Understanding the attraction between men and women

How many times have we all, at some point in our lives, misinterpreted signs? Movies like 'He's Just Not That into You', which is based on Greg Behrendt's and Liz Tuccillo's 2004 self-help book of the same name, tells people that if a man in whom you are interested is not making an effort to pursue you, he is "just not that into you."

Research has long indicated that it is mostly men, who tend to misperceive friendliness as sexual interest. They overestimate the sexual interest of potential mates. Even when two people have clearly defined their relationship as platonic, more often, it is the men, who are attracted to their opposite-sex friends.

According to Dr Goh Pei Hwa from the Jeffrey Cheah School of Medicine and Health Sciences, this is not always the case. While the majority of existing findings show the above-mentioned pattern of men overperceiving sexual interest, relationship researchers have demonstrated that among heterosexual couples in committed relationships, men were more likely to underperceive sexual interest from their partners. Men from certain cultures were also less likely to overperceive sexual interest than others. In other words, the "male over perception bias" appears to be less universal than previously assumed.

In her recent work, Dr Goh revisited the question of gender differences in sexual perception accuracy using a face-to-face, laboratory-based interaction paradigm on a sample of university students in Malaysia. Participants consisted of 62 previously unacquainted heterosexual dyads aged 20 years on average. Each participant was randomly paired with another participant of the other sex, and each dyad engaged in a semi-structured conversation task for five minutes.

After the interaction task, participants completed measures capturing their degree of sexual interest in their interaction partner and an estimation of their partner's sexual interest in them. Results revealed that people's perception of their partner’s sexual interest did not match their partner's actual sexual interest. This indicates that people generally lacked accuracy in their perception of sexual interest. In fact, people's perception of sexual interest was highly in line with their own sexual interest in their interaction partner. More importantly, no gender differences were found. This means that both men and women were equally inaccurate and equally likely to project their own sexual interest onto their estimations of their partner’s sexual interest.

"In essence, people are bad at interpreting sexual interest from strangers. Based on the research, Malaysian men do not overperceive sexual interest as past studies have suggested. Women, on the other hand, tend to underperceive sexual interest, supporting past studies," says Goh.

The current study advances our understanding that people are generally underperceiving sexual interest in initial interactions, regardless of gender. That is, people are either not communicating their sexual interest effectively or missing all the sexual interest cues being expressed by someone else. Here, it translates into a lot of potentially missed opportunities. This is highly applicable to first meetings between potential partners, which begs the question: does technology further impede our ability to gauge the sexual interest of others accurately?

If accurate perception is a skill that can be exercised with repeated exposure and practice, wouldn't the frequent reliance on dating apps, which simplify the interest perception part of the relationship initiation process, rob us of the opportunity to exercise our interest perception skills? With such apps, we typically already know that we are chatting with someone who finds us attractive or appealing to a certain extent. Thus, there is no need to try to decipher whether or not someone is into us based on the interaction.

So, why are people being perceived as less interested than they really are during initial interactions? This usually stems from one's self-protective strategy to minimise interpersonal risk, such as rejection from a potential romantic partner. While this may be self-protective on an immediate level, it is self-destructive in the long run.

"When people perceive low interest from a potential partner, they are less likely to get their hopes up and thus invest in the formation of a relationship. Low investment means a low risk of getting hurt. So, onto the next potential partner!" shares Goh.

However, the experience of perceiving low interest is similar to the perception of rejection. People who consistently perceive that people are less sexually interested in them tend to develop a more inferior sense of self-worth as a relationship partner over time. In other words, the perceived rejection can be as damaging or even more damaging than an actual rejection from the potential partner.

Goh concludes: "If you like someone or have some interest in a person, express it more overtly. This will invite the other person to respond according to his or her own interest in you. Let the other person decide if he or she is interested, not you and your potentially (or most likely) wrong perceptions".