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Study offers new psychological explanation for men’s tendency to overestimate women’s romantic interest

New research suggests that men’s tendency to overestimate women’s sexual interest is more than just an evolutionary adaptation. The study found that differences in sociosexual orientation and the tendency to project one’s interest onto others completely explained sex differences in the misperception of partner’s interest. The study was published in Psychological Science.

Previous research has consistently found that when it comes to gauging a partner’s sexual interest, men and women display different biases. Men tend to overestimate women’s sexual interest, while women underestimate men’s sexual interest. Some researchers have speculated that these differences have evolved to serve the mating strategies of each sex. From an evolutionary perspective, men have more to lose by underestimating a partner’s interest and potentially missing a mating opportunity than women do. Women, on the other hand, have more to lose by overestimating a man’s interest and engaging in sex with an uncommitted man.

Study author Anthony J. Lee, a lecturer at The University of Stirling, and his team wanted to explore whether there might be other factors involved that can explain men’s and women’s differences in perceptions of sexual interest.

“This study was motivated by a paper published by Carin Perilloux and Rob Kurzban in Psychological Science in 2012. The conclusion of that paper was that men have evolved the tendency to overestimate women’s sexual interest, and women under-estimate that of men’s,” Lee told PsyPost.

“My thought on this was that there are a lot of differences between men and women that could explain this bias without appealing to inherent sex differences. For instance, people (regardless of their sex) who are interest in short-term sexual encounters may be more likely to overestimate sexual interest, it just so happens that men tend to be more interested in these types of relationships.”

A speed-dating study was conducted among a sample of 1,226 heterosexual young adults with an average age of 19. Each participant met around three to four members of the opposite sex for a total of 3 minutes each, adding up to 3,850 interactions. After each meeting, subjects rated their sexual interest in their partner and the perceived sexual interest of their partner. Subjects also completed the Sociosexual Orientation Inventory which measured their willingness to partake in uncommitted sex by assessing their past experiences, their attitudes towards casual sex, and their desire for sex. Finally, subjects rated their own attractiveness.

Results were consistent with previous studies, showing that men, overall, perceived higher levels of sexual attraction from women than women did from men. Effects were also found for each of the three potential mediators. When it came to sociosexual orientation, those with an inclination towards short-term relationships perceived more sexual interest from their partners. As the authors point out, this could indicate that people who are more open to casual sex overperceive other’s interest in them in order to maximize opportunities for mating.

Next, those who rated themselves as higher in attractiveness also perceived greater sexual interest from their partners.

“If we assume that individuals have some insight into their own attractiveness (indeed, self-rated attractiveness was positively associated with received sexual interest from partners in our sample), this finding could suggest a learning effect in which individuals who have received interest in the past raise their internal representation of their own attractiveness, which in turn influences their perceptions of sexual interest from potential partners in future interactions,” Lee and associates say.

The final and largest effect on perceived interest from a partner was the rater’s own sexual interest. In fact, subjects’ perceptions of a partner’s sexual interest were more strongly associated with their own interest in that partner than the partner’s actual sexual interest. This effect is consistent with the idea that people tend to project their sexual interest onto others, and could “reflect a broader tendency for individuals to assume that others think like themselves” rather than an evolutionary adaptation.

Importantly, when researchers took the three mediators into account, the effect for sex disappeared. This suggests that sex differences in perception of sexual interest can be completely explained by the factors of sociosexual orientation, self-ratings of attractiveness, and projected sexual interest. This challenges the idea that sex differences in misperceptions of sexual interest have evolved solely to accommodate the different mating strategies of men and women.

“There doesn’t appear to be an inherent difference between men and women regarding perceptions of sexual interest, and any misperceptions in sexual interest appear to be more due to more individual differences, such as that in motivation,” Lee said.

“While our particular paper identified some individual differences that helped explain differences in misperceptions in sexual interest, we did not investigate an exhaustive list.”

The study, “Sex Differences in Misperceptions of Sexual Interest Can Be Explained by Sociosexual Orientation and Men Projecting Their Own Interest Onto Women”, was authored by Anthony J. Lee, Morgan J. Sidari, Sean C. Murphy, James M. Sherlock, and Brendan P. Zietsch.


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