When I left home for college, my father took me aside and told me sternly, “Never tell a woman you love her just to get her into bed.” It was good advice—and I followed it.
My father understood that saying “I love you” signals an enduring commitment to a budding relationship. He also understood that, historically speaking, women have been more likely than men to require a sign of commitment before agreeing to have sex.
If both things are true—and studies indicate they are—then men around the world may be more likely than women to first voice those momentous three words. Why? Because a confession of love functions to escalate sexual intimacy—and men are usually more eager to “do it” than women are.
Studies of “Male Confession Bias”
In 2011, a team of behavioral scientists led by Joshua Ackerman at MIT reported the results of six studies that investigated confessions of love. In one study, the researchers discovered that both men and women believe that women are the ones who say “I love you” first, but their beliefs do not match the romantic reality. In two other studies, one that focused on what actually happened in a past relationship and another that focused on what actually happened in a current relationship, men were more likely than women to confess their love first.
Yet another study found that men first considered expressing their feelings of love, on average, six weeks before women did. In other words, men generally were not only the first to say “I love you” but also first to think about saying it.
The findings from these studies, taken together, suggest that “men will often take the initiative in promoting romantic relationships so that they do not incur the costs of missing a potential low-cost mating opportunity” (Ackerman, Griskevicius, & Li, 2011). In evolutionary terms, men lower their reproductive fitness when they fail to make the most of a casual mating opportunity.
Is “Male Confession Bias” Universal?
The studies by Ackerman and his colleagues examined the beliefs and self-reported behaviors of university students and community members in the United States, who may or may not be representative of people elsewhere. To get a fuller picture, psychologist Christopher Watkins at Abertay University formed an international team of researchers to investigate confessions of love in seven different nations—Australia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, France, Poland, and the United Kingdom (Watkins et al., 2022).
Watkins and his team recruited 970 participants—251 men and 719 women, with an average age of 34 years—to complete a love confessions questionnaire online. To be eligible, participants had to be 18 or older, identify as heterosexual, and be able to describe a current or past relationship in which both partners had said “I love you” at least once.
In all seven countries, men and women said that men were more likely to say “I love you” first. In France, 59% of participants said it was the man who had confessed love first in their current or most recent relationship. In Chile, a whopping 81% of participants reported the same thing. (Percentages in the other five countries fell between 62% and 79%.)
All of this constitutes strong evidence for the existence of a “male confession bias.” However, before concluding that the phenomenon is universal, we must consider two methodological limitations to the cross-national study conducted by Watkins and his colleagues. (This is not a criticism of Watkins’s team; all empirical studies have methodological limitations.) First, the number of respondents was small (70 or fewer) in five of the seven countries studied. Generally speaking, we have more faith in findings from large samples. Second, all seven countries studied are considered part of the Western world, with no respondents from Asia or Africa. Romantic relationships on those continents may unfold or develop differently.
In sum, the available evidence indicates that men—maybe everywhere—are more likely to say “I love you” first. Most of these initial confessions of love are probably genuine, although my father’s stern warning is a reminder that, in some circumstances, men who utter those three little words are thinking with their...well, you know.
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Ackerman, J. M., Griskevicius, V. & Li, N. P. (2011). Let’s get serious: Communicating commitment in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(6), 1079–1094.
Watkins, C. D., Bovet, J., Fernandez, A. M., and 4 others. (2022). Men say “I love you” before women do: Robust across several countries. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 39(7), 2134-2153.