Under the Hood

Wishful Thinking: When It Comes To Flirting With Women, Men Fall Into Two Personality Groups

in a bar
The possibility a guy will overestimate a girl's attraction to him depends mostly on his personality style. Jens Karlsson, CC by 2.0

Landmines litter the battle(field) of the sexes, and for many guys, the most difficult question to answer is also the most simple: How do you know a girl is into you and not just being nice? According to Psychologists Joshua Hart and Rhea M. Howard, the possibility you will overestimate someone's attraction to you depends mostly on your personality style. Men who feel attachment anxiety tend to see more sexual interest in a woman's smile, while men who feel attachment avoidance tend to see less, their new study suggests. 

“Personality psychologists conceive of traits as dimensions, or spectrums, such that everybody falls somewhere,” Hart told Medical Daily in an email. He explains there are two basic dimensions to attachment — anxiety and avoidance, and people who are “low” on both are considered secure.

Where are You on the Continuum?

“People who are relatively high on the attachment anxiety dimension worry a lot about their close relationships,” Hart said. “'Clingy’ is a (kind of disparaging) colloquial description of this kind of person.” In short, attachment anxiety people obsess about how much their partners love them, they get jealous, they're worried about a break-up, and they resent not getting enough attention.

By contrast, people who are relatively high on the attachment avoidance dimension find intimacy awkward. “They prize their independence and they are uncomfortable turning to others for support,” said Hart, explaining this does not mean they don't want a relationship, it’s just their personality style is getting in the way. “When their partners want to draw emotionally closer to them, they get uptight about it, almost like claustrophobia.”

Insecurity is at the root of both of these styles, Hart says, with some people alternating between anxiety and avoidance. “Over time people are fairly consistent" in how they express their self-doubt in different situations, he says. 

Naturally, personality plays a major role in sexual matters, but not just after the relationship begins. Hart says attachment issues enter the picture even before the first “hey.”

You’re in a Bar...

Though results rarely can be tragic, the usual outcome when a man overestimates a woman’s sexual interest is awkward comedy. No one wants to be the overeager guy, still it happens. In fact, error management theory, which weighs the variables of uncertain decisions, suggests men will generally overestimate a woman's sexual interest since the “cost” of trying and losing a possible sexual partner is greater than the “cost” of wasted effort.

While this is generally true, we all know the guy who never believes an interested girl really likes him. So Hart and Howard hypothesized attachment style may be the key factor in deciding whether or not a guy misperceives a woman's feelings.

So they tested their theory in two separate, though similar experiments in which 434 heterosexual men were asked to imagine this scenario: “In a nightclub, you notice a group of girls across the room. One of them particularly catches your eye. There is something about her that you feel drawn to. As you are looking, she turns round and catches your eye. Rather than look away, she holds your gaze and smiles at you …”  Next, the participants gauged, on a scale of 1 to 9, the level of interest they believed the woman was showing and then they rated the relative truth of four statements: “She is acting flirtatiously”; “She is sexually attracted to me”; “She is acting seductive”; and “She would like to have sexual intercourse with me.” The participants also completed questionnaires to assess their personalities.

The researchers discovered men with more attachment anxiety were more likely to imagine a woman being sexually interested in them. This is due to their strong desire for intimacy, the authors say, but also because anxious men project their own flirtatiousness and sexual interest onto the woman. Essentially, they are inclined to see others acting and feeling as they do.

Conversely, men with more avoidant personalities were more likely to imagine a woman being sexually disinterested because, once again, seeing others as themselves, they feel less playful and less flirty.

Ultimately, the authors say, the perception of each man is colored by his hopes for a relationship, which is based on his desire for intimacy, which, in turn, is rooted in his attachment style. “Men imagine a reality that is consistent with what they wish it would be,” they concluded. Sometimes a smile is just a smile.

Source: Hart J, Howard RM. I want her to want me: Sexual misperception as a function of heterosexual men's romantic attachment style. Personality and Individual Differences.2016.

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