The Scientific Fundamentalist
Is This Why Teenage Girls Don’t Swoon for Middle-Aged Billionaires?
Living with parents is just as good as being married
Posted Dec 26, 2010
In an earlier post, I ask why it is that teenage girls swoon for teen heartthrobs like Justin Bieber and Taylor Lautner, or the star quarterback in their junior high school, but not for middle-aged billionaires like Bill Gates and Richard Branson. I point out that, throughout evolutionary history, a statistically modal marriage was between a newly pubescent teenage girl and a middle-aged band leader or village chief, who takes her as his third or fourth wife. The female human nature should therefore be designed to find such older men with greater power and resources attractive. Most women do find them attractive, except for teenage girls. As I explain in an earlier post, teenage girls (past puberty) are biologically adults, so why do they seem to express different mate preferences than other women? Why do they swoon for teen heartthrobs with much less power and status, instead of middle-aged billionaires?
Charles was reading an article recently published in Evolutionary Psychology, “Parents Just Don’t Understand: Parent-Offspring Conflict over Mate Choice” by Shelli L. Dubbs and Abraham P. Buunk, and came across this paragraph on p. 588:
The key to which type of a mate choice would benefit a parent or a child more rests in the theory of evolutionary trade-offs (Gangestad and Simpson, 2000). Effectively, a child who mates with an individual high in genetic quality benefits by delivering genetic quality to their offspring. However, because genetic quality and parental effort tend to trade-off with each other (e.g. individuals higher in genetic quality tend to invest less in parental effort), the child runs the risk of having a low investing partner (Buss and Schmitt, 1993; Gangestad and Thornhill, 1997). This can lead to the child needing extra support from its parents in order to sustain themselves and the child’s offspring. Relying on the parents for support is, of course, much more costly to the parents than it is for the child. Parents, who would ideally like to distribute their resources evenly to all offspring, would see this as detrimental to their other children and grandchildren. If the child would instead have opted for a partner with traits indicating high parental investment (lower genetic quality), then the parents would not need to invest extra resources into their child and grandchildren. This strategy is more beneficial to the parents, but can be costly to the child.
The parent-offspring conflict theory of mate choice that Bram Buunk and his students have been advancing for the last several years questions the assumption of individual mate choice commonly used in evolutionary psychology. The pioneering work of David M. Buss and others since then all implicitly and explicitly assumes that men and women choose each other in mate selection according to the criteria that they consider important. Buunk and others question this assumption of individual autonomy in mate choice, and instead suggest that, both throughout human evolutionary history and in most traditional societies in the world today, parents may have exerted significant influence and control over their children’s mate choice. In other words, contrary to what Buss and most other evolutionary psychologists (including myself) assume, men and women may not have been entirely free to choose their mates according to their own preferences. They may have had to contend with their parents’ wishes and demands.
To be honest, I have been generally skeptical of the parent-offspring conflict theory of mate choice. Barring cuckoldry, each child shares 100% of its genes with the mother and the father collectively. So it seems to me that the parents and the child should always make the same choice of mate. What is good for the child should also be good for the parents, and vice versa, because their genetic interests entirely coincide.
Regardless of the ultimate scientific merit of the parent-offspring conflict theory of mate choice, Charles suggests that it might be able to explain why teenage girls swoon for young teen heartthrobs, who have good genes but not resources, and why they do not swoon for middle-aged billionaires, who have resources but not good genes. As long as the teenage girls can rely on their parents to support them and their children (that potentially result from the union with the teen heartthrobs), they do not need the resources that middle-aged billionaires can provide.
In the earlier post, where I originally pose the puzzle, I admit that I do not have the answer for why teenage girls swoon for teen heartthrobs but not middle-aged billionaires, but I specifically rule out three alternative explanations. For the third explanation I rule out, I say the following:
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.
What I say above still remains true. What I failed to realize then, however, until Charles pointed it out to me with the above quote from Dubbs and Buunk’s article, is that living with parents is just as good as being married. If parents can support them and their children economically, then teenage girls have all the evolutionary motives to go for the teen heartthrobs who have good genes but do not have either the resources or the inclination to invest them in their joint children.
Charles’s explanation is consistent with several features of the phenomenon of the teenage girls’ obsession with teen heartthrobs. First, it is almost entirely limited to young girls who live with their parents, not older women who have their own apartments (and have jobs and pay their own rent). This is why a pinup poster of Justin Bieber is always displayed in the bedroom, never in the living room. Any woman who has her own living room to decorate would not go for the teen heartthrobs.
Second, Charles’s explanation can account for the fact that the girls’ parents are almost universally appalled by their teenage daughters’ obsession with the teen heartthrobs. If Charles’s explanation, borrowed from Dubbs and Buunk, is correct, this is because the parents unconsciously fear that, if they encourage their daughters’ fascination with the teen heartthrobs, they may soon be stuck with their babies to raise and invest in on their own, without any help from their daughters or the fathers of the babies.
As good as Charles’s explanation is, however, it leaves one thing unexplained. If Charles is correct, then it can explain why parents of teenage girls don’t want their daughters to swoon for, much less date and have sex with, teen heartthrobs. But, by the same token, the parents should actively encourage their teenage daughters to date and have sex with middle-aged billionaires. I have not seen any data from a nationally representative sample of parents of teenage daughters, but I feel quite safe in predicting that most parents would be equally appalled if they learned that their teenage daughter was now dating Bill Gates.
But why is that? Why don’t parents encourage their daughters to date middle-aged billionaires, so that they wouldn’t have to raise their grandchildren themselves? This now becomes the new puzzle. It’s actually an old puzzle for me; I have been thinking about this since 1999.