Why Men Can’t Read Women’s Signals

Some men can't read a woman's signals. Other men have beards. Source: Alastair Thompson

It’s a problem that I’m as guilty of as much as any other guy. We think that a girl is showing interest in us so we go to make a move, only to find out that she wouldn’t touch us with a ten foot clown pole. I’d like to think that it isn’t just because I can’t read women. Could it just be that overestimating interest is a successful strategy for men?

A recently published study from the University of Texas put a group of university students through a ‘speed-meeting’ exercise with five members of the opposite sex for three minutes each. Participants first rated their own level of attractiveness and desire for a short-term sexual encounter (basically, a one night stand). After meeting they rated each partner’s attractiveness and how sexually interested they seemed to be in each other.

As expected, the men generally thought that the women were more interested in them then was actually the case, especially men who were interested in a quick roll in the hay. The women on the other hand didn’t realise just how interested the men were.

The study also found that men who rated themselves attractive tended to overestimate a woman’s interest while those men that the women rated hottest actually underestimated in level of interest in them. But the biggest cause of a man overestimating a woman’s interest was how attractive he considered her to be. I can certainly attest that is the girl is really hot you pay much more attention to any ‘evidence’ that she might be interested in you.

It may be evolutionarily advantageous for men to ignore negative signals. Source: Chris Bennett (flickr)

The authors suggest that reproductive success, that force which drives evolution, may be higher for men who regularly overestimate a woman’s interest in sex. Consider the consequences of his mistake. If a man overperceives a woman’s interest he will be rebuffed and possibly suffer some embarrassment, which is not a major cost. However, if he underperceives her interest then he is missing out on a mating opportunity. To avoid missing such an opportunity he is better off always overestimating a woman’s interest. Attractive women are likely to be more fertile so it is especially important not to miss a chance to mate with them as they are most likely to produce healthy and successful offspring.

Women may underperceive men’s interest as a way to avoid unwanted advances, avoid looking promiscuous and to ensure that truly interested men have to work hard to earn their interest in return. Meanwhile, the attractive men can afford to underperceive a woman’s interest as even if they miss one opportunity to mate, they are likely to have many more.

This study only looked at uni students in their early twenties, heterosexual pairings and a desire for sex as opposed to an ongoing romantic relationship. More research needs to be done to expand our understanding, but it seems that when it comes to gauging a woman’s interest in sex, getting things wrong may actually be the right move for men.

Perilloux, C., Easton, J. & Buss, D. (2012). The Misperception of Sexual Interest. Psychological Science, 23(2), 146-151. doi:10.1177/0956797611424162

News report from Science Daily


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