LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Madonna and Demi Moore may be fuelling talk of a growing trend for older women on the prowl for younger men but a study on Wednesday said the phenomenon of the "cougar" is a myth, confined to the world of celebrities.
The study of online dating, by the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff (UWIC), found men and women are still rather traditional when it comes to searching for their ideal partner.
Women generally seek an older and, therefore hopefully, wealthier man, according to the UWIC study.
Men, on the other hand, desire a young and attractive female, and often prefer a much younger partner as they themselves age.
The findings, published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, disputes the "cougar" phenomenon popularized in TV shows and movies like "Cougar Town" starring Courteney Cox and "Sex and the City" of women aged over 40 seeking "cubs."
Psychologist Dr Michael Dunn of UWIC's Cardiff School of Health Sciences led the study which involved analysing the age preferences of 22,000 men and women using online dating sites across 14 countries and two religious groups.
"A critically important consideration for advertisers on online dating sites appears to be the age of a potential partner," Dunn said in a statement.
He said it was a commonly held assumption that with the advent of female financial independence, women were now free to target men of any age group, as securing financial security from older, wealthier males was no longer a priority.
"The transference of female desire from relatively older men to relatively younger men, it has been argued, is reflected by the growth of the toy boy phenomenon," he said.
"The results of our research challenges these assumptions. Although there was some cultural variation in extremes, the results showed clearly that women across all age groups and cultures, targeted males either their own age or older."
Dunn said a strikingly different pattern of age preferences was evident in men.
Younger men, aged 20 to 25, either targeted females their own age or marginally younger.
But as males aged, they clearly expressed a preference for women increasingly younger than themselves, with this pattern also being cross-culturally consistent.
"These findings are clearly supportive of evolutionary theory," Dunn added. "A wide variety of evidence has shown that women, when considering a potential long-term partner, focus more than males on cues indicative of wealth and status and these logically accumulate with age.
"Males conversely focus more intently on physical attractiveness cues and these are clearly correlated with the years of maximum fertility."
A UWIC release added: "Madonna and Demi Moore are said to be influencing a whole new generation of 'cougar' women who see much younger men as their goal when looking for a long-term partner.
"But this notion of the 'toy-boy' phenomenon is dispelled as a myth which only exists in the world of celebrity rather than reflecting real life."
The countries involved in the survey were Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, Greece, Germany, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, and Ukraine.
Reporting by Stephen Addison; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith