Researchers from Indiana University (IU) and Yale say that young men routinely confuse friendly non-verbal cues with cues for sexual interest. In the study, appearing in Psychological Science, men who viewed images of friendly women misidentified 12 percent of the images as sexually interested. The fairer sex weren't that far behind, with women mistaking 9 percent of friendly images for sexual interest.
Incredibly, both men and women were even more likely to do the opposite - when viewing images of sexually interested women, men mistakenly called 38 percent of the images "friendly." Once again, women weren't that far behind, mistaking 32 percent of the sexual interest cues for friendliness.
What makes men less able to gauge the intent of the opposite sex? The more popular of two competing theories attributes this to a tendency by young men to over-sexualize their social environment. The less popular theory - and the one supported by this new study - claims that women have an advantage when it comes to interpreting facial expressions and body language. Put simply, young men are less competent when it comes to non-verbal cues.
"In many ways, the results point to a more general explanation for why young men make the decisions they make," said IU's Coreen Farris, the study's senior author. "The observed advantage among women in ability to discriminate between friendliness and sexual interest extends to [the] processing of sad and rejecting cues. This suggests that the increased tendency among young men to incorrectly read sexual interest rather than friendliness may simply be an extension of a general disadvantage in reading nonverbal cues, rather than a process unique to sexual signaling."
Farris noted that the negative consequences of sexual misperception do not usually extend beyond minor social discomfort. "However, among a small group of men, sexual misperception is linked to sexual coercion, and thus, is an important process to understand in order to improve rape prevention efforts on university campuses," she added.
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Source: Indiana University