Canadian singer Robin Thicke may have been on to something with his summer hit “Blurred Lines.” The song addresses what sounds like a grey area between consensual sex and assault, and science suggests these blurred lines aren’t always so genuine in a real-life context. According to a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science, men may actually be better at perceiving a woman’s sexual interest on a date more than women would like to admit.

Conventional wisdom backed by science for decades has validated the belief men have got it all wrong when it comes to interpreting a woman’s signals and sexual interest. Women’s platonic interest has often been misconstrued as sexual interest, which is one of men's dating pitfalls. A 2008 study published in Clinical Psychology Review found men overestimate the intentions of the opposite sex, which can lead to a sexual bargaining process, and turn into sexual coercion a la “Blurred Lines.”

However, psychologists and authors of the recent study, Carin Perilloux of Texas State University and Robert Kurzban of the University of Pennsylvania, believe the inaccuracy of men's perceptions have been exaggerated. “Perhaps women are underreporting because they themselves are unaware of their true intentions, or because they are using self-reports to control the way they are perceived by other people,” they wrote. The researchers believe people are generally pretty good at the estimations necessary for the social tasks that they do. Perilloux and Kurzban conducted a series of three studies to determine how often men really do over perceive women’s sexual interest.

Initially, 271 heterosexual men and 213 straight women were recruited online and presented with a series of behaviors often encountered on dates, such as “held hands,” “complimented appearance,” “sent roses,” “cooked dinner,” and “had a drink at apartment,” according to PS Mag. Men were asked to estimate the sexual intentions of women who engaged in each of these behaviors on a seven-point scale from “extremely unlikely” to “extremely likely.” Women were asked to report how likely they would have sex with a man if they performed any of those common dating behaviors using the same scale.

The researchers found men’s scores were higher than women’s when combining all 15 responses into an average score. This meant men were saying these dating behaviors were more indicative of sexual interest than women were self-reporting. The first study confirms the idea that men tend to overestimate women’s sexual interest.

In an effort to delve deeper into this discrepancy, the researchers recruited a different set of men and women for a second study, and presented them with the same 15 behaviors. However, both men and women were asked to guess how the women in the first study responded to each question. The findings revealed that while men’s answers were basically the same in both studies, women’s scores went up when they were asked to predict the intentions of the women in the first study. In a press release, Perilloux said the higher scores meant the women were saying, "other women intend more by these behaviors than I do."

In the last and final study, the researchers used the same general set-up and data from the previous studies to analyze the distinction between what people say and what they mean. Perilloux and Kurzban asked men and women to guess how the women in the first study responded to each of the 15 questions, but also asked them to rate what the women really meant. When it came to what women could have said, the men's responses were consistent with those from the other two studies. “But, for both men and women, when you ask them to say what women mean, their answers go up in contrast to what they think they will say,” Perilloux said.

The researchers believe the most logical explanation for these findings is that men are pretty accurate in their perception of what women want, because their responses were closer to matching what women said when asked to think about other women's responses. In other words, women are less likely to admit their dating behaviors imply sexual interest when they tell it themselves. However, when women are asked to interpret other women’s behaviors, they are more likely to suggest they're tied to sexual interest. This is where the concept of blurred lines comes into play.

Regardless of these findings, the researchers emphasize that it is important to remember no means no. The study only measured assumptions and intentions, which means it warrants further research to determine whether it reflects real dating behavior. “If a woman touches your thigh on a date, we don’t know what the actual likelihood is that she wants to have sex with you,” Perilloux said.

It’s easy to misinterpret sexual interest, and these findings should in no way be an excuse for any kind of bad behavior.

Sources: Kurzban R and Perilloux C. Do Men Overperceive Women’s Sexual Interest? Psychological Science. 2014.

Farris C, McFall RM, Treat TA, Viken RJ. Sexual coercion and the misperception of sexual intent. Clinical Psychology Review. 2008.