"Long before it's in the papers"
June 03, 2013

RETURN TO THE WORLD SCIENCE HOME PAGE


Why men overestimate their sexiness: it’s evolution, study proposes

Dec. 13, 2011
Courtesy of the Association for Psychological Science
and World Science staff

Does she or does­n’t she...? Sex­u­al cues are am­big­u­ous and con­found­ing. We—espe­cially men—often read them wrong. But a new study hy­poth­e­sizes that the men who get it wrong might be those that ev­o­lu­tion has fa­vored. 

“There are tons of stud­ies show­ing that men think wom­en are in­ter­est­ed when they’re not,” said psy­chol­o­gist Car­in Per­il­loux of Wil­liams Col­lege in Wil­liamstown, Mass, who con­ducted the re­search with col­leagues at the Uni­vers­ity of Tex­as at Aus­tin. “Ours is the first to sys­tem­at­ic­ally ex­am­ine in­di­vid­ual dif­fer­ences.” 

The find­ings are to ap­pear in an up­com­ing is­sue of the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence.

The re­search in­volved 96 male 103 female un­der­grad­u­ates, who were put through a “speed-meeting” ex­er­cise—talk­ing for three min­utes to each of five po­ten­tial opposite-sex mates. Be­fore the con­versa­t­ions, the par­ti­ci­pants rat­ed them­selves on their own at­trac­tive­ness and were as­sessed for the lev­el of their de­sire for a short-term sex­u­al en­coun­ter. Af­ter each “meet­ing,” they rat­ed the part­ner on a num­ber of cat­e­gories, in­clud­ing phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness and sex­u­al in­ter­est in the par­ti­ci­pant.

The re­sults: Men look­ing for a quick hook­up were found to be more likely to over­es­ti­mate the wom­en’s de­sire for them. Men who thought they were “hot” al­so thought the wom­en were hot for them—though men who were ac­tu­ally at­trac­tive, by the wom­en’s rat­ings, did not make this mis­take. The more at­trac­tive the wom­an was to the ma­n, the more likely he was to over­es­ti­mate her in­ter­est. And wom­en tended to un­der­es­ti­mate men’s de­sire.

A hope­less mess? Ev­o­lu­tion­arily speak­ing, may­be not, say the psy­chol­o­gists. Over mil­len­nia, these er­rors may in fact have en­hanced men’s re­pro­duc­tive suc­cess.

“There are two ways you can make an er­ror as a ma­n,” said Per­il­loux. “Ei­ther you think, ‘Oh, wow, that wom­an’s really in­ter­est­ed in me’—and it turns out she’s not. There’s some cost to that,” such as em­bar­rass­ment or a b­low to your reputa­t­ion. The oth­er er­ror: “She’s in­ter­est­ed, and he to­tally miss­es out. He miss­es out on a mat­ing op­por­tun­ity. That’s a huge cost in terms of re­pro­duc­tive suc­cess.” The re­search­ers the­o­rize that the kind of guy who went for it, even at the risk of be­ing re­buffed, scored more of­ten—and passed on his over­per­ceiv­ing ten­den­cy to his ge­net­ic heirs. 

The cas­u­al sex seek­ers “face slightly dif­fer­ent adap­tive prob­lems,” said Per­il­loux. “They are lim­it­ed mainly by the num­ber of con­sent­ing sex part­ners—so over­es­tima­t­ion is even more im­por­tan­t.” Only the ac­tu­ally at­trac­tive men probably had no need for mis­per­cep­tion, she adds.

The re­search con­tains some mes­sages for daters of both sexes, said Per­il­loux: Wom­en should know the risks and “be as com­mu­nica­tive and clear as pos­si­ble.” Men: “Know that the more at­tracted you are, the more likely you are to be wrong about her in­ter­est.” Again, that may not be as bad as it sounds, she said—”if warn­ing them will pre­vent heart­ache lat­er on.”


* * *

Send us a comment on this story, or send it to a friend









 

Sign up for
e-newsletter
   
 
subscribe
 
cancel

On Home Page         

LATEST

  • Meet­ing on­line may lead to hap­pier mar­riages

  • Pov­erty re­duction, environ­mental safe­guards go hand in hand: UN re­port

EXCLUSIVES

  • Was black­mail essen­tial for marr­iage to evolve?

  • Plu­to has even cold­er “twin” of sim­ilar size, studies find

  • Could simple an­ger have taught people to coop­erate?

  • Diff­erent cul­tures’ mu­sic matches their spe­ech styles, study finds

MORE NEWS

  • F­rog said to de­scribe its home through song

  • Even r­ats will lend a help­ing paw: study

  • D­rug may undo aging-assoc­iated brain changes in ani­mals

Does she or doesn’t she . . .? Sexual cues are ambiguous and confounding. We—especially men—often read them wrong. But a new study hypothesizes that the men who get it wrong might be those that evolution has favored. “There are tons of studies showing that men think women are interested when they’re not,” said psychologist Carin Perilloux of Williams College in Williamstown, Mass, who conducted the research with colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin. “Ours is the first to systematically examine individual differences.” The findings are to appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science. The research involved 96 male 103 female undergraduates, who were put through a “speed-meeting” exercise—talking for three minutes to each of five potential opposite-sex mates. Before the conversations, the participants rated themselves on their own attractiveness and were assessed for the level of their desire for a short-term sexual encounter. After each “meeting,” they rated the partner on a number of categories, including physical attractiveness and sexual interest in the participant. The model had the advantage of testing the participants in multiple interactions. The results: Men looking for a quick hookup were found to be more likely to overestimate the women’s desire for them. Men who thought they were “hot” also thought the women were hot for them—but men who were actually attractive, by the women’s ratings, did not make this mistake. The more attractive the woman was to the man, the more likely he was to overestimate her interest. And women tended to underestimate men’s desire. A hopeless mess? Evolutionarily speaking, maybe not, say the psychologists. Over millennia, these errors may in fact have enhanced men’s reproductive success. “There are two ways you can make an error as a man,” said Perilloux. “Either you think, ‘Oh, wow, that woman’s really interested in me’—and it turns out she’s not. There’s some cost to that,” such as embarrassment or a blow to your reputation. The other error: “She’s interested, and he totally misses out. He misses out on a mating opportunity. That’s a huge cost in terms of reproductive success.” The researchers theorize that the kind of guy who went for it, even at the risk of being rebuffed, scored more often—and passed on his overperceiving tendency to his genetic heirs. The casual sex seekers “face slightly different adaptive problems,” said Perilloux. “They are limited mainly by the number of consenting sex partners—so overestimation is even more important.” Only the actually attractive men probably had no need for misperception, she adds. The research contains some messages for daters of both sexes, said Perilloux: Women should know the risks and “be as communicative and clear as possible.” Men: “Know that the more attracted you are, the more likely you are to be wrong about her interest.” Again, that may not be as bad as it sounds, she said—”if warning them will prevent heartache later on.”