The Scientific Fundamentalist
Why Hollywood marriages don’t last
And why teaching may be hazardous to your marriage
Posted Sep 13, 2009
Douglas T. Kenrick of the Arizona State University is one of the leading evolutionary psychologists in the world. He's also widely regarded as the funniest evolutionary psychologist alive. Among Kenrick's numerous scientific achievements are a series of experiments he conducted with his ASU colleagues in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which indirectly launched my career in evolutionary psychology, and led to their discovery of a significant phenomenon known as the contrast effect.
In one of these experiments, Kenrick and colleagues showed men either 16 Playboy centerfolds or 16 abstract art slides. Those who viewed the Playboy centerfolds subsequently rated their girlfriends as less sexually attractive and expressed less love for them than those who viewed the abstract art. In another experiment, Kenrick and colleagues showed men either seven photographs of physically attractive women or seven photographs of average-looking women. Those who viewed pictures of physically attractive women rated their girlfriends less physically attractive and expressed less commitment to their relationships with them than those who viewed pictures of average-looking women.
What Kenrick and colleagues discovered in these experiments is now known as the contrast effect. Because their current girlfriends tend to pale in comparison to the Playboy centerfold models or physically attractive women, men come to view their girlfriends as less attractive and become less satisfied with them when they are faced with much more attractive potential alternatives. Never mind the fact that none of these men will ever get to date the Playboy centerfolds. Their brains cannot comprehend that, because there were no photographs in the ancestral environment. Any woman that our male ancestors "saw" was a potential mate.
In 2000, Kenrick's remarkable findings led Mary C. Still and me to pose two questions. First, if men can become more dissatisfied with their current girlfriends after viewing only 7 or 16 photographs of more attractive women in one brief experimental session, what would be the cumulative effect for men of being constantly exposed to young, attractive women? Second, are there any behavioral consequences of their dissatisfaction with their girlfriends as a result of their exposure to physically attractive women? In other words, do these men do anything about their dissatisfaction?
Because women's reproductive value (the number of children they are likely to have in the remainder of their reproductive careers) peaks at menarche (onset of menstruation), and their fertility (the actual number of children that women have) is highest in their early 20s, men's evolved psychological mechanisms incline them to find women who are in their teenage years and early 20s more physically and sexually attractive than older women, despite laws of civilized society concerning the age of consent and the minimum age of marriage. Compared to most adult women, teenage girls also have lower waist-to-hip ratios that men prefer, as I explain in an earlier post.
Few occupations and professions afford men with greater opportunities to come in contact with women in their teenage years than teachers in secondary and postsecondary schools. These teachers experience the cumulative effect of exposure, day after day, year after year, to young, attractive women who are at the peak of their reproductive value and fertility more acutely than men in most other occupations. If the findings of Kenrick et al. generalize beyond their experimental stimuli (exposure to a few photographs of attractive women during an experimental session) and if the contrast effect is cumulative, then male teachers in secondary and postsecondary schools should be more dissatisfied with their mates than other men. If there are behavioral consequences to their dissatisfaction, then these male teachers should be more likely to be divorced or separated than other men.
Our analysis of the General Social Survey data showed that male secondary and postsecondary school teachers were significantly more likely to be currently divorced and significantly less likely to remarry than men in other occupations. This effect is not observable among male kindergarten and elementary school teachers. Nor are female teachers in secondary and postsecondary schools more likely to be currently divorced or less likely to remarry. So it's not about being a teacher per se. The significantly higher likelihood of being currently divorced and lower likelihood of remarriage are observed only among male teachers in secondary schools and universities, those who are surrounded by young nubile women all the time.
This study was widely covered by the media back in 2000. The question that I was most frequently asked by journalists back then was "What other occupations, besides teachers in secondary and postsecondary schools, would lead men to experience a greater risk of divorce due to the contrast effect? In what other occupations are men surrounded by young nubile women?"
I think the most obvious answer is Hollywood actors. There is always a new generation of younger and younger starlets in Hollywood, while their actress/model wives can only get older. The mating career of Tom Cruise illustrates this perfectly. Mimi Rogers (his first wife) was six years older than him (illustrating another finding by Doug Kenrick that, while men generally prefer younger women, teenage boys prefer older women because, for them, younger women would be subfecund or infertile, although Tom Cruise was 24 when he married Rogers). Nicole Kidman, his next wife, was five years younger than him. Penelope Cruz, his next long-term girlfriend, was 12 years younger than him. And Katie Holmes, his current wife, is 16 years younger than him. I'm guessing his next wife will be one of the Olsen twins (who are 24 years younger than him).
The contrast effect, which Kenrick and his colleagues discovered in their ingenious experiments, can explain why Hollywood actors are notorious for their short, unstable marriages and relationships. Just like male high school teachers and university professors, Hollywood actors are constantly surrounded by young attractive women.