Gentlemen, I have a question for you: How many times have you met a woman and had a fantastic conversation with her that was mostly accompanied with smiling, laughing, and genuine interest and perceived this interaction as them showing romantic interest in you? If your answer is “a lot,” you’re not alone. Research has found that men are a lot more likely than women to fool themselves into thinking that someone is interested in them when they really aren’t. Men seem to have a habit of mistaking some of those basic manners (smiling, laughing, polite replying when asked a question) for flirtation.
A team of Norwegian psychologists decided to investigate this romantic mystery, and concluded that this sexual misperception – the term they coined for this phenomenon — can partially be explained by evolution. The study, which was recently published in Evolutionary Psychology, is a replicated study from a famous 2003 U.S. study about gender-based differences in sexual misperception — whereas this study took place in Norway.
This version of the study included 308 heterosexual university students between the ages of 18 and 30, who were asked the same exact questions that were posed in the American study. The results were quite interesting: An overwhelming 88% of women reported having experienced at least one incident in which their friendly nature was misinterpreted as sexual interest by a man, and, on average, had occurred about 3.5 times in the last year alone. Men had also reported experiencing sexual misperception, but at a much lower rate, around 70.6%. Both of these rates were pretty similar to what was originally found in the U.S.-based study: 90% of women had reported that their friendly nature had been misperceived as interest in the opposite sex at least once in their lives, on average 2.7 times in the last year, with about 70% of men, as similar to the Norwegian study, having reported experiencing this.
Mons Bendixen, one of the authors of the Norwegian study, came up with two main theories for why this common phenomenon exists: Error Management Theory argues that men have evolved to over-perceive sexual interest in non-familial female relationships, so as not to miss out on the opportunity to reproduce. As men over-perceive, women have evolved to under-perceive sexual interest, because the stakes of having sex are much higher (i.e. getting pregnant). Although much of this theory is based on our distant past, it has shaped the behaviors we have today.
The second theory, called Social-Roles Theory, argues that gender differences in rates of sexual misperception comes down to societal norms and expectation. For instance, in places with rampant gender inequality, one would expect a large disparity between men’s level of misperceptions and women’s.
Bendixen argues that men’s misinterpretation of friendly female signals can’t be traced back to inequality or misogynistic culture, rather, he thinks sexual misperception occurs across different demographics and different cultures because it’s a universal evolutionary adaptation. “Despite America and Norway’s cultural differences, the findings suggest that men and women make systematic errors in their attempt to read each other’s minds in dating and mating contexts,” he said. “These errors follow the predictions of error-management theory.”
Although there is still a lot left to learn about the interaction between nature and nurture when it comes to sexual misperception, the study does solidify how deep gender-based differences can strongly influence behavior.
Keep all this in mind the next time a pretty girl laughs at one of your jokes.
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