It is a commonly accepted idea that men prefer the company of younger women, while women prefer men who are older. This is also in keeping with Parental Investment Theory, which maintains that men are attracted to women who advertise signs of fertility — that is, youth. Conversely, women are drawn to older men since they typically have greater resources. Indeed, this phenomenon of men preferring younger mates and vice versa is technically known as the age differential effect, and it has been well-documented. In a classic study of human mating from 1989, David Buss surveyed 37 cultures across 6 continents and found that in every culture in question, men preferred to marry younger women (2.66 years younger on average) and women preferred to marry older men (3.42 years older on average). In addition, Buss collected actual age differences at marriage for 27 of the 37 cultures, and across the board men normally married women who were younger than themselves.
And in a 1993 study that analyzed over 1,000 personal ads, researchers found that women typically sought older men, and men typically sought younger women. Similarly, in a 1994 study using a nationally representative sample of single Americans younger than 35, the results revealed that women were significantly more willing than men to marry someone older by five years; conversely, men were significantly more willing than women to marry someone who was younger by five years. In another study from 2001, researchers asked Dutch men and women between the ages of 20 and 60 about their age preferences for various types of intimate situations, ranging from sexual fantasies to marriage. They, too, found that men predictably preferred younger partners than did women.
Psychologists John M. Kelley and Rebecca A. Malouf of Endicott College wondered if testing the age differential hypothesis using a new source of data might yield more insight into the matter. To this end, they collected all available ratings of blind dates that were published in two well-known American newspaper columns: “Dinner with Cupid” from The Boston Globe and “Date Lab” from The Washington Post. Both newspaper columns advertise for singles who are willing to give a blow-by-blow report of a blind date as well as a numerical rating in exchange for a free dinner at a restaurant.
Those responsible at these respective newspapers make their best effort to make a match, which is based on participants' answers to an online questionnaire. The questionnaires request information about the applicants’ age, height, occupation, marital status, sexual orientation, and race/ethnicity. In addition, applicants provide open-ended answers about their dating history, interests, hobbies, activities, and partner preferences. Other items probe when they are the happiest, what makes them a “good catch,” and what is the first thing visitors notice when they enter into the applicants’ residence. They must also provide three recent photos.
In the final tally, The Washington Post sample included 224 blind dates, and The Boston Globe sample included 123 blind dates. The researchers then analyzed the data. They compared the ratings of the dates when the man was older than the woman with the ratings when the woman was older than the man. (Couples who were the same age were not included in this analysis).
What did they find? For The Washington Post sample, there were significantly more couples in which the man was older as opposed to the woman being older, 133 and 56 pairs, respectively. And although this finding was not statistically significant, the ratings of the dates were opposite to the predicted direction. That is, men gave lower ratings to dates where the man was older. Likewise, women also rated the dates lower when the man was older than the woman.
For The Boston Globe sample, there were also significantly more couples in which the man was older as opposed to the woman being older, 72 and 27 pairs, respectively. And though not statistically significant, the ratings of dates were this time in the predicted direction. In other words, men gave higher ratings to dates where the man was older than the women; women also endorsed a higher rating when the man was older. But overall in this study, there was no support for the age differential effect — age did not influence the ratings of the dates at a statistically significant level.
What can we draw from this finding? The authors offer an interpretation worth pondering: It may that while age seems paramount in the abstract (all things being equal, men desire younger women, and women desire older men), in practice, when two people actually go on a date, the age difference might not have as much importance as other considerations, such as physical attraction and a compatible personality.
Further supporting this interpretation, the authors argue that their study had good “ecological validity.” This means that the experimental conditions of this study were a strong approximation of those in real-life. Apart from the requirement that the participants had to provide a narrative report and a numerical rating of the date, the dates unfolded as they normally would in regular life. By contrast, laboratory-based research tends to rely on confederates (undercover researchers), or asking participants to rate how likely they would be to pursue a date based on a photograph or a hypothetical scenario. According to the investigators, this study has similar ecological validity to speed-dating studies that also involve face-to-face interaction.
But could this finding also reflect shifting sands in the social landscape? Perhaps as women earn more money (i.e., they have their own resources), age matters less. After all, much of the support for the age differential effect was conducted when the gender wage gap was larger. Or perhaps cultural forces, such as lower rates of marriage, are making the generation gap less relevant. As the investigators note, more research is needed. It will be interesting to see what it yields.
More about the Blogger: Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Washington, DC, and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Dr. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse.
Dr. Mehta is also the author of the forthcoming book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.
Visit Dr. Mehta's website: drvinitamehta.com
You can find Dr. Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here.