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Tuesday
Oct042011

The Dating Equation: ½(your age) + 7

A common rule of thumb, at least on the internet, is that it’s okay to be interested in someone “half your age plus seven” years. According to this rule, it would not be creepy for a 30 year old to date a 22 year-old, but an 18 year-old would be off-limits. Although this is a fun rule of thumb, what does research say about age preferences for potential mates?

There are two things that predict a preferred partner’s age: (a) your age and (b) your biological sex (male vs. female). From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense for women to prefer mates with resources and to like partners who are more established, both of which are more likely in older partners. Men, in contrast, are hypothesized to be most attracted to women in their reproductive prime, which tends to be when they are younger. 

Data from Kenrick and Keefe1 support these predictions. Younger men tend to prefer women a few years younger or older than themselves; but as they get older, they increasingly prefer younger women relative to their own age. The range doesn’t get wider as men get older, but it does get younger. Women’s preferences, on the other hand, hold relatively constant across their lives, not going more than a few years below their own age (extra-credit if you can identify the "cougar zone" in this figure), but women remain keen on men up to 10 years older than themselves.

The findings above represent people’s mate preferences; but what about age differences in actual relationships? After all, you can't always get what you want. It turns out that, on average, women tend to be married to men a few years older than themselves (2-5 years). However, younger men (i.e., in their 20’s) tend to be married to someone of a similar age, but as they get older their wives get younger. For example, by their 50’s the average male has a wife who is 10 years younger than him.

The “half your age plus seven” rule of thumb probably helps you avoid being a creep, but is it accurate? Much to my surprise, when overlaying a line representing the rule of thumb on Kenrick and Keefe’s1 results (see red line in the figure below), you can see it closely matches the low end of the range (i.e., youngest preferred) for all but the oldest men. However, it doesn’t represent women’s preferences at all. So maybe there is a kernel of truth the rule, at least for men. Using the Mythbusters system, it seems that this one is (partly) confirmed.

Interested in learning more about relationships? Click here for other topics on Science of Relationships. Like us on Facebook to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed.

1Kenrick, D. T., & Keefe, R. C. (1992). Age preferences in mates reflect sex differences in human reproductive strategies. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 15, 75-133.

Dr. Benjamin Le - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Le's research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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Reader Comments (2)

This is old science from when women relied on men financially. Now that we don't need to do that we're going for younger men. Literally, we are choosing physical attraction over security because we now have options that never existed for us before. Also, science only looked at fertility in women up until recently. Now science has studied mens ability to father children and discovered that there is an increased risk of miscarriage and birth deformities when the male partner is over 35.Women are delaying having children, so biologically we need younger partners. This change in attraction is happening very fast. The stats you show do not account for these rapid changes that only began in the 1990's. If you look at studies now you'll see that women have an average 9 year age range either side of their own with a preference for a small 4 years either side of their own age. Men may not like this trend but it's happening with or without their approval.

August 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBastet

What about overlaying the line also on the "oldest preferred" data? That is, do men's preferences also closely match the "rule" when they're the younger ones?

September 4, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoni
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