New research published in Evolution and Human Behavior has found no evidence that men tend to “overperceive” women’s sexual interest. The findings suggest that a psychological phenomenon known as the male sexual overperception bias might be the result of flawed methodology — and that both men and women are fairly accurate in their perceptions of sexual interest.
“Sexual and relationship communication is a complicated process that affects much of our lives as a social species,” said study author Jordann Brandner, a NSF Graduate Research Fellow at Kansas State University.
“Despite the importance placed on this form of communication, we often have hiccups in this process, either being misunderstood or misunderstanding someone else. I became interested in when and why we made these errors, and also in trying to find ways to reduce these errors.”
For their study, the researchers had 85 participants read brief descriptions of two people interacting and asked them to estimate how much sexual interest was being communicated in each scenario. They found no evidence that men were overperceiving sexual interest, or that men and women were significantly different in their accuracy.
But their initial study used unambiguous descriptions. For example, one vignette read: “She tries to be alone with you. She engages in touching and kissing with you. She intimately holds you.” Another read: “She moves your hand away. She gives you a nasty look. She acts bored.”
In a second study, which included 271 participants, the researchers tested more ambiguous descriptions of scenarios, such as: “She shows interest in the conversation with you. She frequently smiles at you. She does not answer you.” But they again found similar results.
“Previous research found that men were more likely than women to perceive sexual interest, even when it isn’t actually there. When we used more precise measures, we found that men may not be more biased to interpret neutral and friendly behaviors as sexual interest,” Brandner told PsyPost.
The researchers found that both male and female participants tended to underestimate sexual interest. They observed that problems arose when the partner’s actual sexual interest was subtracted from the participant’s estimate of the partner’s interest to obtain a sexual misperception score — the methodology used in previous research.
That methodology ended up leading “to the conclusion that men’s misperception scores were greater than women’s, even as men’s perceptions were closer to true levels of interest communicated,” the researchers explained.
The more precise methodology used by Brandner and her colleagues, in contrast, allowed them to compare a participant’s perceptions to a number of different baseline measures rather than relying on average differences between aggregated difference scores.
“It seems that both men and women are quite good at recognizing when sexual interest is being communicated, and if anything, may be more likely to interpret sexual interest behaviors as friendliness than the other way around,” Brandner said.
She hopes to use more realistic stimuli to further examine perceptions of sexual interest in future studies.
“The biggest caveat for this study is that we used descriptions of behaviors,” Brandner explained. “In real-world interactions, flirting and friendly behaviors are more complex than three behaviors being described — people take into account body language, the words being said, the inflection and speech patterns, and even the surrounding situation. We hope to address some of these limitations soon by using videoed conversations of people who are and aren’t actually sexually interested in one another to incorporate many more cues into our analyses.”
“Ultimately, I hope that this research can one day help inform sexual assault prevention efforts,” the researcher added. “By clarifying how people communicate, perceive, and interpret signals of sexual interest and disinterest, we can hopefully also discover ways to improve all forms of sexual and relationship communication.”
The study, “On hits and being hit on: error management theory, signal detection theory, and the male sexual overperception bias“, was authored by Jordann L. Brandner, Jadyn Pohlman, and Gary L. Brase.