The Science Behind Mixed Signals Between Men And Women

In the dating world, gauging potential partners' interest can be a fraught experience. A touch of the arm, an enthusiastic laugh or an extra second of eye contact can so easily be misinterpreted. But a new study suggests that, for straight people, there's a general pattern to these communication gaps: Men are more likely to perceive women's friendliness as sexual interest, while women tend to misread men's efforts to land hookups as attempts to be friends.

To find this out, researchers out of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology surveyed 308 students (181 women and 127 men) between 18 and 30 about their experiences with sexual misperception. They asked participants:

1. "Have you ever been friendly to someone of the opposite sex only to discover that he [she] had misperceived your friendliness as a sexual come-on?"

2. "Have you ever been in a situation with a member of the opposite sex in which you were just trying to be nice but he [she] assumed you were sexually attracted to him [her]?"

3. "Have you ever attempted to sexually 'come-on' to someone of the opposite sex only to discover that he [she] had misperceived your sexual interest as friendliness?"

4. "Have you ever been in a situation with a member of the opposite sex in which you were sexually attracted to him [her] but he [she] assumed you were just trying to be nice?"

If participants answered "yes" to any of these questions, they then estimated how many times that scenario had played out for them in the last 12 months.

After going through the results, the researchers found a pattern that might sound familiar to many young singles (even if there are plenty of exceptions). More women reported being subject to sexual "over-perception" than "under-perception" in the last year. Meaning: They were the ones sending out friend vibes to men they interacted with, but getting sexual advances in response. Men, on the other hand, didn't really have this experience -- most of the time, they were sending out let's-get-it-on vibes to women who just thought they were being nice in a friendly way.

This study reaffirms past research on the topic suggesting that men and women could view interactions with the opposite sex in different ways. According to Mons Bendixen, Associate Professor of Psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and author of the current study, evolutionary psychology may be at play here.

Bendixen told The Huffington Post that people may have inherited gender-specific biases that lead us to make errors in perception that are more beneficial to evolution. From this point of view, men should have sex with as many women as possible to increase the odds that they'll pass on their genes.

Socialization could have played a role, too. Perhaps the men and women were simply following society's sexual script, which tells men to be the pursuers and women to be the demurely pursued. But frankly, it's hard to say exactly why this pattern occurred in the study.

That said, Bendixen doesn't want people to think that we're walking around misunderstanding each other's intentions on a regular basis. He thinks that we read each other correctly most of the time, but when we do misjudge how an interaction will end, it tends to be in the pattern that he found. These aren't hard and fast rules -- just common misperceptions that can make people better prepared to deal with potential awkwardness or embarrassment in the ever-confusing dating world.

There is a good takeaway for men, though: When a woman smiles or laughs at your jokes or touches your arm, it doesn't necessarily mean she's interested in sleeping with you. But you didn't need a study to tell you that, right?

This study was published in the Evolutionary Psychology journal.