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Culture, Gender

The misperception of sexual interest

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

    Writer: | Last updated: April 20, 2012

    Citation: Perilloux, Carin; Easton, Judith A.; Buss, David M. "The Misperception of Sexual Interest," Psychological Science, February 2012, Vol. 23, No. 2, 146-151, doi: 10.1177/0956797611424162.

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    Media analysis

    Read the issue-related Huffington Post blog titled "Advising Colleges on SAAM -- Sexual Assault Awareness Month."

    1. What key insights from study and the blog should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues? How can deeper research inform public discourse?

    Study analysis

    Read the full study titled “The Misperception of Sexual Interest.”

    1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?