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Why First Moves Often Go Unnoticed

... and the separate mistakes men and women make.

Key points

  • People who fear rejection often fall prey to "signal amplification bias" by thinking their romantic overtures reveal more than they truly do.
  • Heterosexual men and women differ in their inferences about whether someone is romantically attracted to them or not.
  • Men tend to overestimate others’ romantic interests because the cost of a missed mating opportunity is high.
  • Women tend to underestimate others’ romantic interests because the cost of potentially having a child with an uninterested partner is high.

Making the first move can be nerve-wracking. Walking across the room and starting a conversation with someone to whom you are romantically attracted, for instance, may feel like a herculean effort. You’re aware of how attractive your crush is, how much your hands are sweating, how your heart is racing, and how your stomach is filling so full of butterflies that you’re about to puke.

What do you say when you gather the courage to make the first move? Being too straightforward about your romantic interest may be perceived as desperate or creepy. Being rejected immediately would likely sting, so you decide to play it cool by introducing yourself and asking a low-stakes question: “How’s it going?”

Now switch perspectives. Imagine someone across the room came over to you, introduced themselves, and asked how it was going. You don’t know that they found you attractive, nor the herculean effort required of them to initiate this conversation. So, you politely answer, leave, and later assume that this person must have had an extroverted personality or grew up in some friendly midwestern state. The thought that they were interested in you romantically may never have crossed your mind.

So, why did this romantic overture go unnoticed?

Signal Amplification Bias

Romantic overtures may go unnoticed because of a signal amplification bias. That is, some people think their romantic overtures reveal more than they truly do.

Signal amplification biases are especially likely for people who fear being rejected. For those who fear rejection, the thought of walking across the room and starting a conversation with someone they’re attracted to may feel like a scene from a horror movie. Making the first move requires them to overcome all the fear and anxiety coursing through their bodies. So, when they approach someone they’re attracted to and ask a seemingly innocuous question—“How’s it going?”—they assume it conveys much more romantic interest than it actually does.

To test this signal amplification bias, psychology researchers Jacquie Voreaur, Jessica Cameron, John Holmes, and Deanna Pearce measured people’s anxious attachment style—i.e., how much they feared being rejected—before asking them to imagine being at a party and meeting someone single, attractive, and with whom they seemed to have a lot in common.

Then they imagined, at the end of the evening, being alone in the kitchen and talking with this single, attractive person who seemed like a great match. Afterward, they rated how much they thought this late-night conversation communicated their romantic interest and attraction.

Findings revealed that people who had a greater fear of rejection overestimated how much their conversation revealed their true feelings. The more they feared rejection, the more they thought their romantic interest and attraction were apparent.

But other people aren’t mindreaders. Those who fear rejection and still make the first move might feel transparent, but others may miss their intention. This is unfortunate because dating often involves inferring other people’s true feelings and intentions and, at times, may lead to missed opportunities.

Assuming your first move isn’t towards Miss Cleo or some psychic with a crystal ball, how do people not miss romantic opportunities?

The Cost of Missed Opportunities

Heterosexual men and women differ in their inferences about whether someone is romantically attracted to them or not. Men tend to overestimate others’ romantic interests. In comparison, women tend to underestimate others’ romantic interests. But why?

According to error management theory, there are a couple of errors (or mistakes) that single people can make when inferring whether someone is truly into them.

  1. False-positive. “I think they’re into me!” But in reality, they were not.
  2. False-negative. “I don’t think they’re into me.” But in reality, they actually were.

Both men and women strive not to commit errors when inferring another’s romantic interest, but, at times, errors happen. The cost of each error is different for men and women, which means that each gender is motivated to avoid whatever error may be more costly for them.

Errors for Men? A false positive has a relatively small cost for men. They might assume a woman is attracted to them, “shoot their shot,” but then get rebuffed. The cost is only wounded pride or the price of the drink they sent to her table.

A false negative, on the other hand, is a missed opportunity for love or mating. From an evolutionary perspective, missing a chance to pass on your genes is a big cost. So, men are especially motivated to avoid false negatives; instead, they tend to overestimate others’ romantic interests.

Errors for Women? The calculus changes for women. Because women bear children, a false positive—i.e., assuming a man is interested (when in fact he wasn’t)—is a big deal from an evolutionary perspective. Mating and potentially having a child with someone who was never truly interested might incur the cost of raising a child alone. Thus, women tend to avoid false positives and underestimate others’ romantic interests.

The cost of a false negative, however, isn’t as steep. Missing out on a truly interested guy may hurt for a bit, but there are plenty of fish in the sea.

Thus, first moves may go unnoticed for several reasons. If you fear rejection, it may be worthwhile to face your fears and shoot your shot. But remember, women tend to underestimate others’ romantic interests. So, consider being upfront and transparent with how you feel. After all, people can’t read your mind.

Facebook image: Body Stock/Shutterstock

References

Haselton, M. G., & Galperin, A. (2013). Error management in relationships. In J. A. Simpson & L. Campbell (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of close relationships (pp. 234–254). Oxford University Press.

Vorauer, J. D., Cameron, J. J., Holmes, J. G., & Pearce, D. G. (2003). Invisible overtures: Fears of rejection and the signal amplification bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(4), 793-812.

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