People of both sexes looking for romance are quite good at reading the male’s interest, but equally bad at misjudging the female’s interest.
“The hardest-to-read women were being misperceived at a much higher rate than the hardest-to-read men. Those women were being flirtatious, but it turned out they weren’t interested at all,” said study co-author Skyler Place.
Place is a doctoral student in psychological sciences at the Indiana University (IU) working with cognitive science professor Peter Todd. “Nobody could really read what these deceptive females were doing, including other women,” he added.
“So, if you walk into a room and there’s 20 people you’ve never met before, being able to know which individuals might be available and which are clearly smitten by others can make you more efficient in finding your own romantic interest to pursue,” he said.
Place’s study focussed on the ability of observers to judge romantic interest between others because this ability has evolutionary benefits when it comes to finding a mate. “Decisions that other people around us make can influence or inform our own choices,” said Place.
The speed dating sessions were all conducted in Germany while the observer ratings were all made by students in Indiana. Despite the language difference, observers were still able to judge men’s romantic interest accurately using body language, tone of voice, eye contact, how often each dater spoke and other non-verbal cues.
Speed dating is a popular commercial method for singles to meet a large number of individuals in one evening of successive brief one-on-one conversations.
For the study, 28 women and 26 men of college age watched video clips of couples interacting on speed dates. Each participant observed 24 videos, all with different men and women, and after each rated whether the man seemed interested in the woman and the woman in the man.
Observers did not have to see much of this non-verbal behaviour. They were just as good at predicting the speed-dating couple’s interest if they saw only 10 seconds of the date as they were if they saw 30 seconds.
There was, however, great variability in how well observers could predict the interest of any particular speed-dater, ranging from 90 percent accuracy down to 10 percent.
In five of the videos, 80 percent of the observers thought the women shown were interested when in fact they were not – they were acting friendly even though they had no interest in the men.
Evolutionary theory, said Place, predicts a certain level of coyness or even deceptiveness in women because if a relationship is abandoned they may face greater costs, including pregnancy and child rearing, said an IU release.
“In a speed dating environment, you would expect to see these effects dramatically, with the women trying to get the men to be more straightforward, while they themselves remain more coy,” Place said. “Though the pace is faster than a typical first date, the strategy remains the same.”
These findings were published in the January issue of Psychological Science.