Here’s another question that poses a puzzle only for evolutionary psychologists, not for anyone else. Why do pubescent teenage girls swoon for teen heartthrobs like Justin Bieber and Taylor Lautner, but not for middle-aged billionaires like Bill Gates and Richard Branson?
Throughout human evolutionary history, and in contemporary tribal societies today, girls get married soon after reaching puberty and thus at the peak of their reproductive value. They typically marry much older men of high status, great political power, and ample resources. A typical marriage, both throughout human evolutionary history and in contemporary tribal societies, is between a newly pubescent teenage girl and a middle-aged or elderly tribal chief, who marries her as his third or fourth or eleventh wife. Young boys in their adolescence and early adulthood are almost never able to marry, until they are much older and have acquired the means and status to do so.
So why do today’s teenage girls find teenage boys, like Bieber and Lautner, sexually attractive, but not much older men of greater status and means, like Gates and Branson, who are exactly the type of men that the teenage girls would have married had they lived 10,000 years ago or today in tribal societies in Africa? Teenage girls today could not possibly have evolved psychological mechanisms to find teenage boys sexually attractive, because such an evolved psychological mechanism would have been highly maladaptive in the ancestral environment. Any teenage girl who was foolish enough to have fallen in love with and married a teenage boy, without the status and means to protect her and her children, was not likely to have left many surviving offspring.
Even though we don’t have an answer for this puzzle, we can immediately rule out at least three possibilities. First, it is not because most middle-aged billionaires are already married. Humans are naturally polygynous, so throughout evolutionary history women often married already-married men. It is unlikely that girls and women find men sexually unattractive simply because they are already married. There is even some evidence to suggest that women may prefer married men to unmarried men, because married men are on average of higher mate value than unmarried men.
Bill Gates is more than 10 times as wealthy and powerful as Justin Bieber or Taylor Lautner, let alone the star quarterback at the local high school, with whom many teenage girls typically fall in love. So a pubescent girl would be much better off reproductively if she becomes the 10th wife of Bill Gates than to become the first and sole wife of Justin Bieber, let alone the quarterback.
Second, it is not because the middle-aged billionaires are older and therefore closer to death. Throughout evolutionary history, our ancestors who survived childhood lived to be about 70 or 80. So the average 50-year-old had 20 to 30 years left in their lives. That is more than sufficient time for them to have a dozen children and raise them all to sexual maturity.
Third, it is not because women are designed to prefer to mate with handsome men. Women do prefer handsome men for extra-pair copulations (“affairs”). Handsome men are preferred because they are genetically and developmentally healthier, so their offspring will carry their high-quality genes. However, this strategy presumes that the women are already mated with high-status (if not necessarily handsome) men of great resources, who can be duped and cuckolded into investing in the resulting offspring as their own. The strategy is thus only available for extra-pair copulations by already-mated women; it is not available to young women who are not yet married.
Thus the mystery remains.
This evolutionary psychological conundrum was brilliantly captured in a Saturday Night Live sketch called “The CEO Dreamboats Magazine,” which first aired on November 15, 1997, in an episode hosted by Claire Danes. Unfortunately, this was long before the age of YouTube. I’ve searched high and low for the video of this sketch throughout cyberspace; it appears that the only available (small and low-resolution) video of the sketch is downloadable here.
In the sketch, Danes and all the female performers of SNL play teenage girls in a slumber party. They are reading and talking about the latest issue of The CEO Dreamboats, much as teenage girls read and talk about the latest issue of Tiger Beat. The CEO Dreamboats is full of pictures and stories about powerful and wealthy CEOs of various corporations. The girls drool over the pinup photo of Jack Welch, trade gossip about the stock options and union-busting strategies of the CEOs, and dream of one day becoming their third wife.
The sketch is brilliant and incredibly funny. But my question is: Why is it funny? Why is it not the reality instead? Why isn’t there actually CEO Dreamboats magazine catered for teenage girls? Why don’t teenage girls dream of becoming the third wife of Richard Branson or the second wife of Bill Gates?