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Do They Actually Want Me?: The Sexual Overperception Bias

Have you ever interacted with someone, say at a party, and for you its simply a friendly interaction; a few jokes, some nods, and a couple of smiles but at some point in the conversation it becomes clear the other person thought that those jokes, nods, and smiles were indicative of something more sexual and intimate? If you’ve answered yes to this question, please call 1-800-Sexual Overperception Bias because that’s what just happened.

What is the Sexual Overperception Bias?

The Sexual Overperception Bias is the tendency to believe that others are more sexually interested in you than they actually are. As in the example above the other person in that conversation overestimated the sexual interest when there wasn’t any. Interestingly, this tendency is more common in men than in women. This occurs for many reasons across many different situations.

Coworkers talking over coffee in the breakroom. A situation where the bias may occur. Source: https://detroit.cbslocal.com/2014/08/07/breakrooms-keeping-your-employees-caffeinated-content-2/

            Often times people are able to think of a friend who thinks everyone they interact with is flirting with them and wants a sexual relationship of some sort. It often looks like automatically believing every time someone offers a smile this friend concludes that the person has promiscuous intentions. This bias occurs in party situations, with staff at restaurants and hotels, the cashier at the grocery store, or amongst coworkers in the office. One instance may occur in the workplace where one coworker thinks another coworker is sexually interested in them because this coworker always offers to make them a cup of coffee. When the bias occurs in this situation, it is very likely that the work environment will become tense and uncomfortable. Or it may happen at a restaurant where the waiter’s hospitality is thought of as flirtatious often resulting in discomfort for the waiter while attending to this guest. The bias is also heavily present in romantic comedies, reality television shows, and sitcoms as a cliche for the overconfident guy who often states, “I think she wants me”. But why does this bias even happen, and can it be avoided?

The Sexual Overperception Bias comes from a branch of psychological research called Error Management Theory (1) that thinks of the bias as a type of error. To be exact, this bias is a type 1 error or false positive, in which a person determines there is something present when there is actually nothing present, like assuming the person you just met at a party wants to have sex because they laugh a lot during your conversation. Error management theory and evolutionary psychology (the theoretical approach to psychology that explains useful psychological traits as adaptations) come together to conclude that committing a false-negative, a situation in which a person determines there is nothing present when there is actually something there serves as a greater evolutionary cost because the opportunity to reproduce has been missed (1). For instance, thinking that a person in class does not like you even though they have asked you out every Friday since the first week of the class would be a missed opportunity at having sex, ultimately, ruining your chance of reproducing. While this not the general goal of casual sex in today’s society, our evolutionary instincts still prevail to explain some of our biases, like the sexual overperception bias. This bias is well explained by evolutionary psychologists and error management theory, but as with many biases, there is a cognitive explanation as well. While the cognitive explanations of the sexual overperception bias are unclear due to a lack of research, some connections can be made. Considering what is known about attention and memory, the bias is highly likely to occur because of errors in memory that are directly affected by attention.  It is known that what we attend to determines what gets into memory such that once an event is in memory it is influenced by previous memories. These previous memories will determine how the new memory is understood therefore if a person attends to smiles and nods and sees them as sexually suggestive behaviors then it is more likely that this person will assume others are sexually interested in them when they attend to things like smiles and nods. Couple this understanding with the ever-present overconfident guy in media who assumes everyone wants to get with him and you have the start of an explanation for why men are more likely to commit this error than women.

Meme depiction of how men think prior to committing the sexual overperception bias.
Source: https://diolli.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/she-likes-you.jpg

Remember how sexual overperception bias is more common in men than women? Cognitively, this may occur because of the things males and men are taught to attend to. To illustrate, men are often encouraged to attend to how women treat them and that if a woman treats them nicely it is because she has romantic and sexual interests. In this case, men will then focus their attention on nice behaviors when interacting with women often leading to them perceiving women who are just generally nice as women who are sexually interested in him when in reality they may not be. The cognitive processes of attention and memory collide here and result in misunderstandings in social situations.

On the other hand, evolutionary psychologists believe the reason why men are more likely to commit this error is because of the idea that we must “survive to reproduce”. Therefore, it is a greater advantage for men to assume everyone wants to mate with them solely for the purpose of increasing their chances of reproduction (2). Women are less likely to commit the area because reproduction is more taxing on their bodies due to pregnancy resulting in women having to be more selective in the mating and reproduction processes (2). According to another study (3), it was concluded that the sexual overperception bias was more likely to occur in people who had high self-perceptions of their mate value.

The full quote that showcases perceived high-mate value.
Source: https://www.lifeandstylemag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/the-situation-jersey-shore-quotes-2.jpg

In more simple terms, those who believe they are highly desirable as a long-term mate or marriage partner are more susceptible to thinking that others are sexually interested in them when they are not, much like The Situation from MTV’s Jersey Shore who states that he has “mass appeal” and “everybody” loves him. While much of the research indicates and explains that males are more likely to commit this error, some researchers believe that men and women are more likely to equally commit the bias when aspects such as personal sexual interest in the other person are explored (3). Meaning that a person may be more likely to commit the bias if they are sexually interested in the person they are assuming is sexually interested in them, which is a remnant of the idea of confirmation bias. To test this idea, research in societies that have greater gender equality, continue to show that men disproportionately commit the bias more than women (4).

Even though men are more likely to commit this bias everyone can commit the sexual overperception bias and may have negative consequences in today’s society. The sexual overperception bias may cause tension in friendships, disrupt a peaceful work environment, or even ruin future chances of a sexual relationship with someone if it occurs too soon. Preventing this bias from occurring is important and can be avoided all by simply asking yourself and the person of interest: Do They Really Want Me? Or Am I Just Assuming?

 

 

Sources:

  1. Haselton, M. G. (2003). The sexual overperception bias: Evidence of a systematic bias in men from a survey of naturally occurring events. Journal of Research in Personality, 37(1), 34-47. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0092-6566(02)00529-9.
  2. Haselton, M.G., Nettle, D., Andrews, P.W. (2015). The evolution of cognitive bias. In The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, D.M. Buss (Ed.). https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470939376.ch25
  3. Lee, A. J., Sidari, M. J., Murphy, S. C., Sherlock, J. M., & Zietsch, B. P. (2020). Sex differences in misperceptions of sexual interest can be explained by sociosexual orientation and men projecting their own interest onto women. Psychological science, 31(2), 184–192. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797619900315
  4. Bendixen M. (2014). Evidence of systematic bias in sexual over- and underperception of naturally occurring events: A direct replication of Haselton (2003) in a more gender-equal culture. Evolutionary psychology: an international journal of evolutionary approaches to psychology and behavior12(5), 1004–1021. https://doi.org/10.1177/147470491401200510

 

 

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