dad was fifty-one when I was born. If he had preferred to marry a woman his own age, I wouldn’t be here writing this and explaining those preferences to you.
You might say I owe my life to male preferences for younger women…