Why do men think that women are always flirting with them?
Sexual Overperception Bias, explained.
What is Sexual Overperception Bias?
The sexual overperception bias relates to the tendency to overperceive another individual’s sexual interest in oneself. The bias predominantly occurs in men, where they are more likely to overestimate a woman’s sexual interest while women are more likely to underestimate a man’s.
Where it occurs
It might be easy to recall an optimistic male friend or acquaintance who thinks every female waitress is flirting with him. Every time a woman so much as smiles at him, he jumps to promiscuous conclusions.
While the man’s “I think she’s got a thing for me,” perceptive tendency is a common stereotype that has made an appearance in countless romantic comedies and sitcoms, there is a rich layer of evolutionary theory and experimental evidence beneath the gendered cliché.
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Since sexual intent is rarely expressed explicitly, it is subject to misunderstandings and inaccuracies. Research shows that men are more likely to overperceive a potential partner’s sexual interest, while women are more likely to underperceive it.1 This finding does not imply that all men overperceive sexual interest, or that such overperception cannot occur amongst women. It does imply, however, that men are more likely to be susceptible to the bias than women.
Regardless of the notable sex differences, the bias can lead to incongruent social interactions with one individual falsely assuming another is interested in them sexually. If this assumption is acted on, it can lead to an inappropriate or uncomfortable interaction between the individuals, and in the context of the workplace, these misperceptions can hinder present and future relationships between colleagues.
Runaway sexual overperception bias on a group level can lead to toxic work cultures where women often find themselves in uncomfortable situations as their male colleagues falsely presume sexual interest.
Multiple studies have found that while the sexual overperception bias is greater among men, this effect can be explained by an individual’s level of sociosexuality–one’s willingness to engage in sexual activity outside of a committed relationship.2 In one study, where participants judged the flirtatiousness of faces, sociosexuality scores actually explained a greater share of the overperception than sex alone (it is worth noting that sociosexuality is generally higher among men as a group across most cultures.3)
Social spaces where there is a greater prominence of sociosexuality (e.g., college campuses) may be more prone to sexual overperception bias. On a similar thread, research on the bias has also found that men scoring higher in self-reported masculinity, are more prone to sexual overperception.4 This could mean that workplaces with greater levels of masculine culture would experience more instances of sexual overperception bias.
Why it happens
Ideas from evolutionary biology are largely accountable for the most prominent theories around why we see a sexual overperception bias. As reproductive rates have the potential to be higher in men than women, it is more “costly” for men to miss a mating opportunity than it is for women, and these differences in costs result in men being more sensitive to sexually opportunistic cues. In less academic terms: since men don’t have to go through the laborious journey of child-rearing in order to pass their DNA along, they’re naturally inclined to be more attentive to the possibility of sex as it’s less costly for them to replicate their genes than it is for women.
With a greater implicit attentiveness, the prevalence of false-positives in judging sexual interest is inevitable. This type of cognitive error has persisted over generations of homo sapiens, however, and is the crux of error-management theory (EMT).5 EMT suggests that certain cognitive biases can persist throughout evolutionary processes when the cost of one type of error is greater than the alternative. For biological males, a false-positive manifested in the sexual overperception bias is less costly than a false-negative, where a woman would be expressing sexual interest but the man would be oblivious (no gene replication for him!)
Evolutionary explanations such as EMT are very theory-heavy, and though they may offer a compelling story to anyone who values Darwinian logic, it is important to keep in mind that if there’s any truth to them, it’s likely only part of the story, as nature and nurture often work together rather than apart.
Some experts have contested the evolutionary angle, suggesting the sex differences found in the research can be eliminated by exploring additional individual differences apart from sex, such as sociosexuality, as previously highlighted, as well as self-rated attractiveness and personal sexual interest in the other person.1 Others, meanwhile, have suggested that the bias is culturally dependent rather than determined by sex, meaning overperception is a product of societal norms where men are expected to initiate sexual behavior. A study conducted in Norway however, a country high in gender equality and egalitarianism, also found sexual overperception to occur disproportionately in men compared to women, supporting the EMT framework.6
Why it is important
Sexual overperception bias is a far-reaching cognitive error as it potentially rests at the core of a number of workplace harassment incidences. In a corporate landscape where people are often conspicuously warm and amiable with one another, the opportunity for misperceptions in sexual interest is unfortunately vast.
A 2016 study by a special task force under the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission,7 found that 60% of women say they experience “unwanted sexual attention, sexual coercion, sexually crude conduct, or sexist comments,” in the workplace. Although there are certainly a number of factors that contribute to the issue, addressing the sexual overperception bias is a strong starting point in understanding and rectifying the injustices women experience in the workplace.
How to avoid it
While the sexual overperception bias is important to keep in mind when making a judgment on another’s sexual interest, it is even more crucial to do so when considering whether to act on suspected interest. One should consider whether the time and place are appropriate to probe such a belief. It can also be helpful to consider the evidence in the third person. If you had seen a woman hold the door and smile for another man, would you really wager that she’s seducing him? As the colloquial antidote to vanity goes: Don’t flatter yourself.
How it all started
The sexual overperception bias first emerged in the academic literature in 1982 following a paper from Antonia Abbey.8 Abbey’s lab study found that male participants perceived female actors to be more seductive. She also discovered that men were more likely than women to perceive interactions in sexual terms and make sexual judgments, and that male participants seemed to perceive mere friendliness from females as seduction.
Since Abbey’s original paper, numerous studies have replicated its findings using an array of methodologies. While the notion that sexual overperception bias being mostly a male phenomenon persists throughout the research, the interpretation of such a statement remains mixed, with some hesitant to draw evolutionary conclusions, arguing there is more nuance to the effect apart from just sex differences.
Example 1 - #MeToo
Without relating to any specific cases, it’s not hard to imagine an incident where a female subordinate exhibits friendliness around a male superior, who in turn interprets it as sexual interest and subsequently makes advancements towards the woman.
These interpretive social asymmetries are all too familiar in the context of the sexual overperception bias. With perceptions of sexual interest stemming from feedback as subtle as body language,9 despite their inaccuracy, these misperceptions can lead to the inappropriate behavior we eventually read about in the newspaper. Many of the men involved in these high-profile #MeToo cases claim the situation was a misunderstanding or miscommunication.
Example 2 - Speed Dating
Researchers Carin Perilloux, Judith Easton, and David Buss used a speed-dating paradigm to explore the sexual overperception bias.10 They had opposite sex undergraduate participants rotate around a room engaging in 3-minute conversations about neutral topics. Perilloux and colleagues found the usual effect: that the men overestimated the women’s sexual interest while the women underestimated it. Interestingly, they found that the magnitude of men’s overperception was related to a woman’s physical attractiveness. In other words, men were more likely to think a woman was into them when they thought that woman was attractive.
What it is
The sexual overperception bias relates to the tendency to overperceive another individual’s sexual interest.
Why it happens
Many support the evolutionary framework of error-management theory in accounting for the sexual overperception bias. There are however, additional individual differences apart from sex that can explain some of the effects. Overall, the phenomenon is likely a result of a number of factors.
Example 1 – #MeToo
Sexual overperception bias provides psychological context to the contentious discussion surrounding the #MeToo movement. Although the bias cannot tell us which situations are and are not appropriate, it can offer insight into the why behind some of these problematic incidences.
Example 2 – Speed Dating
Researchers applied a speed dating paradigm in exploring the sexual overperception bias. They were able to replicate classic findings, and also found that men were even more likely to overperceive sexual interest when the woman was attractive.
How to avoid it
Like with many cognitive biases, it helps to acknowledge that what you see is not always what others see. We see what we believe, with such beliefs not always being true. In the cases of sexual overperception bias, it is important not to jump to early conclusions based on a potentially flawed perception.
Related TDL articles
Although not directly related to the sexual overperception bias, this piece addresses gender-related implicit biases in the workplace at large, and how they ultimately disadvantage women.
This piece covers a different area of research in sex differences that have implications in the workplace: self-perception. Analogous to the sexual overperception bias, men tend to overestimate their intelligence while women tend to underestimate it.