Dec. 14, 2011 at 8:33 AM ET
They may be fictional characters on a popular sitcom, "The Big Bang Theory," but new research suggests there’s a lot of truth in how they interact with women.
Wolowitz is a teeny guy with dorky hair and dorky clothes. He’s brilliant and gainfully employed, but on the attractiveness scale, he’s maybe a 2, possibly a 2 ½. Despite his physical shortcomings, though, he imagines every hot woman who glances his way wants to jump his bones. Of course, he’s always wrong.
Then there’s his buddy Raj, a pretty nice-looking guy once you get past his haircut. But he’s so insecure around women he can’t even talk to them unless he’s drunk.
What’s the deal?
There are "tons" of studies that show men think women are interested when they’re not, says lead author Carin Perilloux, a visiting professor at Williams College. But her study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, found that not all men do. And surprisingly, it appears that the dorky, less attractive guys are more likely to think they’re babe magnets than their more attractive counterparts.
Perilloux was an unattached graduate student at the University of Texas when she decided to look into how men perceive women’s level of sexual interest and vice versa. She and her coauthors enlisted the help of about 200 straight undergrads, split evenly between the sexes, with an average age just shy of 19.
The researchers asked each of their subjects to rate their own attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 7. The students then had three-minute one-on-one conversations with five members of the opposite sex, a setup the scientists describe as "speed meeting." (The goal wasn’t to get a date, because some of the participants already were involved with people outside the study.) After each conversation, they rated the other person’s attractiveness and sexual interest.
The more attractive the woman was to the guy, the more likely he was to overestimate her interest in him, researchers found. And it turns out, the less attractive men (who believed they were better looking than the women rated them) were more likely to think beautiful women were hot for them. But the more attractive guys tended to have a more realistic assessment.
And the women? Perilloux and her coauthors found that women underestimated men’s sexual interest.
Believe it or not, this all probably makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, the scientists say. Attractiveness is linked to fertility, so if guys keep hitting on hot women, they’re bound to score occasionally and father sons who act the same way. Those attractive men don’t have to try as hard. As for the women, their underestimation of guys’ sexual interest might help prevent them from developing a reputation as a slut
Of course, if men and women were more explicit about their level of interest, they wouldn’t be so confused, Perilloux points out. But it’s unlikely either sex is going to use the line "hey, I’m 75 percent interested in you."
So here’s Perilloux’s tips: "For men, the best piece of advice is to be more cautious if you’re interested in someone." For women, she says, save the flirting for guys you actually are interested in sleeping with. "Men seem to take any flirtatious signal and run with it."
Readers, this is basically the plot of some of the most frustrating rom-coms over the years. Which cinematic pairing did you find most unbelievable? Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel in "Elf"? Seth Rogan and Katherine Heigl in "Knocked Up"? Tell us on our Facebook page.
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