Men and women interpret the sexual intent behind dating behaviours very differently

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Men tend to overestimate the sexual intent behind women’s behaviours on a date

By Alex Fradera

Imagine you’re out one evening with someone you met recently – you take your date’s hand in yours, or compliment your date’s appearance, or you kiss him or her passionately. For each behaviour, how likely is it that you wanted to have sex with that person for the first time? Researchers have put this question to heterosexual women, then they’ve asked men how they would interpret a woman’s intentions if she had behaved in these ways. The contrast in their answers is striking: men judge woman’s sexual intent as much higher than women do.

We could conclude from this that men read sex into situations where it isn’t there. But another explanation could be that men aren’t far off – it’s just that women under-report their true intentions. Which is closer to the truth? And what about men’s own sexual intentions – do women get those right?

In a new article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, involving hundreds of US participants recruited online, Isabelle Engeler from IESE Business School and Priya Raghubir at New York University shine some light on the different ways men and women interpret the same dating behaviours.

The researchers asked some of their participants what their sexual intent would be if they acted in various ways on a date, and then to estimate the intent of another person of the same or opposite sex if they’d acted in those same ways. Consistent with past research, women’s ratings of their own sexual intention were 23 per cent lower than men’s average estimates of female intent based on the same behaviours and comments.

To find out if this might partly be due to women underestimating their own intentions, the researchers reversed the order of the questions for other participants – they first estimated other people’s sexual intentions based on a given set of behaviors, and only after this, stated their own intentions based on their display of the same behaviours. The idea behind reversing the questions is that you normalise the topic and relax the person into answering more honestly when you turn the focus to them (the researchers reasoned that women in particular might feel under pressure to answer in a socially appropriate manner, especially when the first question was focused on them).

With the question order reversed, women provided higher ratings of their own sexual intent – arguably because they were now answering more honestly. This shrunk the gap between their own and men’s perspective on their intentions to eight per cent. Based on a comparison of women’s answers depending on whether they were asked the question about their own intentions first or second, the researchers’ best guess is that around half of the perspective gap between genders is the result of women underreporting their intent, and the rest due to men’s overestimation.

What about men’s and women’s interpretation of men’s sexual intent? Some past studies suggested that women overestimate male sexual intentions, albeit to a smaller degree than men’s overestimation of women’s intent. In the current research, the standard question sequence reproduced this finding. But in the reversed question sequence, the gap closed, suggesting that any female overestimation of men’s intentions is “entirely (100 per cent) attributable to men underreporting their sexual intentions.” In fact, there was even an indication that women may be underestimating what men really want.

The results suggest that, at least in a heterosexual context in America, both sexes are wary of public revelation of their sexual intentions, and tend to downplay them. But women are fairly accurate at reading what men are really after. Men, by contrast, are prone to overestimate women’s intentions, in line with their own interests. Engeler and Raghubir conclude that “there seems to remain a substantial gap in how women and men interpret dating situations, which could lead to problematic misunderstandings between dating partners’ intentions in actually wanting to have sex.”

Decomposing the Cross-Sex Misprediction Bias of Dating Behaviors: Do Men Overestimate or Women Underreport Their Sexual Intentions?

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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