Two Factors Explain the Misperception of Sexual Interest

New research explains gender differences in misperceiving sexual interest.

Posted Feb 05, 2020

Sabina Tone/Unsplash
Source: Sabina Tone/Unsplash

New research published by the journal Psychological Science in January 2020 investigates the finding that men generally tend to overperceive women’s sexual interest and women generally tend to underperceive men’s sexual interest (Lee et al., 2020). Single, heterosexual participants with an average age close to 20 met with a maximum of five partners of the opposite sex for a three-minute speed-meeting. Across more than 1,000 individuals engaging in a total of more than 3,000 interactions, researchers assessed individuals’ ratings of their sexual interest in one another.

The researchers explored two different types of accuracy in perceiving sexual interest. The first is called “tracking accuracy” which refers to an individual’s ability to accurately detect the sexual interest of one particular partner, while the second is called “mean-level bias” which refers to men’s ability on average to detect women’s sexual interest across different female partners and women’s ability on average to detect men’s sexual interest across different male partners. 

With regard to tracking accuracy, the authors did find a small effect for a partner’s actual sexual interest on an individual’s rating of that person’s sexual interest, suggesting that these individuals were “somewhat accurate in perceiving the sexual interest of their partners.” Tracking accuracy, however, was not affected by the other factors researchers investigated such as sociosexual orientation or self-perceived attractiveness.

With regard to mean-level bias, the authors found some very interesting results. First, they replicated previous research showing that, in general, men tend to overestimate women’s sexual interest in them and women tend to underestimate men’s sexual interest in them. However, this gender difference was explained by two factors. The first factor was the raters’ own sexual interest. When raters were particularly sexually interested in their partner, they anticipated that their partner was also particularly sexually interested in them. The authors suggest that individuals projected their own feelings of sexual interest onto their partner.

The second factor was sociosexual orientation. Individuals with an unrestricted sociosexual orientation are more open to casual or uncommitted sex. Unrestricted individuals were also more likely to perceive that their partners were sexually interested in them. Taken together, these two factors eliminated the effect of gender on perception of sexual interest. The authors suggest that “the sex difference in misperceptions of sexual interest can be explained by a combination of (a) men scoring higher than women on [unrestricted] sociosexual orientation, which in turn was positively associated with perceptions of sexual interest, and (b) men being more interested in their partners and this interest being associated with [more] perceived interest from their partners.”

Interestingly, our partner’s actual interest in us has a smaller effect on our perception of their sexual interest than our own sexual interest in that partner or our own sociosexual orientation. In other words, our perceptions of another person’s sexual interest are more strongly influenced by our own feelings than the actual feelings of that other person. It is also important to note that these factors influenced the misperceptions of both men and women. For example, women’s tendency to underperceive men’s sexual interest in them was influenced by their tendency to have a more restricted sociosexual orientation (less openness to casual sex) and by their tendency to be less sexually interested in the particular men with whom they interacted. The authors interpret these results to show that “individuals may bias their perceptions of sexual interest according to their sexual strategy.”

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock


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.