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The Reason Her Sex Drive Is Confusing: It’s You

The Reason Her Sex Drive Is Confusing: It’s You: George Marks / Stringer

George Marks / Stringer

Is she in the mood for sex, or isn’t she?

Guys are notoriously bad at figuring this out.

Researchers have found that, when men interact with a female stranger, they tend to overestimate her interest in sex. And men actually make the opposite error with their romantic partners in long-term relationships. Guys underestimate how often their partners want to get it on.

What’s going on here? Why do men seem to be constantly over- or underperceiving women’s interest in sex? Psychologists think they’ve figured out the reasons behind this. They argue that it might be adaptive for guys to make both kinds of mistakes.


WHEN OVERESTIMATING IS ADVANTAGEOUS
In a 2010 study published in Human Communication Research, scientists had male college students interact with female strangers. Afterward, these guys rated how interested they thought the women were in sex, while the women rated their own sexual interest.

It turned out that the guys were way off, thinking that women desired sex far more than they actually did. Why is that?

What seems to be going on in cases like this is that guys tend to misread signs from women they don’t know. Specifically, when a man meets a woman who’s being really friendly and nice, he’s likely to interpret this as flirting, even if there’s no sexual intent behind it.

It is thought that men evolved to make sexual misperceptions like this to avoid missing potential opportunities to “spread their seed.” Although this necessarily means that guys are going to make a lot of mating mistakes, it also means that they’re unlikely to pass up on any chances to reproduce.

This idea is one of the major components of error management theory. This theory argues that men and women evolved numerous biases when it comes to reading the mind of the opposite sex and that these biases are all in the service of helping us to more successfully pass along our genes.

WHEN UNDERESTIMATING MAKES SENSE
In a set of studies published earlier this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers examined longitudinal data from established heterosexual couples in which each partner regularly reported on their own level of interest in sex, as well as their partner’s perceived level of sexual interest.

Unlike what happened in the study where men meet female strangers—and overperceived women’s sexual desire—the men in this research underperceived how interested their partners were in sex.

That’s right—in the context of a long-term relationship, men tended to think that women wanted less sex than they did in reality.

Believe it or not, this underperception bias seemed to be good for their relationships. In fact, when men underperceived their partner’s sexual interest, women tended to be more satisfied with and committed to the relationship.

So what accounts for this underperception effect, and why does it seem to be beneficial? The authors of this study argue that it works on several levels.

By underperceiving women’s sexual interest, men reduce the risk of being frequently turned down or rejected by their partners.

For one thing, it helps to protect men’s egos. By underperceiving women’s sexual interest, men reduce the risk of being frequently turned down or rejected by their partners. Consistent with this idea, on the days when men were most concerned with avoiding rejection, they demonstrated the strongest underperception effect.

That’s not the whole story, though. Underperception might also lead men to try a little harder when it comes to wooing their partner.

Think about it this way: if men in relationships overperceived their partner’s interest in sex, they wouldn’t feel much need to do anything special to get their partner in the mood, right?

By contrast, if men underperceive their partner’s interest, they might be motivated to try a little harder to entice their partner. Putting forth that extra effort might make the sex—and the relationship overall—that much better.

THE BOTTOM LINE
When it comes to figuring out a woman’s sex drive, guys don’t seem to be very accurate. However, science suggests that there might be a deeper meaning behind all of the errors that men make and that, at least in the case of the underperception effect, this bias might offer benefits to both men and women.


Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.

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