On Valentine’s Day – How to tell if someone really fancies you – the latest psychological research
Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham
Are you a ‘romantic paranoiac’? Defined in Alain De Botton’s 2006 book ‘Essays in love’, as a tendency to misread sexual interest in the body language and conversation of others. Men, much more than women, see sexual intent in the opposite gender’s friendly gestures.
Working out who really fancies us may be down to evolution and psychology.
Men, evolutionary psychologists hypothesize, display an evolved tendency to seek a variety of sexual partners, because ancestral men who did so, reproduced more than males who did not. Men therefore evolved to pursue a wider variety of sexual opportunities. Due to being the gender which falls pregnant, breastfeeds and does most infant care, women might have evolved a sexual strategy where they invested more in a smaller number of their own children (of whom they can be certain as being their own).
Evolutionary psychologists predict they are therefore choosier over who they mate with.
According to psychologists Martie Haselton (University of California at Los Angeles) and David Buss (University of Texas at Austin), the recurrent errors men and women make in determining who truly fancies them, might be down to the consequences of getting things wrong.
The key error for a man would be to miss the fact a woman really did want to sleep with him, so, according to their study entitled, ‘Error Management Theory: A New Perspective on Biases in Cross-Sex Mind Reading’, men tend to overestimate sexual intent in women.
Hasleton and Buss argue that women are also prone to blunder in reading men’s romantic intent; they don’t spot that a man is truly committed to them. Their study published in the ‘Journal of Personality and Social Psychology’ argues that for women, the costs of falsely inferring more commitment in a possible partner, when little or none exists, had more devastating consequences, at least in ancestral conditions, than not seeing commitment when it’s there.
Hasleton and Buss contend that an ancestral woman who consented to sex with a man who abandoned her shortly thereafter, because of low commitment, suffered the costs of an unwanted or untimely pregnancy, raising children alone, and reputational damage. These costs might hinder survival of the child, and impair future reproductive potential.
An ancestral woman who erred by underestimating a man’s commitment, in contrast, might have merely evoked more numerous and frequent displays of dedication by the truly devoted man. Valentine’s Day is therefore explained by evolutionary theory.
Given the tremendous evolutionary importance of securing a faithful mate, modern women are descendants of ancestral mothers who erred in the direction of being cautious. Women are therefore ‘commitment-sceptics’ in the face of men professing their love.
Eunsoo Choi (Georgetown University, USA) and Taekyun Hur (Korea University) examined whether confusion could originate from our strong tendency to ‘project’ – in other words when we are ‘up for it’, we tend to assume others we encounter are. Men may project onto women their own sexual interest.
For example, Choi and Hur noted that previous research has found that men suffering unsatisfying sex were more likely to interpret women’s behaviour sexually, than those enjoying better sex lives.
Choi and Hur’s study entitled ‘Is Reading Sexual Intention Truly Functional? The Impact of Perceiving a Partner’s Sexual Intention on Courtship Initiation Behaviors’, found womens’ seduction approaches were only influenced by their ownsexual motivation, and not by their perception of sexual intent in men. Women would initiate ‘courtship’ only when they themselves were sexually motivated.
In contrast, even without initial high sexual motivation, male participants in the experiment increased courtship when they perceived sexual intention from the female target.
As women are ‘sexual gatekeepers’ they may be less influenced by how up for sex a man is, because it makes sense for them to remain choosy, no matter how much sexual interest they are receiving.
Optimal female sexual strategy is to refuse to be so influenced by a partner’s sexual intention, but to be in control in choosing the partner she desires. In contrast, men tend to feel more encouraged to approach a woman, if they perceive her as sending them ‘come on’ signals.
The best sexual strategy for men is to focus on getting women interested, rather than just assuming they are. Meanwhile women might consider that at least some men could be truly loyal.
Choi and Hur’s study, just published in the journal ‘Archives of Sexual Behavior’ also found certain lures are particularly attractive.
The top ten seduction strategies most likely to maximise interest as uncovered by this study, are in descending order of how attractive they were found; (1) Pay attention and listen in an interested way (2) Look often and smile (3) Make a joke and begin a conversation (4) Reduce distance and start to talk (5) Look often in order to obtain eye contact (6) Approach and sit next to (7) Directly express interest and invite to dance (eg make a compliment, offer a drink, say directly what you think of them) (8) Talk indirectly, apparently functional way (eg ask what time it is, ask for a light, etc) (9) Try to look as physically desirable as possible (10) Approach through a friend or people around.
This top ten list would give anyone endeavouring to woo on Valentine’s Day a key advantage because Choi and Hur obtained their list from an original survey by Carolina de Weerth (University of Groningen) and Akko Kalma (University of Utrecht), where 163 young people described 84 different ways of letting a person of the opposite gender know that they were interested.
The Dutch study published in the journal ‘Sex Roles’ and entitled ‘Gender Differences in Awareness of Courtship Initiation Tactics’, found that irrespective of gender, the majority of both men and women in a courting situation would make the first move, rather than wait for an inviting signal from the opposite gender.
It is intriguing that physical appearance didn’t seem to count so much in Choi and Hur’s study, but then again the research was based on an assumption of an ‘‘average-looking’’ target.
These results could have been contaminated by the fact that psychologists have found for short-term mating, men relax their standards when it comes to physical attractiveness in the opposite sex. In contrast, women, if pursuing a shorter-term fling, increase their standards for physical attractiveness in potential mates.
Haselton and Buss caution in their study that even if gender differences are found in seduction, this could still be due to cultural influences such as the media. They point out that men are exposed to media images depicting women as initially coy, but then overcome with sexual desire.
The media and academic research also still seems to largely ignore the Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Gay and Transgender perspective.
But given all the contamination and powerful forces at work from our genes and the media, can we get better at spotting other’s real romantic interest?
Haselton and Buss found in their study that men’s perceptions of their sisters’ sexual interest were lower than their perceptions of other women’s erotic objectives. The results suggested that men may perceive their sisters’ sexual intent fairly accurately.
Is the psychological paradox at the heart of desire, that emotion clouds our ability to spot what’s real, and what isn’t, in love?