Playing hard to get? Men more likely than women to downplay their signals of sexual attraction

Women do not play hard-to-get in general, according to new research in the journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, and often tend to act a little more interested in sex than they really are. But men do tend to curtail their signals of sexual interest.

“When meeting someone in a potentially romantic or sexual situation, there is often a measure of uncertainty with regard to the other’s sexual intentions. This follows from the indirectness or subtleness of cues that convey considerable amounts of ambiguity,” said study author Mons Bendixen, an associate professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

“This ambiguity often result in miscommunication and misperception. In a prior study I looked into sexual misperceptions, and particularly men’s tendency to overperceive sexual intentions in women. In this study, my colleagues and I wanted to examine if women play hard-to-get, and that female coyness may account for men’s sexual overperception. Possibly, men are more accurate in their perceptions of women’s sexual intentions than previously assumed.”

In the study, 435 undergraduate students completed anonymous surveys about when they last met with a potential sexual partner. The surveys assessed how interested they thought the potential partner was in them and how sexually attracted they felt towards the potential partner. The participants also reported the sexual signals they received and those they conveyed.

There was some evidence of male sexual overperception when data collection took place in the spring, while students were busy studying. But this overperception disappeared in the autumn, during the start of the semester — “a period characterized by strong socialization and partying” with “abundant mating opportunities,” the researchers said.

Bendixen and his colleagues found no evidence that women consistently rated their signaled sexual attraction lower than their actual sexual attraction. In other words, female students usually did not play hard-to-get. In fact, they tended to pretend to be a little more interested in sex than they actually were. Men, on the other hand, acted less interested in sex than they really were.

“Both men and women adjust their signals of sexual interest relative to their sexual attraction. Adjustment of signals may prompt further communication between the parties, leaving more time for interpretation and judgment,” Bendixen explained to PsyPost.

“There was no tendency for women in general to act coy when meeting someone of the opposite sex in a potentially romantic or sexual situation. The exception were those few women who reported being strongly sexually attracted to the man. On the other hand, men downplayed their signals of sexual attraction far more than women did, and they did so increasingly more at higher levels of sexual attraction.”

“Still, both men and women’s level of attraction was highly consistent with their level of signaled interest. So the take away might be: If you meet someone you find attractive and that person does not send any signals of attraction back, he or she is most likely just not attracted to you. Most people seem to get this, but not everyone,” Bendixen said.

The researchers found differences between men and women when it came to who ended up having sex. Women were much more likely to have sex if they thought the potential partner was attractive. For men, a history of sexual activity was the most important factor in whether they had sex.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“An important caveat to consider is the high cognitive load put on the respondents answering questions in retrospect. The encounters we asked about took part some (unknown to us) time ago,” Bendixen said.

“Also, any retrospective report could be distorted by hindsight bias. However, alternative methodologies to retrospective reports such as controlled laboratory observations or judging other people’s’ sexual intentions based on a list of behaviors would either be unethical or irrelevant.”

“Norway is a sexually liberal nation with high gender equality. Whether the current findings reproduce cross-culturally needs to be examined in future studies with samples from nations varying in gender equality and sexual liberalism,” Bendixen added.

The study, “Adjusting Signals of Sexual Interest in the Most Recent Naturally Occurring Opposite-Sex Encounter in Two Different Contexts“, was authored by Mons Bendixen, Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, Robert Biegler, and Martie G. Haselton.