The rules of attraction are complicated, and sometimes it’s hard to discern if someone is interested in you or just sending mixed signals. However, a recent study found that men are more likely than women to misinterpret signs of sexual interest from potential romantic partners, especially attractive ones. And the more attractive a woman is, the more men will overestimate her interest in them.

According to research published online in Psychonomic Bulletin, men may be projecting their own sexual interest onto women. This leads them to believe: “I’m interested in her so she may be interested in me,” rather than base a woman’s potential interest on the emotional cues she's sending, Ozy reported.

Read: Half Of Male College Athletes Admit History Of 'Sexually Coercive' Behavior Such As Sexual Assault, Rape

For the study, the team showed 220 male and 276 female college students 130 full-body photos of women and asked the volunteers to rate the pictured women’s sexual interest from “extremely rejecting” to “extremely sexually interested,” Ozy reported. Half of the students were instructed to focus on the women’s emotional cues such as their facial expressions and body language to gauge their levels of sexual interest, while the other half were given no instruction. Volunteers were also asked to note how much women’s attractiveness, clothing style, and emotional cues influenced their ratings on her sexual interest.

Results showed that female students were more likely than males to rely on emotional cues when gauging a woman’s sexual interest, while male students were more likely than females to focus on a woman’s attractiveness. What’s more, results revealed students who had more “pro-rape” beliefs, (attitudes toward rape that tend to minimize of justify the crime), were most likely to rely heavily on clothing style and overall attractiveness.

Although these results were found in a study, they may translate to a real-world setting. In this case, study authors suggest these types of attitudes may be easily changed. Although men were more likely than women to base sexual interest on appearance, and more so if they had “pro-rape” ideologies, the participants who were instructed to focus on emotional cues were less likely to make judgements based on clothing or looks.

This study may help to show some of the roots of rape and sexual coercion behavior that is so prevalent in the U.S. For example, one 2016 study found that more than half of male college athletes involved in a survey admitted to committing at least one act of “sexual coercion” in their lifetime. This ranged from making a partner have sex without a condom, to using physical force or threats to commit rape, the study reported. This finding is not as shocking when one takes into account that nearly one in five American women has been raped during her lifetime.

Though a small step to solving a much bigger problem, the study shows that misinterpretations may be avoided by simply teaching individuals what to look for when trying to gauge sexual interest. Big hint: It's not their clothing.

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

See Also:

Young Rape And Sexual Assault Victims Show Reduced Cognitive Function, Maternal Instinct

Sexual Violence On Campus: One-Third Of Women Experience Rape Before Sophomore Year