All it takes is a smile (for some guys)

December 13, 2011

Does she or doesn't she...? Sexual cues are ambiguous, and confounding. We—especially men—often read them wrong. A new study hypothesizes that the men who get it wrong might be the ones that evolution has favored. "There are tons of studies showing that men think women are interested when they're not," says Williams College psychologist Carin Perilloux, who conducted the research with Judith A. Easton and David M. Buss of University of Texas at Austin. "Ours is the first to systematically examine individual differences." The findings will appear in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science.

The research involved 96 male 103 female undergraduates, who were put through a "speed-meeting" exercise—talking for three minutes to each of five potential opposite-sex mates. Before the conversations, the participants rated themselves on their own attractiveness and were assessed for the level of their desire for a short-term sexual encounter. After each "meeting," they rated the partner on a number of measures, including physical attractiveness and sexual interest in the participant. The model had the advantage of testing the participants in multiple interactions.

The results: Men looking for a quick hookup were more likely to overestimate the women's desire for them. Men who thought they were hot also thought the women were hot for them—but men who were actually attractive, by the women's ratings, did not make this mistake. The more attractive the woman was to the man, the more likely he was to overestimate her interest. And women tended to underestimate men's desire.

A hopeless mess? Evolutionarily speaking, maybe not, say the psychologists. Over millennia, these errors may in fact have enhanced men's reproductive success.

"There are two ways you can make an error as a man," says Perilloux. "Either you think, 'Oh, wow, that woman's really interested in me'—and it turns out she's not. There's some cost to that," such as embarrassment or a blow to your reputation. The other error: "She's interested, and he totally misses out. He misses out on a mating opportunity. That's a huge cost in terms of reproductive success." The researchers theorize that the kind of guy who went for it, even at the risk of being rebuffed, scored more often—and passed on his overperceiving tendency to his genetic heirs. The casual sex seekers "face slightly different adaptive problems," says Perilloux. "They are limited mainly by the number of consenting sex partners—so overestimation is even more important." Only the actually attractive men probably had no need for misperception.

The research contains some messages for daters of both sexes, says Perilloux: Women should know the risks and "be as communicative and clear as possible." Men: "Know that the more attracted you are, the more likely you are to be wrong about her interest." Again, that may not be as bad as it sounds, she says—"if warning them will prevent heartache later on."

Explore further: Does our personality affect our level of attractiveness?

Related Stories

Does our personality affect our level of attractiveness?

May 27, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Part of what determines how much success you will have in the dating world is whether you have a good sense of whether people find you attractive. A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal ...

Recommended for you

Study finds gene variant increases risk for depression

July 20, 2017
A University of Central Florida study has found that a gene variant, thought to be carried by nearly 25 percent of the population, increases the odds of developing depression.

In making decisions, are you an ant or a grasshopper?

July 20, 2017
In one of Aesop's famous fables, we are introduced to the grasshopper and the ant, whose decisions about how to spend their time affect their lives and future. The jovial grasshopper has a blast all summer singing and playing, ...

Study examines effects of stopping psychiatric medication

July 20, 2017
Despite numerous obstacles and severe withdrawal effects, long-term users of psychiatric drugs can stop taking them if they choose, and mental health care professionals could be more helpful to such individuals, according ...

Perceiving oneself as less physically active than peers is linked to a shorter lifespan

July 20, 2017
Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about equally active as other people your age?

New study suggests that reduced insurance coverage for mental health treatment increases costs for the seriously ill

July 19, 2017
Higher out-of-pocket costs for mental health care could have the unintended consequence of increasing the use of acute and involuntary mental health care among those suffering from the most debilitating disorders, a Harvard ...

Old antibiotic could form new depression treatment

July 19, 2017
An antibiotic used mostly to treat acne has been found to improve the quality of life for people with major depression, in a world-first clinical trial conducted at Deakin University.

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Skepticus
5 / 5 (2) Dec 13, 2011
In short, for men who are not sharp shooters, the shotgun approach will suffice. You are going to hit your target based on probability.
wealthychef
3 / 5 (1) Dec 13, 2011
All the players know it: it's a numbers game. What else is new?
Isaacsname
not rated yet Dec 14, 2011
" men think women are interested when they're not "

Reminds me of the time I was sitting in a coffee shop facing a woman wearing a bluetooth/hands-free phone. I didn't know she was talking on a phone, I thought she was mouthing dirty words at me from across the room ( my mind filled in the blanks like a Mad-Libs page ). I started giving her some looks, the eyebrow, the works, I ran through my repertoire of body language, and when I got up to go talk to her, I got halfway across the room before I realized she'd been on the phone, obviously either talking to someone about something sexual.

I had to laugh :P

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.