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Male age preferences for short-term and
long-term mating
University of North Texas, USA
This study tested a prediction derived from several lines of thought within evolutionary
psychology, particularly the work of Buss and Schmitt (1993), that males would show
an evolved predisposition to prefer a younger female for long-term mating, such as
marriage, than for a brief sexual encounter. A sample of 148 male university students
responded to preference items embedded within a cultural scenario designed to minimize
social pressures to report age preferences in conformance with contemporary
American social norms. For marriage, subjects preferred females with a mean age of
16.87 while 17.76 was the mean age selected for a brief sexual encounter ( p< 0.01)
supporting the prediction. Possible alternate interpretations were discussed.
Keywords: Age, marriage, sex, evolution
Evolved genetic predispositions are widely acknowledged to include broad
behavioural categories such as the ability to learn by association, as well as
predispositions at more specific levels, such as the tendency to engage in
courtship rituals and seek a mate. In addition, researchers have produced considerable
evidence that some predispositions are highly specific and contextsensitive
(Barkow, Cosmides & Tooby, 1992, Hirschfeld & Gelman, 1994,
Pinker, 2002). One contextual cue that has generated a pattern of successful
differential predictions is whether mating preferences refer to a short-term
*Correspondence: Joseph W. Critelli, Department of Psychology, University of North Texas,
PO Box 311280, Denton, TX 76203-1280, USA. Tel: ?940-565-2671. E-mail:
ISSN 1479?2508 print/ISSN 1479?2516 online 2005 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/14616660500035090
Sexualities, Evolution and Gender,
August 2005; 7(2): 83?93
sexual encounter, such as a brief affair, or a long-term sexual relationship,
such as marriage (Buss & Schmitt, 1993, Kenrick, Groth, Trost & Sadalla,
1993, Kenrick, Sadalla, Groth & Trost, 1990, Nevid, 1984, Schmitt &
Buss, 1996, Simpson & Gangestad, 1992).
Trivers (1972) differential investment model argues that females should be
more discriminating than males in choice of a mating partner because of their
greater investment in each offspring. In effect, males would have less to lose
from a mating that is reproductively unsuccessful. Kenrick and colleagues
(1990) qualified this model by observing that, in contrast to many mammals,
human males do often make a considerable investment in offspring, and they
found differences in choosiness between males and females to be smaller in
relationships such as marriage than for those involving only brief sexual
encounters. Kenrick & Keefe (1992) noted the extensive evidence within
social psychology that similarity leads to attraction (Byrne, 1971) and
argued that age similarity should carry some evolutionary reproductive advantage
in that a common cohort history would facilitate cooperative relations
between long-term partners. They proposed a synthesis of social exchange
(Walster, Walster & Berscheid, 1978) and evolutionary models in which
male age preferences would be a function of both the partner?s reproductive
ability and age similarity. Using marriage statistics and personal adverts,
they found that males begin with a preference for partners about their own
age but, over time, come to prefer females who are progressively younger
than themselves. Other researchers (Symons, 1992, Thornhill & Thornhill,
1992) questioned whether the preference for similarity represents an
evolutionary adaptation or a by-product of other factors, such as a female
preference for males who are only somewhat older than themselves.
Kenrick, Keefe, Gabrielidis & Cornelius (1996) examined age preferences
for dating relationships within a sample of adolescent males and found these
males to violate the cultural norm for males to seek females who are younger
and less powerful than themselves. Adolescent males were most attracted to
females several years older than themselves, even though females of this age
show no reciprocal interest in adolescent males. Buunk, Dijkstra, Kenrick
& Warntjes (2001) found that adult men, regardless of age, preferred
women of reproductive age for short-term mating and for sexual fantasies.
For long-term mates, men preferred females younger than themselves
but in some cases above the age of maximum fertility. They argued that the
balance between preferences for youth and for age similarity depends on
the mating strategy. In their view, similarity should be more important for
long- than for short-term matings, and youth, in so far as it correlates with
fertility, should be relatively more important for short- than for long-term
A number of researchers (Buss & Schmitt, 1993, Kenrick & Keefe, 1992,
Symons, 1979, Thornhill & Thornhill, 1983) have drawn a distinction
between two aspects of female reproductive ability. Fertility refers to the likelihood
of immediate conception, which is thought to peak roughly between 22
and 25 (National Center for Health Statistics, 1965, Symons, 1995, Thornhill
& Thornhill, 1983), although the exact age may vary depending on factors
84 J. A. Young et al.
such as nutrition. In addition, women in their twenties are less likely to have
babies with birth defects than are women in their teens (Kessner, 1973, Vital
and Health Statistics, 1972). Thus intercourse with a woman at this age
would maximize the probability of conception and child bearing. Future
reproductive value refers to the expected extent to which an individual will
contribute to the ancestry of later generations. Within this view, a woman?s
reproductive value as indicated by her potential to contribute to a man?s
total reproductive output would be highest shortly after menarche, roughly
between 16 and 18, before bearing her first child (females younger than
this show low fertility, Montagu, 1957).
Several researchers (Buss & Schmitt, 1993, Kenrick & Keefe, 1992,
Thornhill & Thornhill, 1983) have combined the distinction between
fertility and future reproductive value with the temporal context of
short- versus long-term mating to suggest that male age preferences may
depend on the temporal context of the sexual relationship. Buss & Schmitt
(1993) argue that human ancestors faced different adaptive problems in the
two contexts of long- and short-term mating, which led to a differentiation
in evolved patterns of mate preference. For men, a reproductive benefit of
long-term mating is the possibility of monopolizing a woman?s entire reproductive
capacity. To take advantage of this benefit, men had to solve particular
mating problems, such as identifying women with high future reproductive
value and ensuring certainty of paternity. They found that men preferred
long-term mates who are young and physically attractive (indicators of
reproductive value) and those who present cues of sexual fidelity. Although
consistent with their theory, these findings may also be consistent with
social psychological theories relying on normative cultural practices and
social roles (Eagly & Wood, 1999) rather than evolved predispositions.
With regard to short-term mating, a reproductive benefit for men would be
the possibility of inseminating many fertile women. To take advantage of this
benefit, ancestral men had to solve problems of identifying which women
were sexually accessible without prolonged courtship. In contrast to the
preferences men exhibited for long-term mates, Buss & Schmitt (1993)
found that male short-term mating preferences included a lowering of partner
desirability standards, seeking a large number of partners, and preferring
partners that are sexually experienced or somewhat promiscuous.
This line of thought suggests that, over evolutionary time frames, it would
have been most adaptive for men to prefer women of high fertility when they
were seeking short-term matings and to prefer women of high future reproductive
value when seeking long-term matings. In this view, age preferences
reflect evolutionary adaptations and operate as genetic predispositions that
unfold in interaction with the environment. If this is so, men would be predisposed
to prefer younger females for long-term mating than for short-term
An alternate view within evolutionary psychology considers whether human
males have been designed by natural selection to be most strongly sexually
attracted to the physical characteristics indicative of future reproductive
value or of immediate fertility (Symons, 1979, 1989, Williams, 1975).
Male age preferences for short-term and long-term mating 85
Symons speculates that males have been selected primarily for wife detecting
rather than for detecting sexual partners. For example, he notes that women
of 20 and 30 years of age may be about equally fertile but, in a traditional
tribal environment, the 30 years-old would have completed half of her
reproductive career and thus represent a less valuable wife than would a
20 years-old. In addition, Symons maintains that, with regard to tribal
females raised in a natural environment, without contraceptives or modern
cosmetics and sun protectants, most males, whether of tribal or industrial
cultures, would be more attracted to the female of 20 than the one
of 30 years of age (Symons, 1979). The cross cultural research on tribal
peoples in polygynous societies, which often have few restrictions on male
age preference, shows that these men value females who are post pubescent,
young, and have not yet given birth (Betzig, 1982, Daly & Wilson, 1983,
Symons, 1979, van den Berghe, 1992). Symons (1989) maintains that, in
modern societies, this preference may not be readily apparent because
having sex with females of this age would be illegal, immoral, and stigmatized,
and it is also the case that modern women maintain a youthful appearance
much longer than they would in a tribal environment. Thus, within this
line of thought, it would appear unlikely that males would show differential
age preferences based on whether the mating is short- or long-term.
The prediction that males would prefer a younger female for long- than for
short-term mating provides a relatively stringent test of the position represented
by Buss & Schmitt (1993) and others, as it refers to a preference that
is not apparent in current cultural practices. In fact, such a preference seems
somewhat counter-intuitive.
Eagly and Wood (1999), in an influential paper opposing evolutionary
predispositions that are specific and context-sensitive, suggest that the
distinction between short- and long-term mating seems unpromising.
Instead, they suggest that men should prefer both marital and sexual partners
younger than themselves, as this provides a better fit with existing genderbased
power differentials. Within this view, men, partly because of their
greater size and strength, have held more power than women in cultures
around the world. Because of this power difference, young men are socialized
to relatively arbitrary gender role norms which specify that men should be
older, more powerful, smarter, and taller than their female partners, which
leads them to seek out and be attracted to women who are younger,
weaker, less intelligent, and smaller than themselves (Brehm, 1985,
Cameron, Oskamp & Sparks, 1977, Presser, 1975).
With respect to cultural norms, it is well known that males are attracted to
relatively young females, but males are not known to make an age distinction
with regard to females based on whether the context involves casual sex,
dating, or marriage. Moreover, Eagly & Wood (1999) argued that men
would seek to maximize their utilities by marrying women with good domestic
skills, such as housekeeping and cooking. As Kleyman (2000) expounded,
this would appear to create a preference for marriage partners to be somewhat
older than brief sexual partners. In addition, as marriage is believed to require
a level of emotional maturity that would be unnecessary for short-term
86 J. A. Young et al.
mating, one might expect males to prefer a marriage partner who, although
somewhat younger than the male to conform with societal power differentials,
is also slightly older and perhaps more mature than a potential short-term
sexual partner. Thus, based on normative cultural practices, there is not a
strong basis for predicting a difference in age preference between short- and
long-term mating, but if a prediction were made it would appear to be in a
direction opposite to that of Buss & Schmitt (1993).
Evolutionary theories assume that a characteristic such as stated age
preference is influenced by both evolved, genetic predispositions and by
social and cultural factors within the immediate environment. A number of
researchers (Buss & Schmitt, 1993, Townsend, 1992, van den Berghe,
1992) have argued that marital ages and age requests in personal adverts
do not measure unconstrained age preference. These measures reflect
what individuals actually get or hope to get, given the constraints and
compromises of the mating market. These constraints include female age preference
for males who are only somewhat older than themselves, the anticipation
of female infidelity if the age discrepancy is too great, and the legal,
moral, and social restrictions applied to sex between adult men and adolescent
females. For example, full and unconstrained preference may not be
reflected in marital ages because one?s own mate value may be insufficient
to attract someone with the physical characteristics typical of the age that
one finds most desirable. More direct expressions of age preference, such as
personal adverts that explicitly state a preference or direct questions as to
one?s preference are likely to be affected by anticipations of which females
will be likely to show reciprocal interest in the male (Buunk et al., 2001).
Several researchers (Buunk et al., 2001, Ellis & Symons, 1990) have argued
that unconstrained age preferences may be reflected most directly in the context
of sexual fantasies, since this would remove individuals from some of the
realistic constraints of the mating market. For example, male-targeted visual
erotica generally depicts women in their twenties (Winick, 1985) and the use
of even younger women may be suppressed by legal considerations. Although
a greater proportion of men between 40 and 60 years of age purchase adult
entertainment than do younger men (Peat Marwick & Partners, 1984),
there is no significant demand for women over 40 to pose for such erotica
(Townsend, 1992), even though men in their fifties typically marry women
in their forties (Kenrick & Keefe, 1992).
Regan (1998) asked college males to indicate the minimum age that they
would deem acceptable for both short- and long-term potential sexual
partners. Participants showed no difference in ages selected, with sample
males having an average age of 19 and the minimum age selected averaging
about 17 years old. The implications of this study for the evolutionary hypothesis
under investigation cannot be determined, as the direct request for an age
preference in the context of modern society, with reference to what is
??acceptable?? is likely to reflect local cultural norms rather than something
approaching unconstrained predispositions for age preference, particularly
since this wording may have suggested the notion of ??socially acceptable??
to male participants.
Male age preferences for short-term and long-term mating 87
The current study
In an attempt to reduce the influences of social desirability and conformity to
social norms of modern American society, we employed a cultural
scenario with elements of sexual fantasy to provide a context for making
age preference choices. From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, if
proximate factors such as social norms were reduced, one would expect to
observe, as a residual, a closer approximation to the effects of evolutionary
predispositions. In this cultural scenario, male subjects were asked to adopt
the role of a member of another culture wherein social norms are quite different
from our own. Evolutionary theorists argue that males characteristically
assess both females? future reproductive potential and their current level of
fertility, without implying that this is consciously processed. If they are correct,
it should be possible for males to respond meaningfully to a cultural scenario
and express their age preferences for marriage and for a brief sexual
encounter. Note that the issue here is not whether males would be accurate
in simulating what males from this hypothetical culture would select but
rather how males respond when some of the age preference pressures of
our own culture have been relaxed.
Males (n ? 148) at a large southwestern university in the USA participated in
exchange for course credit in undergraduate psychology classes. They
included, 14 African Americans, five Asians, 113 Caucasians, 12 Hispanics,
and four persons listed as ??other??. Subjects were told only that the study
involved psychological research. The subjects? ages ranged from 17 to 29
years (m ? 19.83, SD ? 1.91). To participate in the study, subjects had to
be (a) 30 years old or younger, (b) not married, (c) without children, and
(d) heterosexual. Eight potential subjects were eliminated for not meeting
these requirements.
Measurement instruments were administered in a group setting. To safeguard
students? confidentiality, subjects were seated at a distance from each other
and questionnaires were anonymous. The survey included the cultural
scenario with age preference questions, an item requesting their beliefs
about the purpose of the study, and demographic items. Upon completion,
subjects were given a debriefing form which explained the purpose of the
Each participant read a hypothetical scenario which asked him to place
himself within the ??Arunta?? culture. This culture was described as having
88 J. A. Young et al.
different cultural traditions from those found in other societies. The scenario
was constructed to counteract prohibitions in our own culture that were
judged to be most likely to bias expressions of age preference. The two
areas so judged involve taboos against sex with young girls and prohibitions
against casual sex. The following is the scenario in its entirety.
There are many different cultures in Australia. The ??Arunta?? is the largest native group and it
can be found near the centre of Australia. As the Arunta culture is described, I would like you
to imagine yourself as part of the Arunta culture. Due to the geographical isolation, the people
of your native culture (i.e., Arunta) have had little contact with other cultures. Some of your
cultural traditions are different from those found in other societies. Because you have had little
exposure to these other societies, you live your life, day by day, as if your traditions are the only
correct way to do things. In your culture, by the time a female reaches the age of 13 she is considered
an adult. This belief is based on a female?s ability to have children once she reaches the
age of 12 or 13. A female of 13 or 14 is not considered any less of a woman than one of 20 or
25. For this reason, it is not uncommon for an older male, such as one in his twenties, to be
involved with a female in her teens. Compatibility with respect to education is not an issue,
since there is no formal education in this culture. Because the people of your culture are treated
as adults at a very early age, by the time they enter their teenage years they are considered to
have reached full maturity.
The sexual attitudes in your culture would be considered much more liberal than most other
cultures. Within your culture, it is not at all looked down upon to have a one-night sexual
encounter and not to pursue the relationship further. In fact, in this culture, a one-night
sexual encounter is as common as a long-term relationship. Although the sexual attitudes
are very liberal, it is also very difficult to be separated once one has been married. In this culture,
marriage is usually for life.
In this scenario, long-term mating was described by the terms ??long-term
relationship?? and ??marriage??. Short-term mating was described as a ??onenight
sexual encounter??. The phrase ??to be involved with?? was judged to be
approximately midway between a one-night sexual encounter and marriage.
The scenario mentioned that marriage was ??for life?? to emphasise the importance
of marital judgments, and it placed more emphasis on reducing prohibitions
against sex with young girls rather than those against sex with older
women, as our cultural taboos are skewed toward youth. For example,
it would be more objectionable for a 20 years old male in our culture to be
sexually involved with a 15 years old girl than with a 25 years old woman.
After reading the description of the Arunta culture, the subject was asked to
answer four questions ??as if you were part of the Arunta culture??: (1) If you
were living in the above culture, do you think it would be easy to act as an
adult at an early age because everyone expects such behaviour of you?; (2)
Your parents are arranging your marriage. You have been given the freedom
to choose the age of your bride to be. As a member of the Arunta culture,
which age would you choose?; (3) If you were living in the above culture,
at which age would you choose to live independently of your parents?; (4)
Someone is arranging a one-night sexual encounter for you with someone
whom you?ve never met. You have been given the freedom to choose the
age of your sex partner. As a member of the Arunta culture, which age
would you choose?
Subjects were asked to describe their reasoning for each answer, and these
descriptions were used to determine whether subjects understood their task.
Male age preferences for short-term and long-term mating 89
Questions 1 and 3 were buffer items to disguise the hypothesis of the study.
On questions for which respondents were asked to indicate ages, they
responded by circling a number ranging from 12 to 30 years in 1-year increments.
This age range was selected so that subjects could respond with an age
preference that was about as much different from their actual ages on the
younger side as on the older side.
It was evident from subjects? responses as to the purpose of the study that all
were unaware of the hypothesis being tested. Inspection of the reasons given
by subjects for reporting their preferred ages revealed that some subjects did
not understand the task. On the basis of the reasons given, without knowledge
of the subjects? age preference responses, the researchers eliminated five subjects
from the age difference analysis. One subject referred to whether the
female had reached the legal age for alcohol consumption, one referred to
an age for getting a job, one referred to an age of financial security, and
two referred to the male?s rather than the female?s age.
Subjects? preferred age for marriage was m ? 16.87; SD ? 2.67. The preferred
age for a one-night sexual encounter was m ? 17.76; SD ? 3.45. A
two-tailed paired samples t-test yielded, t(df ? 142) ? 2.77, p< 0.01. Effect
size as measured by Cohen?s d was 0.24 (Cohen, 1988).
The mean age chosen for marriage was 3.02 years less than the subject?s age
(SD ? 3.40). Age chosen for a one-night sexual encounter yielded a mean that
was 2.07 years less than the subject?s age (SD ? 4.30). Subject?s age showed a
weak negative correlation with age of female selected for marriage, r ? 0.18
( p < 0.05), and it was not significantly correlated with age of female selected
for a one-night sexual encounter (r ? 0.08, p ? 0.16).
In this study, we tested a prediction derived from several lines of thought
within evolutionary psychology, particularly Buss & Schmitt (1993), which
proposes that male age preferences reflect evolutionary adaptations and that
males are predisposed to experience different age preferences for short- and
long-term mating. This age preference predisposition is thought to be sensitive
to the fact that, in females, age of maximal future reproductive value is
younger than age of optimal fertility. As predicted, males preferred younger
females for a long-term sexual relationship than for a brief sexual encounter.
Results from the current study provide some support for the partial genetic
control of sexual age preferences as mediated by the temporal context of the
sexual interaction. It also supports a male sensitivity to age differences
between female reproductive value and immediate fertility. In addition,
since this age difference prediction is not apparent within current cultural
mores, it provides a stronger test of evolutionary ideas than would the prediction
of a phenomenon that is already well-known, such as the idea that men
are attracted to women younger than themselves.
90 J. A. Young et al.
Several limitations of the study can be identified. The scenario used to provide
a context for measuring age preferences included cultural details
designed to minimize our own cultural prohibitions against adult men
stating a desire for a sexual relationship with adolescent females. By not
including comparable details on the acceptability of age preferences for
older women, this may have primed subjects for selecting younger age
preferences for both sex and marriage. On the other hand, the hypothesis
being tested involved the difference between ages for long- and short-term
mating. Since the emphasis on younger females applied to both short- and
long-term mating, this emphasis would not explain the difference found
between these two temporal contexts.
Another interpretation of the present findings might place the central role
of discriminating between immediate fertility and future reproductive value
in a slightly different light. It is possible that male territoriality and possessiveness
would be engaged more strongly in long- than in short-term mating. One
implication of this territoriality could be a desire to claim more of a partner?s
life by initiating the long-term relation at an earlier age. Future research
should examine the viability of this line of thought.
Another direction for research would include determining whether the present
findings extend to older males. Although older subjects in the present
study, who were in their twenties, showed no less of a preference for very
young females for marriage than did younger subjects, it is not clear whether
this would extend to men in their thirties and beyond. Thornhill & Thornhill
(1992) note that in polygynous societies successive wives are often of the same
age at marriage as were previous wives. It is not clear, however, whether the
present use of a cultural scenario, even if it were enhanced with greater detail
and induced subject participation, would exert the social power to counteract
modern societal prohibitions against mating relationships between older men
and younger girls. It may also be the case that, with older men, age similarity
may play a greater role, as suggested by Kenrick & Keefe (1992). Age similarity
was unlikely to have been an operative factor in the present study, as the
average age of male participants was about midway between the ages of maximal
fertility and future reproductive value.
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