Well, maybe not always, but men are much more likely to misinterpret a woman’s friendliness as flirting than women misinterpret men’s behavior. About 90% of American women report that a man thought she was romantically interested in him when she wasn’t at least once in their lives, while American men say the converse happened to 70% of them. While both rates are high, that’s quite a disparity.
But what accounts for this gender difference? As Mons Bendixen, a psychologist at the Norwegian university of Science and Technology, writes in a study recently published in Evolutionary Psychology, there are two main theories: Error-management theory argues that men have evolved to overperceive sexual interest in non-familial female relationships so they don’t miss out on the opportunity to reproduce — at best, they get to pass on their genes; at worst, the woman ends up saying no and they move on. Women, on the other hand, have evolved to underperceive sexual interest, because sex with the wrong guy means risking pregnancy and child-rearing without the help of a mate, not to mention lost opportunities to procreate with other, less flaky men. In other words, the sexual stakes are higher for women than for men — or they were, at least, in the distant past, when evolution shaped behaviors that linger to this day.
Social-roles theory, on the other hand, argues that gender differences in rates of sexual misperception — not to mention in other sorts of behavior — come down to societal norms and expectations. So in places that lack gender equality, one would expect a large disparity between men’s level of misperception and women’s, with the rates becoming more and more similar the more gender-egalitarian a culture is.
Are we hard-wired by evolution, or were we just raised that way? The next step was to study men and women in a more socially egalitarian society than the U.S. to see if the same disparity holds up. Read what happened when Bendixen reproduced a 2003 American study in Norway at New York magazine. -via Digg