A smile, a touch of the arm, or a double take (they look at you, then look away, and look at you again) can easily be misread. Men tend to overestimate women's interest, while women tend to underestimate men's desire, leading to a hopeless mess of mixed signals. Now, a recent study published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review suggests a woman's physical attractiveness and the provocativeness of her attire plays a role in how men make snap decisions about her sexual interest.

In the dating game, quick assessments of sexual cues are inevitable, as both men and women make assumptions about one another at a bar, house party, or even in the bedroom. However, these quick assessments facilitate dangerous misinterpretations that can, in extreme cases, play a role in unwanted sexual advances, and even rape.

This is seen in college campuses where sexual assaults among college women have been described as reaching “epidemic levels,” according to a 2015 study. The researchers emphasize alcohol does not cause sexual assault, but they believe it does increase vulnerability to sexual assault. It may exacerbate the likelihood someone misreads sexual cues.

Teresa Treat, lead author of the study from the University of Iowa, and her colleagues, sought to examine whether students at the university could be taught how to "read” the right sexual cues better through cognitive training. A total of 276 female and 220 male college students were examined to see how well they perceive women's momentary cues of possible sexual interest in a series of photographs of women in real-world scenes. The women varied along three psychological dimensions: sexual interest (extremely rejecting to extremely sexually interested), provocativeness of dress (conservative to provocative), and normative attractiveness.

Half of the students received cognitive training, or instructions beforehand on certain nonverbal emotional cues, like body language or facial expressions to help better assess situations. All of the participants completed an assessment about their attitudes towards rape. Participants responded on a seven-point scale — 1 = "not at all agree," to 7 = "very much agree" — on questions like, “If a woman is raped while she is drunk, she is at least somewhat responsible for letting things get out of control.”

The findings revealed students who received instruction on non-verbal cues before assessing the photographs were more likely to note emotional cues than aspects such as clothing and physical beauty when making their judgements on perceived sexual interest. Meanwhile, students who held more rape-supportive attitudes relied less on the photographed women's emotional cues, and more on their attire and attractiveness. However, those who received instruction and held rape-supportive attitudes tended to shift their focus on the emotional cues.

Treat said in a statement that the study advances our understanding of how others are perceived sexually, and how those perceptions can be changed or influenced, and also their links to attitudes that are more permissive of rape.

In other words, these findings suggest cognitive training could become a useful tool in sexual assault prevention efforts. Treat explains such training could include aspects about the types of social settings associated with sexual advances, like bars, house parties, or dorm parties.

A similar 2011 study found attractive men are more likely to overestimate women's desire for them. Men who thought they were hot also thought the women they seek were hot for them. However, when women thought the man was attractive, they tended to correctly perceive sexual interest. The sexual interest of attractive women tended to be overestimated by men, while women tended to underestimate men's desire.

Researchers suggest this could be a biological impulse to expand chances of reproduction. They theorized if a man went for it by asking a woman at the bar on a date, even at the risk of being rejected, he would be more successful at passing on his genetic heirs than not risking it at all.

Source: Treat TA, Church EK, and Viken RJ. Effects of gender, rape-supportive attitudes, and explicit instruction on perceptions of women’s momentary sexual interest. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 2016.