What does it mean when a woman smiles at a man smiling at her in a bar?
According to research by a Union College professor, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
In other words, a man who thinks of himself as flirtatious will assume the woman is flirting back at him. And a man uncomfortable with flirting will think she’s not.
The research by Joshua Hart, associate professor of psychology at Union, and his former student, now at Harvard, looked at how “attachment style” affects the perceptions that men have of themselves and their interactions with women.
“The simplest way to put it is that it’s wishful thinking combined with a projection process,” Hart said.
The results of the study of 500 heterosexual men found men with high relationship anxiety — meaning that they perceive themselves as being flirtatious — will perceive women as being flirtatious back.Men with high relationship avoidance don’t view themselves as flirtatious and tend to also view the women they come into contact with as not flirtatious.
The study asked the men to imagine a scenario in which an attractive woman at a nightclub catches their eye. The woman notices she is being stared at and smiles back.
Participants were asked to gauge the level of interest they believed the woman in the scenario was showing, ranging from “not at all interested” to “extremely interested.”
That was where the disconnect between reality and perception was found.
Hart and Rhea Howard, a lab manager at the Evolutionary Psychology Laboratory at Harvard, point out that they are not relationship experts and that they did not go into this study looking to solve relationship issues.
“Like in a lot of things, we have to sort of discount our own motivations,” said Hart. “When we are making judgments about reality and other people’s psychological state we tend to see what we want to see, not what is really there — so it would probably be a good idea for people to take into account their own motivations.”
Hart advises people to be more forthright with their intentions to avoid the common misconceptions that occur after romantic interactions, such as thinking there is more there than there really is.
The researchers don’t consider themselves any more suitable in handing out dating wisdom, but were interested in the science and filling a gap in research.
“I don’t think either of us were motivated to understand dating dynamics. The main motivation was the phenomenon of understanding sexual misconception,” Hart said. “There is a well-established tendency for men to over-perceive women’s sexual interest, and there had been no research into looking into what in the men relates to that tendency — that was our main concern.”
While their study focused on men’s misconceptions using the men’s own imagination with no women involved at all, Hart believes that including women in the equation would take the research to another level, albeit a much more challenging feat to complete.
“It would be fascinating to look at how this plays out in a real-life scenario where we could relate what the men’s perception was to what the women were actually thinking and the women’s perception of men’s sexual intent,” Hart said.
Hart was Howard’s thesis adviser when she was a student at Union. The idea for this study stemmed from their work together.
Howard, who graduated from Union in 2014, said she thinks their study could be beneficial to educating the public on biases.
“It can just make us more aware of our own behavior and some of the biases that may be happening in our day-to-day lives,” she said. “We’re not trying to tell people how they should behave or interpret people’s events that should alter their behavior in the future — we basically want to describe the phenomena.”
The study is available online now and will be published in the April issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
On Valentine’s Day — and every day — the study seems to signify that people need to be more discerning in their interpretations of the interest of others.
“Our data does indicate that men perceive what they want to perceive,” Howard said. “Not what is really there.”