Expert Commentary

The misperception of sexual interest

2012 study in Psychological Science on different dynamics for women and men in terms of attraction and self-assessment.

Research has found that men often overestimate women’s interest in them. This dynamic can be seen through a biological and evolutionary lens, as the costs of rejection for men are relatively low (embarrassment), while the potential value of maximizing limited opportunities for mating is high (reproduction). Such misperceptions are fodder for innumerable comedies and melodramas, but also factor into far more serious situations, such as sexual harassment.

A 2012 study from the University of Texas, Austin, and Williams College published in Psychological Science, “The Misperception of Sexual Interest,” analyzed the interactions of 199 college-age participants engaged in experimental “speed-meeting” sessions. Participants completed self-perception surveys before and after each interaction. The authors note that it is the first study “to use multiple direct comparisons of estimated and actual sexual interest to simultaneously assess stable individual differences in tendencies toward short-term mating and sexual misperception itself.”

The study’s findings include:

  • Regardless of self-rating of attractiveness level, “men significantly over-perceived the sexual interest of their conversation partners [and] women significantly under-perceived the sexual interest of their partners.”
  • “Men who rated themselves as more attractive were more likely to overperceive women’s sexual interest. The more attractive the men actually were to women, however, the more likely they were to underperceive women’s sexual interest.”
  • Women’s self-perception of attractiveness was more accurate than that of men: “There was a positive correlation between women’s self-ratings of attractiveness and men’s ratings of women’s attractiveness.”
  • “In their judgments of women’s attractiveness, men may take into account some traits that women ignore when rating themselves, and that the degree to which women possess these traits may be positively correlated with women’s tendency to be sexually misperceived. For example, sexual accessibility and exploitability … are traits that men may find attractive but that women would not necessarily incorporate into their self-ratings.”

“This study provides a more nuanced understanding of sexual misperception than that offered by previous research,” the researchers conclude. “Not all men misperceive the sexual interest of women, and not all women are sexually misperceived by men.” In addition, “understanding biases in perception may help to decrease miscommunication between the sexes — an important aim, given the potentially high costs associated with being sexually misperceived (e.g., sexual harassment or even coercion).

Tags: gender

About The Author