The high divorce rate among male secondary school teachers and professors is an age-old occupational hazard. Raj Persaud reports on the effects of exposure to female students.
Sociologists at Indiana and Cornell universities have found that male university professors and secondary school teachers have a significantly higher than expected divorce rate.
In a research paper titled Teaching Could Be Hazardous to your Marriage, Satoshi Kanazawa of Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Mary Still of Cornell University in New York say the constant exposure to young female students eventually leads male teachers to find adult women less attractive, because of contrast and comparison effects.
In previous laboratory experiments, psychologists found that men who were exposed to photographs of physically attractive women subsequently became less satisfied with their current heterosexual relationships, expressed less commitment and rated their partners less attractive.
After these brief experiments, Kanazawa and Still pondered on what would be the cumulative effect of a constant exposure to young, attractive women on an older man's relationship. Evolutionary psychologists argue that men, even those who are much older, are genetically programmed to find young women in their late teens and early 20s the most attractive, because this is when women are at their most fertile.
Few occupations and professions afford greater opportunities to come into contact with women in their late teenage years and early 20s than secondary school and college teaching. Teachers and lecturers therefore experience the cumulative effect of exposure to young, attractive women, who are at their peak reproductive phase, more acutely than people in most other occupations.
Female teachers and university lecturers are also exposed to young, attractive men, but evolutionary psychologists argue this would not have a comparable effect on women's relationships as women do not value youth and physical attractiveness in mates as much as men do. If the findings of previous experiments imply that the contrast effect could be cumulative, then male teachers of young people should be more dissatisfied with their mates than other groups.
To test this theory Kanazawa and Still analysed one of the largest social science datasets available on the marital status of the US population: the General Social Survey - collected annually for the past 25 years and involving a sample of almost 33,000 adults. Their findings were published in the prestigious journal Evolution and Human Behaviour.
The sample contained 235 college professors and 414 high school teachers. Results showed that being a female teacher or lecturer did not predict a higher divorce rate compared with women in general.
However, being a male secondary school teacher or university lecturer did predict a much higher chance of getting divorced and subsequently not remarrying than men in the general population. The fact that there was no evidence of this in male teachers of very young children suggests it is something about an exposure to a particular age group of students that has a destabilising effect on the marriages of male teachers and university lecturers.
Kanazawa and Still also suggest that the "slow to remarry" rate after divorce they found among male teachers and university lecturers is due to the "cumulative contrast" effect. After all, any adult woman these men might meet and date after their divorce would still pale in comparison to the young, attractive women with whom they come in daily contact.
The data found no evidence that male teachers or university lecturers had more casual sex or extramarital affairs than men in the general population. Therefore, Kanazawa and Still do not believe the higher divorce rates among male lecturers is due to their having affairs with students. Rather they are suffering a contrast effect, the consequence of constant exposure to younger women with whom they inevitably compare women of their own age unfavourably.
Kanazawa said it was difficult to compare the research with other professions as no other occupation involved dealing with such a high proportion of young women as university and school teaching. "The only other possibility that I could think of is movie producers and directors (who, I might add, also have a high divorce rate). But I'm not sure if there are enough of these people in any representative sample of the United States population for the statistical analysis to yield a significant result," Kanazawa stated.
Although Kanazawa said he wanted to avoid giving advice to male university lecturers on the basis of his results, he did say: "What we discover in our study is an innate tendency of men to prefer younger women, just like the innate tendency of men to be aggressive and competitive.
"If one wants to avoid the consequences of one's innate tendencies, then one needs to be carefully mindful of the fact that one does have such tendencies. If male teachers and their wives want to 'save' their marriages, then they need to accept the fact that men are innately predisposed to prefer young women as mates, and be particularly mindful of their potential consequences."
Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in London.