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Men really do prefer "nice gals," but men have more leeway when it comes to attracting women, a new study finds.
Men are sexually attracted to women who show an interest in them or who are responsive during a date, the study found. On the flip side, women are not sexually interested in the responsive men they meet for the first time, the research also discovered.
"We wanted to understand the reasons for these gender differences," said the study's lead researcher, Gurit Birnbaum, an associate professor of psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya in Israel. "What makes a responsive woman sexually attractive, and what makes a responsive man less sexually attractive?"
Responsiveness is crucial to any successful relationship. Sexual desire thrives on intimacy, and being responsive is one of the best ways to instill this elusive sensation over time, Birnbaum wrote in an email to Live Science. [6 Scientific Tips for a Successful Marriage]
But men and women perceive responsiveness differently when they first meet, the study found. Men who perceive women to be interested in them rated the women as more feminine and sexually attractive. They also showed more interest in having long-term relationships with the responsive women than with the nonresponsive women.
"This is one of the most exciting articles I've ever seen on the topic of initial romantic attraction," said Eli Finkel, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who was not involved in the study.
The researchers conducted three experiments to examine why men prefer responsive women. In each, between 80 and 161 undergraduate students talked with a student of the opposite gender, either in person or over Internet chats. The students described a difficult experience, such as failing an exam, and the other listened and responded.
At the end of each experiment, the students rated their partners on scales such as responsiveness, attractiveness and masculinity or femininity.
Gender-based stereotypes may play a role in the men's preference for responsive women, Birnbaum said. During a first date, people tend to rely on gender stereotypes for how they think a person should act. Men may find women more attractive if they fit the female stereotype of showing care and concern, she added.
Or, men may think that responsive women are sexually interested in them. This may explain why men rate these "nice" women as more attractive and feminine, Birnbaum said.
"I didn't know until this [journal] article that men perceive responsive women not only as feminine, but also as sexually arousing," Finkel told Live Science in an email. "I could have imagined a different set of results in which men found such women feminine, but then viewed them as dainty or less sexually desirable. Birnbaum and colleagues showed that the opposite is true."
In contrast to the men, the women in the study did not rate the responsive men as more attractive or masculine than the nonresponsive men — a finding that surprised experts.
"The story isn't that nice guys finish last. It's that nice gals finish first (relative to less nice girls) — and guys have greater latitude," Finkel wrote. "That is, guys can be appealing in a way that's nice or in a way that's not especially nice. It seems that gals don't seem to have that luxury — they have to be nice to be appealing."
The study did not reveal why women are not sexually interested in responsive men on the first date, but Birnbaum offered several ideas.
Women are typically more cautious daters than men are, and may be skeptical of a responsive man, Birnbaum said. Or, she added, women may think the men are trying too hard to win their affection and get them into bed.
Or, women may see responsive men as eager to please, or even desperate, Birnbaum said. Perhaps, the researchers noted, women may view a responsive man as vulnerable and less dominant.
"Regardless of the reasons, perhaps men should slow down, if their goal is to instill sexual desire," Birnbaum said.
The study was published today (July 25) in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.