Perceptions of Sexual Communication
Perceptions of Sexual Intent
Men are more likely to perceive a woman's friendliness as sexual interest, known as the male overperception bias. My research examines the male overperception bias using both traditional Error Management Theory (EMT) approach as well as a Signal Detection Theory (SDT) approach. Traditionally, EMT suggests that men have an adaptive bias to overperceive sexual interest as a way to reduce the evolutionary costs of a missed mating opportunity and maximize the evolutionary benefits of a correct identification of sexually interested potential mates. However, SDT provides both a measure of bias and a measure of sensitivity, which is the ability to distinguish signals from non-signals. This additional information might inform future research about how this and other social "biases" should be examined: as a likelihood to answer one way or another or as a fundamental breakdown in understanding cues.
Brandner, Pohlman, & Brase, 2021
Brandner, J. L., Pohlman, J., & Brase, G. L. (In Press). On hits and being hit on: Error management theory, signal detection theory, and the male sexual overperception bias. Evolution and Human Behavior. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2021.01.002 OSF: https://osf.io/4x6cv
Abstract: Although Error Management Theory (EMT) can explain male sexual overperception, more advanced Signal Detection Theory (SDT) analyses can identify sensitivity and bias separately. An SDT analysis of perceptions of relatively clear interest/disinterest signals (Study 1) found that sensitivity to sexual interest/disinterest signals drove participants' perceptions, rather than an overall bias to perceive sexual interest. Cues of interest were generally underperceived, while sensitivity and accuracy were uniformly high. EMT analysis also found overall sexual interest underperception, but with men slightly overperceiving interest relative to women. These discrepant results were due to EMT using difference scores, which obscure baseline perceptions for men and women. Individual differences in life history strategy, mating strategy, and mate value did not affect sensitivity or bias. Study 2 largely replicated these results using more ambivalent scenarios, except EMT analyses found men's misperception to be significantly larger than women's, despite being closer to pre-rated communication levels. These results show that sexual communication may be more nuanced than previously thought, and that an SDT analysis is more appropriate for such data.
Error Management Theory, Signal Detection Theory, and the male sexual overperception effect
Abstract: Men seem to misperceive women’s friendliness as sexual interest, known as male sexual overperception. Behaviors communicating sexual interest and disinterest were collected, evaluated, and combined into vignettes that were used to study male sexual overperception through a Signal Detection Theory (SDT) perspective and an Error Management Theory (EMT) perspective. SDT results revealed that sensitivity to the difference between signals of sexual interest and disinterest drove participants’ perceptions, rather than an overall bias to perceive sexual interest. Cues of interest were generally underperceived, but women were slightly more biased to perceive interest than men, who tended to perceive no interest. Sensitivity and accuracy were extremely high and did not differ between the sexes. Individual differences such as life history strategy, mating strategy, and mate value did not affect sensitivity or bias. EMT analysis also found an overall underperception of sexual interest, but contradictory to the SDT results, found that men were perceiving nearly the same amount of sexual interest as women. Further examination revealed that these different results were due to EMT using difference scores that did not accurately reflect the average levels of perception for men and women due to their calculation. While the previously researched “male sexual overperception effect” was not found, these studies show that sexual communication may be more nuanced than previously thought. Additionally, these studies establish SDT as a viable methodology for exploring sexual communication and show that SDT methods can be used on biases typically studied with EMT. SDT analyses were more reflective of the raw data, provided more information in standardized, comparable measurements, incorporated individual differences, and did not lose information to aggregation. Future research on biases examined with EMT should incorporate SDT analyses to explore topics more deeply.