Is She Just Friendly?

Men often have trouble knowing what women want.  In particular, men have trouble telling if a women is just being friendly or has a more sexual interest.  This is often blamed on male overconfidence and lack of empathy, but taken together two new papers from the April Psychological Science suggest otherwise.  One paper suggests that people with more empathy can only better read the emotions of those who are trying to be read:

We found that perceivers’ trait affective empathy was unrelated to empathic accuracy unless targets’ trait expressivity was taken into account: Perceivers’ trait affective empathy predicted accuracy only for expressive targets. These data suggest that perceivers’ self-reported affective empathy can indeed predict their empathic accuracy, but only when targets’ expressivity allows their thoughts and feelings to be read.

The other paper says men are not so much biased as clueless about female sexual intent:

Men perceive more sexual intent in women’s behavior than women perceive or report intending to convey. … We found no evidence that men have lenient thresholds for perceiving women’s nonverbal behavior as indicating sexual interest. Rather, gender differences were captured by a relative perceptual insensitivity among men. Just as in previous studies, men were more likely than women to misperceive friendliness as sexual interest, but they also were quite likely to misperceive sexual interest as friendliness.

Maybe, just maybe, most women do not want men and others to read their intent.

Added: Feminist Critics provokes:

Feminists seem to focus on the costs to women of men being sexually eager or optimistic in interpreting women’s implicit signals, while ignoring the costs to women of men being sexually anxious or pessimistic in interpreting women’s signals. The behavior of heterosexual women provides men incentives to be optimistic about women’s signals, yet I have only ever heard feminists encourage men to be more pessimistic about whether women are sexually interested, and never to be more optimistic. After reading some feminist material, it’s a wonder any man can make a move on a woman with anything less than a signed affidavit from her that she is interested.  (HT to Doug S)

See also these thoughtful comments on male seduction.

Added 19Apr: See this great comment on self-deception in dating preferences.

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  • burger flipper

    and sometimes maybe the women are not consciously aware of their own intent, and thus misreport.

  • that makes sense. i’ve heard infidelity explained as an insurance policy. a woman cheats because she wants someone else to fall back on if her primary mate isn’t providing. if a woman herself doesn’t know her intent or clearly telegraph it, she can keep men interested, and her options open, while being able to credibly claim she wasn’t intending to, which could protect her relationship with her primary mate. the strategy she is following (i’m thinking unconsciously) is to keep the primary mate if he’s good, supplement him if he’s not able to provide fully, and replace him if need be, and a strategic ambiguity is perhaps the best approach.

  • “Maybe, just maybe, most women do not want men and others to read their intent”

    It might be interesting to note that women have powerful social incentives to deceive or withhold in certain situations.

    “and sometimes maybe the women are not consciously aware of their own intent, and thus misreport”

    The very definition of the word “intent,” burger flipper, requires conscious awareness, as it is the desire and planning to perform an act. So yes we are. That is: consent is possible.

  • What about the complement of 1: are people who DON’T self-report as empathy as likely to read projected empathy as those who do? In that case, a self-assessment of empathetic would be meaningless…the conjecture seems suggested by the thought that anyone paying attention should be able to read another person if the other is trying hard to project his/her emotional state. That would mean empathy/lack thereof is not distinguishable from ‘attentive’ (something I’ve always suspected — I am not empathetic, but can usually see what people are feeling if I decide to pay attention).

    The second one seems much more likely to be due to cultural factors. Most cultures REQUIRE women to be very ambiguous and coy in projecting sexual interest (which I supposed could be an evolutionary adaptation against aggression from an apparently interesting but as yet unknown male). Men OTOH, are REQUIRED to be explicit (“may I buy you a drink” variety). If you consider those tribes where, say, at the communal harvest dance or something, single women wear some special piece of jewelry etc., to signal availability, this confusion is less likely.

    The ‘button’ parties that I’ve heard of (people wearing color-coded buttons signaling their status — green for single, red for not, yellow for ‘wants to cheat’ or something…) seem similar.

    point being, availability+conversational engagement=pretty low nice signal for ‘interest.’


  • i’m being confusing about intention, though. to be more clear, she might want one thing, to send a clear message of friendliness (or sexual interest), but her actions serve a strategy of ambiguity.

    she might genuinely intend not to lead a man on, but her actions effectively keep him on the hook, and this ends up serving some good for her evolutionary fitness, and is amplified by the evolutionary process. similarly, if she wants an affair with a man, her behavior might be indistinguishable from friendliness, and so she can claim later she didn’t mean to when her primary mate is suspicious. also, ambiguity might encourage many bidders for her affections, and increase her chances of getting gifts and attention that help her children and hence her evolutionary fitness.

  • for last line, read ‘noise’ for nice.

  • Torben

    frelkins, maybe if we did physiological measurements on these women, we’d learn that a slight increase in body temperature, perspiration, vaginal circulation, etc. would correspond to when men perceived their interest, but they self-report ‘not interested’? Or maybe women don’t report honestly. Or maybe it’s beneficial for men to just go at anything, regardless of the odds?

    And you dont really think your intent is completely under your conscious control, do you?

  • “And you dont really think your intent is completely under your conscious control, do you?”

    Yes Torben, yes I do. “Intent” by definition is under conscious control. If I don’t have intent, I can’t consent, and it’s rape. So frankly, trust me guys, it’s really in your interest to believe we skirts know what we are doing. And sometimes we have to flirt, or in others deceive. It’s a time-honored monkey strategy, but we sure do know what’s going on.

    We are equal moral agents with the same capacity as men. Why all these statements implying that chicks don’t know their own minds?

  • Silas

    Maybe, just maybe, most women do not want men and others to read their intent.

    I think we have a winner here. For this and other reasons, signals of a woman’s interest (early in the relationship) must have “plausible deniability”. Thus, you have to permit a lot of false positives just to notice anything.

    Go look at any video or guide that teaches the signals women give to show interest: smiling, looking you in the eye, “softening face”, “looking away and back”. By this standard, “playing with hair” counts as overt!

  • anonymous

    Frelkins: The idea that both women and men sometimes fail to understand their own motivations is widespread (a standard assumption, even) in literature and movies, psychoanalysis, and pop-psychology. Whether it stands up to scientific scrutiny I don’t know.

  • Nick Tarleton

    Taboo “intent”. It’s definitely possible (for women and men, about sex or anything else) to have conflicting drives, including unconscious drives that affect behavior despite not being noticed and contradicting conscious desires. This has little to do with consent; acting against someone’s expressed conscious desire is obviously still rape.

  • Torben

    frelkins, I agree with anonymous and Nick Tarleton. I’m not trying to advocate rape; the argument goes for anything, not just sexual interest. And if the tables had been turned on the gender issue, I’d have made the exact same question.
    Anyhow, it’s well-known that subconscious stimuli (smells, inserted movie frames) may affect behaviour, unbeknownst to the supposed little fella inside your head. So why not when it comes to sexual attraction? I sure can’t predict why I fall in love with one person and the other not. Sometimes, it’s even the reverse of what I would have guessed. Then whose intent are we talking about?

    Finally, you ignored the stronger point of my post, namely that this is an empirical question. We could actual measure subconscious female arousal and check if it correlated with male alleged misperception or not.

  • Stuhlmann

    I think there are two explanations here. The first is that men (especially young men who don’t have much experience with women) generally will have sexual interest in just about any woman, and therefore tend to assume that women react the same way to men. The second is that men (again especially young men) tend to be optimists and their hopes may cause them to misread women.

  • Roland

    In particular, men have trouble telling if a women is just being friendly or has a more sexual interest.

    If any man here is in need of practical advice on how to find out if she has sexual interest: in case of doubt try to escalate the situation in a physical sense(more touching etc…) or otherwise(invite her to go out with you) and see if she goes along with it.

    It is hard or impossible to read a person’s interests but there are practical ways to find out.

  • Roland

    @ Stuhlmann:
    The second is that men (again especially young men) tend to be optimists and their hopes may cause them to misread women.

    This is a good point. Misreading may be an advantage for men. If you misread a woman and try to have sex with her at most you will get a no. But if you don’t try you will miss opportunities, even when the woman was interested in the first place. So it might be advantageous for men to mostly misread in the positive(she wants sex) direction. This might be a reason why this behaviour was reinforced through evolution.

  • Doug S.

    I’ve read some criticism of the second study’s methodology. I’m reposting it here.

    Farris’ describes the stimulus set as follows:

    Extensive pilot testing produced a set of 280 full-bodied images of clothed women displaying one of the four dating-relevant emotions. Initially a sample of 497 undergraduate men provided normative ratings of 1,127 images of undergraduate women who displayed a variety of emotions and wore different clothing styles. The men used 7-point scales to rate how friendly, sexually interested, sad, rejecting, attractive, and provocatively dressed each woman was. Those images rated above the median on the scales of interest were retained for consideration. From this group, we selected images such that approximately half of the retained images were rated above the midpoint for provocative dress. Note that the women in the photos were instructed to select clothing from their own wardrobes; therefore, the variance along the clothing-style continuum is representative of the range of clothing styles that a college student would observe among his or her peers.

    As the final step in generating the photo set, we asked a new sample of undergraduates (80 men and 80 women) to categorise the women in the photographs as friendly, sexually interested, sad, or rejecting. A photograph was retained if the majority of men and the majority of women categorised the picture into the same affect group. We used a majority criterion, rather than a strong consensus criterion, to ensure some variability within each category, as variability is required to model the theoretically relevant perception parameters. Finally, in selecting the photographs to be used in the experiement, we examined attractiveness ratings from the original normative sample and ensured that attractiveness was held constant across the four target types. The final set of 280 photographs consisted of 70 images in each of the four affect categories.

    Crucially omitted from this description is any indication that the women depicted intended to signal the emotion her photo was ultimately characterised as, or for that matter, to signal anything at all. The classifications were purely a result of how the three normatising samples rated these Rorschach inkblots. The fiinal result, then, measures not how well men and women interpret signals, but how much variance there is among men and among women over which interpretation to place on a particular image. Even if these signals were genuinely present in the photos, it’s possible, that some of the additional variance among the men might arise because some of them are much more sensitive to certain cues than most, and therefore correctly categorise photos mischaracterised by the majority.

    In any case, one can hardly conclude that women send uninterpretable signals on the basis of a study in which there’s no indication that any women sent any signals at all.

  • Roland and Stuhlmann, the second paper I cite says men are not optimistically biased regarding female sexual intent.

  • nal

    The more males that are sexually interested in a female, the more mating choices that female has. A female’s primary interest is not to have sex with as many males as possible, but to select a mate who will devote his efforts to the raising of her children. The male she selects must be assured that the child is his or he may not be fully committed to the child’s upbringing. It is in the female’s interest to attract as many males as she can while only having sex with one.

  • poke

    Presumably the strongest explanation for ambiguity is that there’s strong social pressure against women being explicit in their interest, whereas men more often provide women with explicit verbal cues of interest that are difficult to misinterpret.

  • Wil O’Neal

    It’s also important to remember that intentions can change over the course of a single encounter. A woman may be attracted to a man only in a “friendly” way only to become attracted to him in a more sexually charged way based on the complexion of their encounter. We call this “having game” in the black community.

  • Do these papers measure empathy ratings by how men respond to women or by how men perceive these invitations, regardless of how they react to them? I’d assume the latter, but bringing up the former still offers an important point: when men can’t tell what a women wants (perhaps because the woman refuses to show it), these men may make themselves believe what they want to hear through appeal to consequence.

    Think of the women who would more likely be sexually inviting: desperate tramps and uglies. Men would rather go out with beautiful and sweet ladies who will clearly have more bargaining power in the market of love, so they would likely refuse many men. I’m guessing that it’s just the type of women who are sexually inviting that don’t interest men, and– if you assume that my “appeal to consequence” hypothesis is true– would explain what’s going on.

  • Cyan

    Before jumping on the evolutionary explanation, it is critical to verify the findings across different cultures. This is especially true for experiments in your native culture, where the cultural assumptions are so ingrained that you may not be aware of them. This is how we know, for example, that the emotional content of human facial expressions is not culturally determined.

  • Robin

    Am I the only one that thinks that the researchers may have reached the wrong conclusion on this one? Sure conventional wisdom says women are better communicators than men, but why are we interpreting this to mean that men are poor interpreters of communication rather than women are poor communicators? Of course, they could be intentional ambiguous, but if that’s the case men aren’t interpreting them incorrectly.

  • We are equal moral agents with the same capacity as men. Why all these statements implying that chicks don’t know their own minds?

    Because you are human; not because you are women. No one knows consciously why they do all the things that they do.

  • Wendy Collings

    All my adult life, my sex drive has been linked more strongly to my menstrual cycle than to the attractiveness of men around me. At the “cold” time of the month, only a strong personal attraction overrides indifference; at the “hot” time, I could have fun flirting with anyone not actually repulsive – but none of this changes whether I find any particular man attractive or not. Personal attractiveness is a constant.

    So, you can ask 2 different questions:
    1 – “Do you want sex right now?”
    2 – “Do you want sex with the man you’re with right now?”
    – and get two different answers. Two weeks later, the first answer will probably change. The second one won’t.

    For men – young men in particular – there’s often only one question.

    There’s no ambiguity for me in being hot for sex but cold about Tom, Dick or Harry. There’s no conscious/subconscious dilemma; I’m quite aware of what I want.

    I think most women when they’re young are going to flirt just because they’re feeling hot. They don’t mean to confuse, they’re having fun. Young men are just on the lookout for anyone who’s hot; they can’t tell when it’s nothing to do with them personally.

    Frankly, I think all that “primary mate” stuff is pure garbage; what’s going on is just simple confusion.

  • Roland

    Wendy Collings

    at the “hot” time, I could have fun flirting with anyone not actually repulsive – but none of this changes whether I find any particular man attractive or not. Personal attractiveness is a constant.


    You could have fun flirting with anyone, but under what conditions did that flirting become sex at a later time?

    So, you can ask 2 different questions:
    1 – “Do you want sex right now?”
    2 – “Do you want sex with the man you’re with right now?”
    – and get two different answers. Two weeks later, the first answer will probably change. The second one won’t.

    If I read that correctly this means, that the fact that you are hot won’t make you have sex with a specific man. You are willing but it still must be the right man.

  • I’m glad you guys found these posts on our blog interesting. Doug S., thanks for linking to my co-blogger Daran’s post criticizing the study’s methodology.

    Personally, I find many of the theories in this area plausible:
    – Men have a lower threshold for interpreting communication as sexual, due to evolutionary reasons
    – Men are just worst at reading people in general
    – Women may not want to be read

    I think more research is needed to determine which of these hypothesis are correct.

    As for the questions of whether women “know what they want”, or whether they know their own minds, I think these are the wrong questions. It’s difficult to know women’s minds, so we can’t say that women don’t know them. I can see how many women are offended at the notion that they don’t know their own minds.

    However, we can compare women’s stated preferences and their actual behaviors. There is no question that there are often discrepancies between the two in women; the only question is whether men show such discrepancies also. I think a lot of people assume that a view like this can’t be true because it may be offensive to some women.

    One study discussed on GNXP found that both men and women’s behavior was at odds with their preferences, though it had a very small sample size. Other studies have found that men’s stated preferences are more likely to line up with their behavior than women’s. Here is an excerpt from Urbaniak, G. C., & Kilmann, P. R. (2006). Niceness and dating success: A further test of the nice guy stereotype. Sex Roles, 55, 209-224. (emphases mine):

    Weiderman and Dubois (1998) used behavioral measures to assess women’s preferences for a mate and found a discrepancy between self-perceptions and behavior, particularly among women. For both men and women, the physical attractiveness manipulation was the most important factor in predicting ratings of desirability. Men accurately indicated that the physical attractiveness of the targets was the most important characteristic that influenced their desirability ratings, whereas women inaccurately indicated that desired level of relationship commitment was their most important factor, when, in fact, it was one of the least important factors behaviorally. Sprecher (1989) found similar results, in that women inaccurately assessed the role of physical attractiveness in their own ratings of a target man. The women in Sprecher ’s study reported that expressiveness was the most important factor in their choice, although it was the least important factor behaviorally. Physical attractiveness was the most important factor that actually influenced their ratings. The results of these two studies suggest that women’s self-reported preferences may not match their actual choices. Because it is still considered shallow and inappropriate for women to say that physical attractiveness is very important in their choices, those women may have engaged in impression management.

    I can’t access the Weiderman and Dubois study, but lets take a look at what Sprecher says:

    Although the experimental results indicated that physical attractiveness was a more important predictor of attraction than earning potential and expressiveness, subjects did not accurately perceive it to be the most important. Subjects in this study were asked at the end of the experimental booklet to indicate how important each of four characteristics presented about the stimulus person had been in evaluating him/her. Subjects assumed that both personality and expressiveness were more important in their desirability judgments than was physical attractiveness. In fact, personality was judged to be the most important even though the response provided on the bogus evaluation form to the personality item were relatively uninformative (a 5 on a 7-point scale was checked, and the comments were “His (her) personality seems fine, although it was hard to tell in 20 minutes.”). Subjects rated expressiveness as the second most important characteristic, although it had been the manipulated factor having the smallest actual effect on attraction. Physical attractiveness and earning potential were judged to be third and fourth in importance to males, whereas the reverse order was found for females.

    In short, men rated physical attractiveness as the 3rd most important factor in determining their ratings, women rated it 4th, when really it was number 1. So both men and women were wrong about their preferences, but women were more wrong.

    My interpretation of this research is that both men’s and women’s behavior is different from their stated preferences, but the gap is bigger in women. This could be because women don’t know what they want as well as men, but it could also be due to impression management and social desirability bias in self-reporting. Another plausible hypothesis I found in Sprecher is the notion of “implicit causal theories”:

    In a classic paper in the area of social cognition, Nisbett and Wilson (1977) argued that people often do not know what stimulus creates a particular response, and in such cases use “implicit causal theories” provided by the culture to explain a response. […] The same lack of awareness argument could be applied to this area of determinants of initial attraction. Identifying what characteristics are desired in a partner and why attraction is or is not experienced toward a specific person involves higher order cognitive processes that people may be incapable of successfully monitoring. Instead, men and women may rely on implicit causal theories or social belief systems to determine what they report to be attractive in someone. Consistent with this, Duck and Sants (1983) have argued that personal
    relationships researchers attribute more self-awareness to participants in relationships than they actually have.

    I think culture is part of the problem with people’s (especially women’s) misstatements of their preferences; just look at the vagueness of the language that is available for women to describe their preferences, such as “nice guy,” and “jerk,” which can mean almost anything the speaker wants them to.

  • Wendy Collings

    “You could have fun flirting with anyone, but under what conditions did that flirting become sex at a later time?”

    When I got too drunk to care.

    “If I read that correctly this means, that the fact that you are hot won’t make you have sex with a specific man. You are willing but it still must be the right man.”

    Correct. Except when I got too drunk to care.

  • sasserstyl

    The sex-physical differences between men (low effort/commitment) and women (massive commitment) mean each has very different “instinctual” strategies when it comes to sex.

    Put simply (in the natural no contraception context) – it’s *much* harder to find a woman of value to have sex with, than a man of value.

    If women were like men (in the sexual regard, and in a hypothetical zero risk scenario) there would be no “game”.

    So, given the male/female differences, the basic female strategy is, on average, to put potential suitors through a series of tests before they can have her babies. She can then (subconsciously, see Nisbett and Wilson (1977) as referred to in the post) weigh up the results against her own perceived sexual value and say yay or nay.

    The basic tests include proximity, health, genetic makeup (mainly facial features, but also body type), resources and trustworthiness (every guy is going to “say” he has a Porsche and that he’ll be there for the kids).

    But as humans have evolved an ever larger neocortex a more complex female “hierarchy of needs” has evolved bringing us to today where more subtle things like position in social group, social capital, ability to get along with others, intellectual capacity and personality traits are thrown into the mix.

    One of these newer needs in the hierarchy is emotional intelligence (the symptom of which is social callibration) – i.e. a capacity to understand and navigate complex social interactions (as having this ability will give her children – and hence her genes – a strong survival advantage).

    One of the tests for social callibration is doublespeak (which also has the handy side effect of enabling plausible deniability, as another commenter alluded to). This is, as mentioned earlier, mostly subconscious behavior and leads to the problem (amongst others) bemoaned by many men over the years; “why can’t she just say she likes me?!”

    The post highlights 3 papers. I’m not sure what the first one is saying. The third (while very interesting) muddies the waters with feminist-political thought.

    The second, I feel, is coming from the wrong end of the stick. To use an analogy, It’s like a teacher, knowingly setting a *really, really* hard test, which most of the students fail – only for him to say on the basis of the results that all his students are thick.

    Of course most men can’t distinguish the subtle availability cues given by women. That’s the whole point – the women are setting the difficult test with the express intention to baffle most men – to improve the granularity of their “emotional intelligence test” results.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Wendy Collings

    RE: ambiguous signals, mistaken perceptions –

    When a young woman meets a young man who will clearly bonk anything in a skirt, (a) it’s hard to take him seriously, and (b) there seems no need to be the particular skirt that obliges him. His interest obviously isn’t personal, so she doesn’t imagine that he’ll take her flirting personally either.

    Her mistake: thinking that his interest isn’t personal. It is – it’s just universally personal. He’ll still bonk anything in a skirt, but he’ll take the rejection of each of them personally before moving on to the next.

    (That last paragraph is speculation on my part. Feedback from men welcome.)

    RE: sex need threshholds –

    I’ll speculate that a monthly cyclical sex drive makes women better geared for celibacy (long- or short-term) than men. The cooling-off period is a fairly reliable safety-valve; in my own case, sexual appetite builds up slowly then drops abruptly from its monthly peak. Men seem to cool off only when ill, tired or depressed.

    That’ll be one reason women are usually more fussy about choosing a sexual partner – there’s a limit to how frustrated they can get.

    RE: evolutionary explanations –

    Dangerous territory when talking about sex. Too many people imagine that men and women have sex because they “want” to pass on their genes, or that women “look for” the mates best suited for their children’s survival.

    Men and women just like sex. The ones that liked it best passed their genes on most often; it had nothing to do with “wanting” to pass them on. We’ve inherited a healthy liking for sex, not a disposition to pass genes on.

    Men who sired healthy children and helped look after them had a better chance of their kids, and their genes, surviving. It wouldn’t have mattered what the women chose, and it still doesn’t.

  • Michael Rooney

    If women were like men (in the sexual regard, and in a hypothetical zero risk scenario) there would be no “game”.

    That is to say, “West Hollywood”.

  • ad

    Maybe, just maybe, most women do not want men and others to read their intent.

    Consider the information asymmetry when A approaches B. Obviously, A is interested in B. There is no way of telling if B is interested in A. It may be wise for B to make her feelings clear, but there may also be reason to maintain ambiguity. Especially if she has not yet come to a final conclusion. Which she might be foolish to do at a time when she was in a great position to find out a lot more about A.

  • Stefan King

    Rejection is very personal: it his *his* features and behavior she rejects. How bad it is for him to be rejected depends IMHO on how many close peers witness it or will find out. It gives them a read on his diserability with that type of woman and on his prediction accuracy. If he fails on both, his status in that group is lowered.

    This ties in with male overconfidence. When rejection is has long term consequences, because of many peers present, they usually don’t try until they have very strong indication they are liked (like in a high school class). But on springbreak type holidays or a boys night out, both male and females are in a temporary environment where their behavior has no long term status consequences in the larger group, so rejection is less risky, so the threshold for false positives is lowered.

  • r262

    I think the reality is more troubling than “she doesn’t know her own mind.” Little girls are conditioned to be passive and conformist. Just look at Carol Gilligan’s subjects, hedging and trying to get nonverbal hints about what she wants them to say. If they grow up unsure about their own feelings or unable to express them clearly after years of this, it should come as no surprise.

    Anyway… the main factor that seems to be lost in this study is that for the vast majority of women, interest in a mate and friendship are synonymous. Trying to separate the two is doomed to failure.

    Once, near the beginning of a relationship, I discovered that my boyfriend hadn’t invited me over to meet the rest of his circle of friends. It utterly baffled me until I realized that he didn’t think of a girlfriend as a potential friend, just a convenience. …Obvious to the guys here, probably. Amazing to me. There’s definitely some cognitive difference at work there.

    So, I’m not really surprised to see that a study trying to differentiate the two was designed by men.