All it takes is a smile (for some guys)

December 13, 2011, Association for Psychological Science

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

The illusion of multitasking boosts performance

November 13, 2018
Our ability to do things well suffers when we try to complete several tasks at once, but a series of experiments suggests that merely believing that we're multitasking may boost our performance by making us more engaged in ...

Brain changes found in self-injuring teen girls

November 13, 2018
The brains of teenage girls who engage in serious forms of self-harm, including cutting, show features similar to those seen in adults with borderline personality disorder, a severe and hard-to-treat mental illness, a new ...

Major traumatic injury increases risk of mental health diagnoses, suicide

November 12, 2018
People who experience major injuries requiring hospital admission, such as car crashes and falls, are at substantially increased risk of being admitted to hospital for mental health disorders, found a study in CMAJ (Canadian ...

Nearly one in ten Americans struggles to control sexual urges

November 9, 2018
(HealthDay)—The #MeToo movement has given many Americans a glimpse into an unfamiliar world that may have left many wondering, "What were they thinking?"

Brain activity pattern may be early sign of schizophrenia

November 8, 2018
Schizophrenia, a brain disorder that produces hallucinations, delusions, and cognitive impairments, usually strikes during adolescence or young adulthood. While some signs can suggest that a person is at high risk for developing ...

Social media use increases depression and loneliness

November 8, 2018
The link between the two has been talked about for years, but a causal connection had never been proven. For the first time, University of Pennsylvania research based on experimental data connects Facebook, Snapchat, and ...

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.