Whether you're married, single or somewhere in between, you've likely dealt with the ambiguous dance of romantic courtship at some point. Even long-term couples who naively assumed ‘all that' would be over once they settled down have to mind their Ps and Qs lest they give the impression of being on the ‘married but looking' market.

While courting rituals have changed over time, partners have long used ambiguous social signals. Ambiguity provides a buffer for the ‘signaler's' reputation as they try to gauge the recipient's sexual interest. It's widely known that men are more likely to jump to sexual conclusions than women; a theory of error management (EMT) suggests that this is because evolutionarily, missed opportunities were more costly than false alarms for men. While a rejection may be socially embarrassing, most women don't respond antagonistically to an unwelcome overture in an appropriate context, and the courtship energy spent on false alarms is relatively trivial for most men. Given the ‘cost asymmetries',  the theory assumes that men evolved an over perception bias. The new study builds on this knowledge, finding surprising differences among different types of men. It also delves into the lesser examined under inference of sexual interest among women.

Any girl who survived adolescence likely remembers the local lothario, ever-confident despite numerous rejections, approaching as many girls as need be to get to ‘yes. ‘ In the scientific parlance, such men are pegged as having ‘short-term mating concerns.' The researchers hypothesized that since identifying the scads of ladies required to supply these short-term maters would be more difficult, men inclined towards short-term mating would have a larger over perception bias than men looking for the real deal so to speak. The researchers noted that women looking for short-term lovers also place a premium on physical attractiveness and qualities that would be attractive to other women. Men with short-term mating interests participating in the study were more likely to rate themselves as attractive and to overpercieve women's sexual interest. So far, all this fits with your basic Dazed and Confused ‘Wooderson' type, but the researchers go on to find that women, particularly more attractive women, tend to underpercieve male interest.

The speed dating set-up of the study should be familiar to most everyone who has a television or has dated in the aughts-but it was a fairly novel approach for a lab experiment. While previous experiments focused on single interactions, the speed-dating set-up was able to capture interactions with multiple partners. The participants came to the lab and did a basic self-evaluation rating their own attractiveness, received verbal instructions on what to do and then the real fun began. Partners of one sex waited in the rooms while those of the opposite sex rotated. After three-minute conversations on neutral topics, the dyads were asked to rate the partner's facial and bodily attractiveness (hopefully they did not share those findings with the subjects!) their interest in the partner, and the partner's perceived interest in them.

As predicted, men over inferred sexual interest from their female partners and women largely under inferred sexual interest from the men. The more attractive a woman was, the more likely the men were to over infer sexual interest. Missed opportunities to mate with an attractive female are deemed more costly than missed opportunities with a less attractive mate (apparently attractiveness and facial symmetry correlates with reproductive health). Male confidence did not seem to be a huge barrier with these foxy ladies as short-term maters basically seemed think they were pretty hot to begin with. Surprisingly, the men who actually were attractive to women rated themselves somewhat lower. The researchers hypothesized that perhaps men who actually were attractive to women didn't need to harbor so many positive allusions and male over-confidence may have been an adaptation that lesser-quality males evolved to give them the boost they needed to approach women. I personally found this to be the most confusing and convoluted reasoning in the study write-up. While they weren't claiming any certainty or causality here--just fishing about for potential explanations, the line of thinking does provide a window into future studies that might be designed.

Surprisingly, the researchers also found that attractive women were the most likely to under infer interest. David Buss has hypothesized that this may also be, "an adaptive function to deflect unwanted sexual interest, to prevent a reputation for sexual promiscuity, and to implement a ‘choosiness barrier' that truly interested men must overcome." It occurred to me that a very attractive woman who is essentially the constant focus of unusually peaked interest might just normalize this level of attention and require nothing short of self-exposure to get the point--but perhaps this just another way of saying what Buss was suggesting.

As I mentioned above, some of the hypothetical explanations in the paper seemed convoluted and perhaps stretched a bit thin. At times, I wondered whether they really had enough merit to be presented in a peer-reviewed paper (even though they were openly unsubstantiated) or whether the authors ought to have waited for more substantial evidence to even ‘go there.' For the many critics of evolutionary psychology (I count myself an interested but wary fan), it provides a window into how study ideas are conceived and eventually designed. Naturally, the type of questions we ask and how we ask them has a significant impact on how the research bears out. Given the potential for ‘biology equals destiny' interpretations in fields like evolutionary psychology, and the sheer bluntness of the material (who really wants to be told that they possess less fertility fitness if their facial symmetry is a little out of whack) the findings generally inspire as much intrigue as controversy. Other oft-cited issues include the difficulty of really sussing out our evolutionary environment, vagueness, genetic vs. adaptive behaviors and questions as to whether an under inferrence of sexual interest on the part of women (for instance) is really a cognitive bias or just a difference of self-report.

Like many a writer or thinker under fire, evolutionary psychologists have retorted that critics have simply misread their work, misunderstood the science and/or perhaps the entire field. As an intrigued bystander, I can't definitively say one way or another but one thing is certain.  You can count on the bankability of over/under inferrence of sexual interest between the genders the next time you're on a date trying to determine the all important question of whether he or she is into you.

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