It's a classic tale of unrequited love: Boy meets Girl. Boy likes Girl. Girl is not really that into Boy. Totally failing to take the hint, Boy pursues Girl anyway.
The storyline is common, and not just in Hollywood romance films. A new study found that men tend to overestimate how attractive they are to women, while women most often underestimate how much men want them.
"The research in this area is important because it provides insight into some of the sources of potentially harmful misunderstandings regarding sexual intent between men and women"
- Peter Todd, a cognitive psychologist at Indiana University in Bloomington
While the outcome of these scenarios can go either way, researchers suspect that there may be deeply rooted reasons why signals get crossed when men and women check each other out. The findings may offer insight for women who are sick of unwanted advances and advice for men who are repeatedly confused by women's reactions to their solicitations.
"Throughout history, men have had to make this decision," said Carin Perilloux, a psychologist at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. "Is this individual sexually interested in me or not?"
If our male ancestors erred on the side of going for it, she and colleagues have hypothesized, they would've ended up with more chances to spread their genes, even if it meant that they had to deal with some extra rejections along the way.
And that repeated reinforcement of overconfident behavior might have been enough to shape the way men tend to act today.
"For men, missing out on a mating opportunity is a huge cost," Perilloux said. "Women could have sex with 1,000 men in a year and still have only one or maybe two offspring. Mating opportunities aren't as directly related to reproductive success for women."
Plenty of previous studies have confirmed the stereotype: Men tend to have an overinflated sense of how sexually appealing they are to women. It's not that they think every woman they meet wants to go to bed with them, Perilloux said.
Rather, men are more likely to walk away form an interaction with a woman thinking that she's into him, while the woman thinks, "Well, that was a nice friendly conversation."
To better understand how that kind of bias plays out and why, Perilloux and colleagues put about 200 college students into a speed-dating sort of situation. Told that they were participating in a study about first impressions, each student interacted with five students of the opposite sex.
After three minutes of innocuous conversation, participants rated their partners on all sorts of measures, including how interesting they seemed and how interested they seemed to be on a scale from one to seven.
As expected, men tended to think that women were a full point more interested in them than women actually were, the researchers report in paper to be published in Psychological Science. Women, on the other hand, guessed that men were a full point less interested than they actually were.
Some men were more off in their misperceptions than others, and the study turned up some clues that could explain why. Compared to men who said they generally valued long-term relationships, for example, men who said they were on the prowl for casual sex were more likely to assume that women wanted them much more than was true.
There was also a relatively big gap between perception and reality in men who women ranked low on a scale of attractiveness. Hotter guys, on the other hand, had a more realistic sense of how women saw them -- possibly because they didn't need to be overconfident to score a hook-up.
Men were most likely to misread signals from the most attractive women, and for those women, they illustrated the biggest difference between perception and reality. One possible explanation is that the prettiest women usually get the most attention from men, allowing them to be choosier, said Peter Todd, a cognitive psychologist at Indiana University in Bloomington.
"The research in this area is important because it provides insight into some of the sources of potentially harmful misunderstandings regarding sexual intent between men and women," Todd said. "This paper in particular gives more support for the idea that men over-perceive the sexual interest of women, and it indicates which men paired with which women are most likely to show this over-perception."
Many women like the attention they get from men, even if they don't feel the same way in return. But others get tired of having to constantly fend off men who think a benign interaction carries sexual overtones.
And for those women, Perilloux said, the new research suggests that it might be worth toning down flirtatious tendencies in certain situations, including simple gestures like smiling, making eye contact and touching men on the arm.
To avoid unexpected rejections, overconfident men could work on exercising caution and waiting for more direct signs from women before making a move.