Farris et al. have a paper coming out in Psychological Science about how men tend to misperceive sexual interest in women. I get the sense that this is a big problem for many women. Any woman who has spent more than 30 seconds in a bar has had at least one random yo-yo hit on them despite what they perceive as clear negative signals. So I am happy that someone is addressing this issue.
I do have a couple concerns about this paper, but let’s leave those til the end.
Farris et al. sought to distinguish between two theories about how men misperceive sexual interest from women:
Two main theories have been offered to explain the source of these observed gender differences. The first is a decisional-threshold (or bias) theory, according to which men require fewer impelling cues than women before labeling a woman’s behavior as sexual. In this interpretation, men and women perceive the same positive behavioral cues, but men are more likely to label those cues as indicative of sexual interest because they have a more lenient decisional threshold than women do. Women are assumed to wait for more compelling sexual-interest cues before being willing to apply the label of sexual interest. It has been suggested that men may develop lenient thresholds for sexual interest through socialization processes that encourage men to be sexually avid and dominant. Evolutionary psychologists have also been strong proponents of a bias interpretation of gender differences in perception of sexual interest, suggesting that it would have been sexually adaptive for men to have a low threshold for detecting probable or even possible mating partners.
The second theory regarding the source of the gender difference posits that men misperceive sexual interest not because they have a low threshold for labeling sexual interest, but rather because they are less sensitive to women’s nonverbal cues than women are and find it perceptually difficult to differentiate the subtle cues that discriminate women’s sexual interest from their platonic interest. This theory places men’s performance in perception of sexual interest within the broader context of studies demonstrating that compared with women, men are less sensitive to emotional signaling across a broad range of affect categories. Such insensitivity may be particularly relevant among young men who are just entering the dating system, and therefore may not have acquired the experience necessary to reliably and accurately discriminate between women’s platonic- and sexual-interest cues. If differences in sensitivity to intent describe the perceptual process by which men’s and women’s judgments come to differ, then one would expect that compared with women, men would make more decisional errors in both directions; that is, they not only would be more likely to mistake women’s friendliness for sexual interest, but also would be more likely to mistake women’s sexual interest for friendliness. (Citations removed. Emphasis mine.)
So basically there are two theories about how this goes. One holds that men are much more likely to perceive female signal in a prurient way. Men in this theory have a natural bias to the sexual. The other is that men are in a sense numb to many of women’s signals. They don’t have a natural bias to the sexual; rather they aren’t perceiving all types of cues very well.
To distinguish between these two theories, the researchers showed pictures of men and women to college students of both genders. The subjects were asked to categorize each image into four categories: friendly, sexually interested, sad, or rejecting. These pictures had been previously rated by a control group for attractiveness, suggestiveness of clothing, etc. and were balanced for these characteristics in the sample.
The researchers found a couple of interesting things:
- 1) Men are not particularly good at characterizing the sexually interested pictures. They mischaracterized friendly pictures as sexually interested. On the other hand, they also mischaracterized sexually interested pictures as friendly.
- Women were also more sensitive than men in perceiving sad and rejecting photos. However, the effect size for this was significantly smaller.
The authors argue — I think reasonably — that these results support the second hypothesis described above. Rather than a pervasive tendency to oversexualize all interactions, men have a problem perceiving whether women are interested or friendly. This is an interesting and telling results; however, I do have several questions and/or concerns.
First, in interpreting all differences between men and women on average the issue of effect size comes into play. We are dealing with distributions of traits in men and women that overlap. The degree of that overlap matters. In this case, the discrepancy in perceiving sexually interested vs. friendly pictures had an effect size of about Cohen’s d = .4. This is an intermediate effect size — there but still having substantial overlap in the distributions. Also, in general the biggest effect sizes in difference in psychological traits between men and women are for sexuality and aggression, so it this isn’t outside of what we would expect for a psychological difference. However, it is important to remember that effects like this don’t always apply to everyone you might meet. Just because men are on average this way doesn’t mean that the guy you are talking to is like this. (There is a distinction between statistically and practically significant results.)
Second, the average age of the participants in this study was about 19. 19-year-old men are not legendarily subtle or accurate in their perceptions of what women want. 19-year-old men are not particularly perceptive about anything. I was certainly in the category of the clueless, but over about a decade of dating life I have gotten a lot better about reading women. Probably this has a lot to do with not taking it personally when a woman isn’t interested; I am no longer as invested in the outcome. I would expect that in an older data set, the gap between men and women would close. There is no reason in my opinion to believe that this skill is not susceptible to training.
Third, the subjects were asked to rate just pictures, but social interactions are much more complicated than this. Whether a guy perceives that a woman is interested may depend on her non-verbal communication but it also depends on verbal communication and physical interaction. Her putting her hand on your shoulder can convey a lot of information about what she wants, and that stuff isn’t included in this study. The authors mention this problem and suggest way to overcome it:
It is important to note that participants in this study were asked to judge affect from relatively impoverished stimuli. Social and sexual communication often occurs in a dynamic and reciprocal interchange between actors. Over time, perceivers may accumulate information about a potential partner’s interest in order to change or refine interpretation of that person’s behavior. It will be important for future research to explore gender differences in bias and sensitivity in response to richer stimuli, such as videotaped vignettes or scripted, live interactions, in order to establish whether gender differences in sensitivity generalize to such stimuli (and whether gender differences in bias come into play). At the same time, first-impression judgments, such as those captured in responses to briefly displayed still photographs, may also influence social perception across longer time scales, and thus merit continued consideration.
Finally, let me just stick up for myself and my fellow men. It may be true that men are kind of clueless in weighing whether women are interested or not. But in my experience women are often equally oblivious to the context under which such interactions take place. Interactions at work are one thing, but if a guy you don’t know is talking to you in a bar I am pretty sure it is not because he wants a pen pal. Yet I know many women who labor under this delusion — or is it a misplaced optimism about the male intentions?
I asked a female friend of mine about this, and she said that it may also be that women do not want to be perceived as bitchy. When you shoot a guy down, you are assuming that he was interested in you. Women are concerned that if they presume this about men, they will be perceived negatively as bitchy. That is totally fair. I am dissociating the perception of whether a guy is interested from how you respond to that knowledge. I know several women who will continue to talk to a guy to avoid seeming rude or bitchy. On the other hand, I know several women who never get to the point of deciding whether to be rude or not. They are persevering in a conversation while missing several hints that the guy is sexually interested. These hints are not present in how he is acting; they are present in the context of that interaction.
Miscommunication about sex is always going to be a problem between men and women. Part of the problem is in perception as this paper shows. Part of the problem is also what people do once they have the knowledge. This is how sexually harassment at work gets started. It is not only that men may misperceive whether a woman is interested; after they misperceive it they pursue it in an aggressive and inappropriate way. That isn’t cool. Bars have added impediments. I am not at my perceptive best in bars and neither are most of the women I am talking to. Bars may have the benefit of social lubrication, but they also nearly guarantee a huge and ongoing miscommunication about sexual interest that is bound to cause unpleasant consequences.