In the Game of Love, Self-Deception May Be Key

couple flirting, men overestimate women's sexual interest.
Women and most men misinterpret a potential sexual partner's interest, a study has found. This self-deception may help both successfully play the mating game, the researchers suggest.

Hot guys tend to underestimate women's interest in them, while other men, particularly those looking for a one-night stand, are more likely to think a woman is much more into them than she actually is, a new study says.

Women, however, showed the opposite bias — they routinely underestimated men's interest in them.

This sort of self-deception may help both men and women play the mating game successfully, suggest the researchers, a team of psychologists from the University of Texas, Austin. The findings also fits with past research showing that guys are clueless on the subtleties of nonverbal cues from women, taking a subtle smile as a sexual come-on, for instance.

Potential partners

In the new study, the team had male and female undergraduates between the ages of 18 and 24 rate their own attractiveness and then complete an assessment designed to determine each participant's interest in short-term sexual encounters. 

Using what the researchers called a "speed meeting" setup, each participant spent three minutes talking with another participant of the opposite sex, one-on-one, for a total of five speed dates. Afterward, each rated the person they had met on that person's sexual interest and attractiveness. The researchers included data from 96 men and 103 women.

The found that, overall, men overestimated the women's interest. This was particularly true for men who rated themselves as attractive and men who were interested in casual sex.

This was not true for one type of man, however. Objectively attractive men, rated so by most women, tended to underestimate their conversation partners' level of interest.  

On the other side, women, including those interested in casual sex, underestimated their conversation partners' interest. The discrepancy increased for the women rated as attractive by men.


Evolutionary pressure could explain the discrepancies on the male side of this equation, say the researchers.

"There are two ways you can make an error as a man," said study researcher and psychologist CarinPerilloux. "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."

The other error is much bigger in terms of reproductive success: "She's interested, and he totally misses out. He misses out on a mating opportunity," Perilloux said.

Men's tendency to overestimate a women's interest, particularly if he also overestimates his own attractiveness, may boost self-confidence and make them appear more attractive as mates, according to the researchers.  

"This pattern of results may reflect a suite of adaptations designed to promote positive illusions among lower-quality men," the researchers write in the study published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.

What's more, men seeking casual sex are limited mostly by a lack of consenting partners, so overestimation is an important way to maximize their chances, according to Perilloux. (There was no relationship between women's interest in casual sex and their misperceptions about their conversation partners.)

Objectively attractive men, meanwhile, have no need to deceive themselves, the researchers noted.

From the female side, women may underestimate men's interest to avoid being perceived as promiscuous and to put up a "choosiness barrier" for truly interested men to overcome, the researchers write. 

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.