Pure Pedantry

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.

Hat-tip: Slashdot


  1. #1 ringo
    March 31, 2008

    Yes, back in my dating years, I regularly observed males misunderstanding ambiguous messages like “I’m not looking for a relationship” and “I’m not going to have sex with you.”

    There did also seem to be a generational difference, with older men more likely to ignore verbal rejection. Perhaps all that newfangled “no means no” training has really worked. Or maybe it’s the boys who played with action figures versus the ones who played with erector sets. Or maybe the older ones were just more desperate.

  2. #2 PhysioProf
    March 31, 2008

    It seems to me that absent any consideration of the patriarchal structure of our society–within which women’s predominant function is to serve as objects of sexual attention from men–the authors of this study have completely missed the boat in their interpretations.

    Men suck at identifying the intentions of women because men are taught that the intentions of women are not particularly important within patriarchy in determining the practical outcome of social/sexual interactions. And women are great at indentifying the intentions of men because they have learned very well that the intentions of men are exceedingly important in determining the outcome of social/sexual interactions, and much more important than their own.

  3. #3 writerdd
    March 31, 2008

    Uh, 19-year-old men are boys.

  4. #4 the real cmf
    March 31, 2008

    Any science that approaches a subject with such blatant stereotypes is suspect–we live in an era where womens sexuality is quite alive and well, and wherein we know that the brain is the primary sex organ–but we are still inundated with these polarizing ideas about mens and womens emotions being different etc…cr^p, really, thinly diguised, but politically correct pseudo science.

    The ‘science’ sounds really excellent, and is technically correct, but biased and flawed if for no other reason than that the people who spend all of their time analysing hypotheticals as relates to women ARE NOT the same guys who are actually in tune with actual womens sexual cues/responses. Wome who are participating in such research ARE NOT the women out their enjoying the freedom to manipulate sexual cues and inuendo….

    These studies are like studying ancient dead languages: no one knows for sure what it sounds like, but they sure talk like they do–‘as if they were there’.

    Greg Laden ( a sciborg kindred) has an interesting post regarding your bar scenario, but he boldly, and accurately states that there is this thing called “reversed sexual aggression” :


    I suspect any guy who can post that at sciborgs might actually have had sex with a woman or two in his day, as opposed to speculating what it ‘might’ be like, or hypothesizing what women ‘might’ be feeling…

  5. #5 El Christador
    March 31, 2008

    I recall there was a study out a few years ago about women’s tendency to misperceive their own sexual arousal. That is, it can happen that a woman is exhibiting what appears to be, at least physiologically, sexual arousal, but is not aware of it. I suspect this phenomenon does not happen with men.

  6. #6 joltvotla
    March 31, 2008

    The timing of this post is stupendous! Thank you.

  7. #7 dk.au
    April 1, 2008

    I love this blog.

    I often get stressed about whether my PhD will be deep enough and critical enough. That shallow guff like this actually gets published is just astonishing.

  8. #8 bob koepp
    April 1, 2008

    “…pictures had been previously rated by a control group for attractiveness, suggestiveness of clothing, etc. and were balanced for these characteristics in the sample”

    It’s good to know that the researchers controlled for some variables. I wonder if they also controlled for how makeup was used… A bit of blush, some eyeliner, lipstick — and we’ve got a reasonably good simulation of arousal.

  9. #9 agnostic
    April 1, 2008

    19-year-old men are not legendarily subtle or accurate in their perceptions of what women want.

    Turn this into newz u can uze: if an older, more perceptive, less hormonally blinded guy pursues the females who these 19 y.o. guys are going after, he will dominate the competition. These 19 y.o. guys are going after college-aged girls. So, unless you’re muuuuch older, an older guy should pursue college girls.

    I’m trying so hard not to include a YT link to Oingo Boingo right now…

  10. #10 Tessa
    April 1, 2008

    I was with you up until the sexual harrassment comment. Sexual harrassment is much more than a misperception of signals on either part. It is one party being told not to act sexually, and ignoring that request. Pretty clear. Hard to prove, because usually no one is there to witness, though.

  11. #11 chet snicker
    April 2, 2008


    i must object to your naked repetition of sexist tropes! such a tool of the patriarchy deserve to be told to FUCK off!

    c. v. snicker

  12. #12 randy
    April 2, 2008

    Communication requires a sender and a receiver. So why is it that they receiver gets the blame here? Maybe it isn’t that man can’t perceive female signals properly, maybe the problem is that women can’t send signals properly to men.

  13. #13 Jo Ann Henry
    April 2, 2008

    “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.”

    Years of my own personal research have confirmed this to be true.

    As always, Physioprof makes an excellent point: “And women are great at indentifying the intentions of men because they have learned very well that the intentions of men are exceedingly important…”

    As a woman who enjoys the occasional alcoholic beverage solo , being able to interpret the “intentions of men” is a survival skill. Being able to reject a man has less to do with being considered “a bitch” and more to do with “will he and his friends be waiting for me outside the bar later…”

  14. #14 Andrea
    April 3, 2008

    There was a lot left out of how this study relates to sexual harassment. Having been on the receiving end in such an interaction, I can say it’s very unpleasant. Misread signals does not excuse one from being responsible for his actions. But it could help identify the “pebble that starts the avalanche”, if this study is done with a more representative range of test subjects.

  15. #15 Andrea
    April 3, 2008


    “A bit of blush, some eyeliner, lipstick — and we’ve got a reasonably good simulation of arousal.” – bob koepp

    “It can happen that a woman is exhibiting what appears to be, at least physiologically, sexual arousal, but is not aware of it.” – randy

    To you men in the comments who like to blame women for your own misinterpretation of signals, I have the perfect solution: the spoken English language. Learn it. Use it effectively, politely, and responsibly. Step out of the world of miscommunication.

  16. #16 bob koepp
    April 4, 2008

    Andrea – I didn’t “blame” anybody for anything. I just pointed out a possible confounding variable and wondered whether it had been controlled for. So, take your own advice.

  17. #17 the real cmf
    April 4, 2008

    I agree with this: “To you men in the comments who like to blame women for your own misinterpretation of signals, I have the perfect solution: the spoken English language. Learn it. Use it effectively, politely, and responsibly.”

    Men: After you realize that no woman can be swayed into being attracted, learn the cues of the ones who ARE attracted to you-then remember: NOTHING works better with women than to act annoyed, or shy, or even*disinterested* at every bit of attention from the women who ARE interested in you.

    This way, you can spin your own web, over and over and over, knowing as women do that only the fly that wants the sticky stuff gets caught in the web, and then watch them squirm, just like you do when you get shot down;-)
    –and then, the game is yours as she after she realizes that your web is filled with flies, and she is the food;-)

    Take time to build your own webs, and fill your life with flies, wonderful succulent flies, grasshoppers, and crickets–all creating buzz; and when a real bird comes aong you will know her by her beak….the world is chock full o’ women, so take your time, young spideymen, and see what they say then…

  18. #18 Ken
    April 10, 2008

    Such anger here by most, it’s a wonder the two genders ever connect. Games on either side are what always get in the way smooth talking and “hook-up” lines are what get in the way all this anyway.

  19. #19 Tammy
    March 19, 2009

    i am doin a reasearch, which im trying to find out if there is a gender difference in the way men and women percieve an advert. could i please get a bit of help. if you know any other website please let me kno! this would be very helpful.. thankyou

    Tammy xx

  20. #20 G. K. Nedrow
    June 11, 2009

    The limitations and methodology of the study are too simple to support broad generalizations about human behavior; both genders appear to misconstrue social signals of all kinds in their youth and improve in this skill as they mature. Since women mature quicker than men, the disparity is greater in those under 25. See Dr. Helen Fisher’s study of conscious, subconscious, and often unconscious sexual signaling by women that appeared on PBS recently; women tend to be more provocative in dress and behavior during ovulation. The natural bias of men to interpret social signals as sexual comports with studies of other mammalian behaviors and is probably an evolutionary advantage. Our brain stems, where the sexual impulses lie, are essentially reptilian; love and mating behaviors are learned behaviors in the higher parts of the brain. Nature favors those mechanisms and behaviors that succeed in passing genes in disproportionate numbers from one generation to the next; to date, biology has favored the sexually aggressive male. For men, it pays to take chances sexually; for women, it pays to be cautious. But mere reproduction does not guarantee survival of a human in fact; that is the biological logic for a woman to choose a nuturing \ protective male. Since the modern welfare State has increasingly supplanted the role of the nuturing male, the value of this sexual strategy may diminish over time in relation to sheer numbers of surviving offspring, but may remain imperative in terms of genetic quality and social position. Smart women choose nuturing men who stick around. There are scores of studies on all of these sexual and evolutionary strategies and their permutations.

  21. #21 Troy
    July 13, 2009

    I’m a single guy in my early 40s. I’ve seen a lot over the years. I think I know why men are less sensitive to clues women give off.

    I am a guy who is very sensitive to subtle signals. I never want to impose on a person and would rather stay away from someone who is not interested in me. I’ve noticed over the years that I would always be the guy who didn’t get the girl because other more oblivious men would ignore obvious negative signals. Sure they received rejection but in the long run they still got what they set out for. Several men that have done this are probably already starting families and meanwhile I’m alone. Because the man is forced into being the aggressor, he has to pay less attention to vibes because that type of sensitivity will only work against him. Especially considering that women tend to give off mixed signals and change their minds a lot. The man’s stupidity and lack of concern will also make a him appear more confident and women like this. Later when he treats he like a piece of meat, she doesn’t get it. I find that odd. If he didn’t acknowledge her as a human being in the begining why would he later?

    What really gets on my nerves is when you ask a woman why she doesn’t ask a guy out she will often say, “The man is supposed to do the asking.” Later I hear the same women complain that men are asking them that they don’t want. Well hello, the only way a man can find a mate is if he bugs the women because the women aren’t willing to meet him half way in most cases. Sometimes if a guy is good enough looking, famous enough or rich enough a woman will step up, other than that, a guy has to walk over and possibly bug somebody. How is this guy supposed to know that you’re going to find him unattractive or “creepy”? Honestly I think women would appreciate men a lot more and tune down their fussy rejective style behavior if more men stepped back and let them do the asking. Women say MEN have egos, but just think how quickly the women’s ego would be reduced if they got to ask men out! Since men are such aggressive gumps, this will of course never happen. To be fair I should also mention that some men are just too aggressive and at some point should know when no means no.

    In almost every case where I was successful at getting a women, the woman either liked me first or thought she liked me first. If I show interest first it almost never works(possibly just because of the odds). In the few cases where I’ve been able to get a woman who didn’t want me was by trying more than once. I don’t know how most guys think, but with me, if I tell a woman I’m not interested, I most probably will NEVER be interested. In my experience, when a woman says she’s not interested it doesn’t necessarily mean she will always feel that way.(I’m not calling women liars, although some studies do. I’m not speculating on the indecisive behavior, only noting it) On the flip side, just because she’s in love with you and has attraction for you, it doesn’t mean she’s going to feel that way next week. What I’m getting at, is that there is a benefit for a guy ignoring signals. This is true mainly because he’s the aggressive one. If women want to discourage this, I think they need to mean what they say more often. I’m not necessarily condoning a guy’s behavior, but keep in mind, men who do nothing remain alone like me. Good guys get punished and meanwhile over aggressive jerks win. Do you think these guys would try as hard if women almost always meant no when they said no?

    With a woman she basically rejects everyone until someone finds her that she likes. Guys don’t realize this but this system works in the woman’s favor, but only to a point. A woman will get the guy she likes the most and a guy will get the woman he ends up with. The down side for the woman is that a man is rarely satisfied and will tend to look elsewhere. I see this every single day. Another down side for the women is that a guy will ask 20 women out to get 3 women interested in him. The women thinks she’s picked because he asked her out, but now he gets to pick among 3. Sometimes he takes his sweet time picking which one he likes too. Women know all about this.

    Women tell me I’m still single because I’m too fussy. Well I disagree. I think I’m single because women are too fussy about outer appearance. I say that because most women who come after me are almost always, fat, old, severely unattractive or they have 5 kids. Not to be insensitive or shallow about this, but I don’t find it very flattering when a woman only shows me interest if she has few options! I want a women who likes me because I was her pick. I think men and women are both entitled to this. If women were less fussy, I would get more women who looked more in my similar league, showing me interest.

    Some women say I’m single because I’m bitter. Well I’m bitter about negative people. That doesn’t make me bitter, that makes me normal. If I’m around someone sweet, I’m sweet back. I’m not necessarily bitter just because I tell it like it is. Calling me bitter is like putting a label on the victim. Anything stepped on will appear flat, why call me bitter? Of course I’m going to feel bitter if I’ve been mistreated. Oddly some gumpy men never seem to notice when a woman insults them. In fact, many of them will take up for her if he thinks it might get him “lucky”. Well, kissing up will probably never get them anywhere. Does this guy think she would do the same for him? pfft.

    I hear women tell me that I look in all the wrong places. I have tried churches, grocery stores, colleges, my job, dating services, party lines and you name it. It’s always the same. You have a few women sitting with a conceited prissy gaze (legs crossed in skirt and obviously spent hours on themself) and a bunch of overly aggressive men getting rejected. I have never wanted any part of that. Honestly I’d sooner be single.

    One thing that has worked against me over the years is I’ve been nice to unattractive women. I would be their friend and treat them the way I feel any human should deserve to be treated. You might be wondering why this has worked against me. Well, it’s because when a woman likes you she will often times do anything she can to screw up your chances with another woman. It’s almost like she thinks that if she runs off every women on the planet that you’ll somehow decide you want her. This would never be the case for me. All that gossiping and social garbage has cost me damage. Not just from women but even men who talk about me behind my back. Another thing, throughout my life I rarely ever saw a female friend of mind try to help me find someone. I’ve never heard her say, oh I have a single friend etc. It just never happens. I don’t know why this is. It’s almost like an unspoken women’s code. A guy MUST bug you and you MUST complain about him, before he has the right to mate.

    I hear women tell me I need to go after older more mature women. They tell me that younger women act the way they do out of immaturity. Well I’ve noticed that the immaturity tends to correlate with their looks more than their age. If a women remains attractive longer, her attitude remains bad longer. I think older women are just jealous and if they acted better (or chose smarter) when they were young and pretty, they would have a guy hooked by now.

    When I do date a women I would really like it to be a mutual thing. So many times I feel like the women sees me as the entertainer. She thinks she’s the feature of the date or something. If she’s unattracted to me she will turn it into a job interview so she can come up with reasons she doesn’t want me. Later she takes her standards elsewhere to a drunk who beats her. Some women say, no worries Troy, when she experiences the bad boys she will decide she wants you. My question is, what makes them think I want a women who needs bad experiences with a bad boy before she doesn’t want them anymore? I see that as damaged goods! Not to mention, like I said before I don’t want to be with a women because she has no options.

    The reason I am going into all these details is because I’ve heard women complain all my life. In the dating marked the only thing they do is complain (in general). I say if they want to make a change they need to step up to the plate themselves. If you want men to do all the work, in my humble opinion, I don’t believe you have as much to complain about. Obviously if a guy is way out of line you have a right to complain, but in general, if you want something done right do it yourself. Otherwise stop complaining.

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