Human World

Evolution might favor men who misinterpret sexual cues

Does she or doesn’t she …? Sexual cues are ambiguous, and confounding, and men often read them wrong. But, a new study hypothesizes that the men who get it wrong might be the ones evolution has favored. According to these researchers:

There are two ways you can make an error as a man. Either you think, ‘Oh, wow, that woman’s really interested in me’— and it turns out she’s not … Or 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.

Williams College psychologist Carin Perilloux conducted the research with Judith A. Easton and David M. Buss of University of Texas at Austin. The findings will appear in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science.

How did they research sexual cues?

So, the research involved 96 male and 103 female undergraduates, who went 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. And, after each “meeting,” they rated the partner on a number of measures, including physical attractiveness and sexual interest in the participant. In addition, the process had the advantage of testing the participants in multiple interactions.

The results of the sexual cues study

Men looking for a quick hookup were 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. Therefore, 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.

Sexual cues as evolutionary strategy

A hopeless mess? Evolutionarily speaking, maybe not, say the psychologists. Over millennia, these errors may in fact add to men’s reproductive success. So, 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. Besides, Perilloux added that casual sex seekers …

…face slightly different adaptive problems. 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.

What this means for men and women

The research contains some messages for daters of both sexes, according to Perilloux.

Women: “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.”

Bottom line: Fortune apparently favors the bold in the world of interpreting sexual cues. Because of this, men who misinterpret women’s interest in them apparently succeed more often anyway and pass on their tendency to misinterpret cues to their offspring.


December 18, 2011
Human World

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