Why do People Condemn Age-Discrepant Relationships?

Scientists have investigated why May-December romances often elicit feelings of disgust in others.

Rupert Murdoch is substantially older than his wife, Jerry Hall. Cynthia Smoot/Flickr

They say opposites attract, but we humans like to pair up with partners similar to ourselves. This is certainly the case when it comes to age. Women tend to prefer slightly older men and, although men of all ages judge women in their twenties to be at peak physical attractiveness, most relationships are between couples with a single-digit age difference.

However, so-called May-December romances are not uncommon and, according to research, are becoming increasingly popular. Now, although many of us claim to subscribe to a philosophy of “to each their own” and “live and let live”, it’s also true that age-discrepant couples come in for a lot of criticism.

When the 85 year old media mogul Rupert Murdoch married Jerry Hall, a former model some 25 years his junior, there was more than a little tabloid speculation than Hall had been attracted not by Murdoch’s winning personality or dashing good looks but by his bank accounts bulging with billions.

But, even if the speculation was correct, what business of that is ours? What is it about age-discrepant relationships that so many of us find a bit… icky?

Yael Sela and her colleagues at Oakland University in Michigan decided to find out why we tend to condemn people simply for choosing a partner who was born in a different geological epoch.

They had 430 American men and women rate how acceptable, upsetting, and disgusting they found the idea of an age-discrepant couple in which the man was older (most age-discrepant relationships are of this type). The ratings were then combined into a single measure: higher scores equal greater condemnation of relationships between older men and younger women.

The psychologists suspected that the volunteers’ levels of opprobrium would align with their self-serving interests. For example, it would make sense if younger women approved of older-man-younger-woman relationships more than older women, because, if these relationships aren’t considered forbidden, younger women will benefit from greater mating opportunities (for example, they can pair up with sexy young men or rich older men), whereas older women will stand to lose out if similarly aged men ignore them in favor of young hotties. Meanwhile, we might expect the pattern to be reversed in men: older men should think relationships with younger women are fine-and-dandy because this would give them greater freedom to pursue these women, while younger men should find age differences transgressive because their mating opportunities are curtailed when decrepit oligarchs snap up all the 20-somethings.

However, Sela’s team found that younger people condemned age-discrepant relationships more than older people did, and that men and women were equally condemnatory. These findings were contrary to the team’s predictions. The neat and simple story didn’t fit the data, demonstrating once again that real-world relationships are more complicated than quantum physics (don’t at me, physicists).

Exploitation and money

Sela and her colleagues also wondered if another reason that age differences might inspire moral outrage is that we perceive them (rightly or wrongly) to be based more on the exchange of desired resources than on mutual affection and care. An extreme example of an exchange-based relationship is the one between sex-workers and their clients: the client provides money and the sex-worker provides sex.

Sela asked all her volunteers whether they approved of paying for sex. Men were more likely to approve than women, and this was especially the case among older volunteers: older women approved of sex-work less than younger women, whereas men approved of sex-work just as much if they were young or old.

Sela also found that the more strongly people approved of sex-work, the more strongly they approved of age-discrepant relationships. What’s more, women’s condemnation of relationships between older men and younger women were explained partly by their disapproval of sex-work: for men, opinions about sex-work and age-discrepant relationships were unrelated.

As the researchers state in their paper:

We can’t know for sure what’s going on here, because the volunteers weren’t asked they disapproved of sex-work or age-discrepant relationships. But one plausible explanation is that some women feel that their relationships with men are jeopardized by rival women who are willing to exchange sex for access to minimal resources. Women who strongly feel this may be more likely to disapprove of the most explicit forms of exchange (sex-work) as well as less explicit forms (age-discrepant relationships, particularly between attractive young women and resource-holding men).

Meanwhile, men who disapprove of age-discrepant relationships may be motivated by different factors.

What’s probably most important of all is to be aware of these ungenerous inclinations and work to dismiss them. Because if Jerry Hall wants to roll around naked in a giant pile of cash with Rupert Murdoch, why should any of us care?

You do you, Jerry. You do you.

Sela, Y., Pham, M. N., Mogilski, J. K., Lopes, G. S., Shackelford, T. K., & Zeigler-Hill, V. (2018). Why do people disparage May–December romances? Condemnation of age-discrepant romantic relationships as strategic moralization. Personality and Individual Differences, 130, 6–10. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2018.03.004

The content of this post first appeared in the 31 July 2018 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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Evolutionary psychologist. Studies human attraction and mate choice. More at RobertBurriss.com

Evolutionary psychologist. Studies human attraction and mate choice. More at RobertBurriss.com