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.