Sex-age stereotyping: Social perceivers as lay adaptationists

Oliver Sng, Keelah E.G. Williams, Steven L. Neuberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Why do perceivers categorize and stereotype others by their biological sex and age? We suggest that perceivers do so because sex and age interactively shape adaptive goals (e.g., mating, parenting) and strategies. And because such goals and strategies pose different fitness-relevant opportunities and threats, social perceivers use others' sex-age as a cue for predicting others' behaviors. This perspective has multiple implications, which we test in a range of U.S. undergraduate and online survey samples. First, we find that perceivers categorize others not by sex and age independently, but by the interaction of their sex and age (i.e., people mentally group others as females and males of specific ages) (Studies 1 and 2). Second, perceivers hold stereotypes of men and women of specific ages as being differentially oriented towards short- and long-term mating as well as parenting goals (e.g., women are stereotyped to be more oriented towards long-term mating goals than men are, but only at younger ages) (Studies 3 and 4). Finally, providing perceivers with direct information about others' adaptive goals can influence the extent to which perceivers apply stereotypes of agency, communion, and competence, and can even override typical sex stereotypes (e.g., men are generally stereotyped to be more agentic than women, but this sex stereotype disappears when both men and women are presented as engaging in short-term mating goals) (Studies 5 and 6). The current findings challenge existing thinking about sex and age stereotyping, and demonstrate the value of an adaptationist approach for thinking about social perception and stereotypes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)136-149
Number of pages14
JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2020


  • Affordance management
  • Age stereotypes
  • Gender stereotypes
  • Life history theory
  • Parental investment theory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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