Why Is It So Hard to Tell If Someone Likes You?
... because no one likes uncertainty in romance.
Posted Mar 31, 2016
One of the most frustrating things about dating and relationships is trying to figure out whether a person has romantic feelings for you. People often look for advice on how to know whether a woman finds you attractive or how to tell when a guy will commit. In trying to mind read someone's thoughts and feelings in this way, however, mistakes are often made. For example, due to your own biases, you may see interest that is not there—or miss signs of attraction that are indeed present.
In either case, biases of over-perceiving or under-perceiving romantic interest can lead to problems. Most notably, these inaccurate perceptions lead to getting stuck in the friend zone, or a non-committal friends-with-benefits arrangement. Such biases may also contribute to problems in friendships between the sexes.
All that aside, though, why is it so hard to tell whether someone likes you—and what can be done about it? I went back to the research for answers—and, as usual, I found some:
Error Management Theory and Romantic Perceptions
In evolutionary and social psychology, the topic of "mind reading" in mating and romantic relationships is covered by Error Management Theory. The theory, devised by Haselton and Buss (2000), suggests that we are often biased in our romantic perceptions because we have evolved to err in specific ways, which may serve other mating advantages.
More specifically, the theory rests on the foundation that mating costs are biologically different for men and women: Men's contribution of sperm is fairly cheap and easy—while women's nine months of pregnancy (and the nursing after) is quite costly. As a result, men are often best served by not missing easy sexual opportunities and have evolved biases to perceive female desire—even when none exists. Women, however, are best served by avoiding men who will not invest in them further and have evolved biases to discount men's signs of commitment—even when men are sincere.
This can lead problems when men overestimate women's sexual interest, or when women miss out by being overly skeptical of men with good intentions.
Several studies have been conducted to further evaluate these effects (Haselton & Buss, 2000, Henningsen & Henningsen, 2010). Support has been found for both men's tendency to over-perceive women's sexual interest and women's tendency to be skeptical of men's commitment intentions. The research also indicates that more individual biases creep in too, with both men and women projecting their own level of sexual or commitment interest on a partner as well.
Overall, then, we seem to not be very accurate in our perceptions of desire and commitment, due to both evolved/biological and socio-emotional reasons.
How to Know Whether They Like You
Given the above, how can you tell whether someone really likes you? How can you overcome the biases that may be inherent in your perceptions? The answer comes from the fact that we are all right some of the time, too! And when we get it right, it's usually because we're more focused on objective and concrete indications of interest, rather than biased feelings and perceptions.
To be clear, that means our accuracy increases when we focus more on how the other person is actually behaving, and less on our own personal thoughts and feelings. So to get a better measure of someone's sexual or romantic interest, focus on what they do at least as much as on what they say.
Specifically, pay attention to the following:
- Body Language. When someone is interested in you, they tend to have open and forward body language. They may take a few minutes to warm up, but you should see them lean in and get a bit more animated in their movements as they get into the conversation. They will also be likely to make more eye contact. Essentially, if they like you, they will pay attention to you and behave positively toward you.
- Touch. Another behavior that shows interest and attraction is touch. When someone is attracted to you, they will likely find some excuse to touch you more, and be more receptive to your touch as well. They may even increase their touching over time, going from friendly handshakes to more intimate embraces. If you want to be extra sure of their desire, you could see whether and how they kiss you as well. Given that, if they touch you frequently, affectionately, and pucker up for a kiss, they may desire more with you too—with the right motivation anyway.
- Investment. When someone is truly in love with you, they will invest in the relationship. They will make a commitment, by claiming you publicly, introducing you to friends and family, and making you part of their life. Beyond that, they will try to maintain your commitment to them by managing their appearance and tending to your needs as well. Overall, if they are invested, supportive, and proud of the relationship with you, then they are likely committed, too.
- Gratitude. Finally, if someone really cares about you, then they will show gratitude for your investments in them as well. It may be in the form of tending to your needs back, or a thoughtful gift. Either way, a verbal "thanks" should be followed up with a tangible, caring behavior, too. Essentially, someone who truly cares will show appreciation for what you do by reciprocating, meeting your needs, and making sure the relationship works for you both.
Overall, then, focusing on these tangible behaviors can give you a better indication of whether someone really likes you, loves you, desires you, or all of the above. They also serve as concrete measurements of interest, which reduces some of the natural bias in all of our perceptions. That will help you "know" more, and "wonder" less.
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- Haselton, M.G., & Buss, D.M. (2000). Error management theory: A new perspective on biases in cross-sex mind reading. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 81-91.
- Henningsen, D.D., & Henningsen, M.L.M. (2010). Testing error management theory: Exploring the commitment skepticism bias and the sexual overperception bias. Human Communication Research, 36, 618-634.
© 2016 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.