It's a common story: There I was, sitting alone at a bar after work, reading a book while waiting for a friend to arrive, when a man came up to me and asked me what I was reading. Excited about the opportunity to talk about it, I cheerfully responded, and we sparked up a conversation. It was an enjoyable conversation — until he invited me back to his place. When I responded, "No," he shot back with, "But you've been flirting with me the whole time!" Uh, no, actually, I wasn't... so why do men always think women are flirting with them, regardless as to whether they actually are? According to New York Magazine's Science of Us webseries, there's actually an evolutionary reason for it (although whether or not it also demonstrates that being the worst is just coded into cis male DNA remains to be seen).
Humans spend a lot of time trying to figure out if someone us flirting with us, and for anyone other than the aforementioned straight, cis male, the automatic assumption actually isn't that someone who is politely talking to you must be flirting with you. Let's take a look at the latest episode of Science of Us to see waht evolutionary factors might go into making men believe that every interaction with a woman is loaded with sexual overtones. Here's the general general idea in three pictures; scroll down to watch the full video.
1. Sexual Misperception
This is what the phenomena where men misjudge whether a woman is flirting with them is called. The majority of women in the United States — 90 percent, according to the video — have experienced male sexual misperception. Women also experience it much more than men do. But why?
2. Error Management Theory
That's why. According to researchers, men have evolved to assume women are flirting with them so they don't miss out on the opportunity to reproduce. If a woman is flirting, the man gets the chance to pass on his genes. Evolutionarily speaking, that's not an opportunity that should be missed. Women, meanwhile, have evolved to under-percieve sexual interest, because if you reproduce with someone who leaves you, you have fewer child-rearing resources. Not that there's anything wrong with single parenting — but from an evolutionary perspective, single parents are at a disadvantage.
3. What's Culture Got To Do With It?
Ultimately the whole "but you were totally flirting with me!" thing isn't entirely about evolution — but it is less of a cultural phenomenon than you might think. Consider this experiment cited by the video: Researchers asked men and women in Norway (which generally scores better on gender equality than the United States) to describe flirting false alarms, and compared the results to those from the U.S. Surprisingly, there were few differences among who perceived what, showing that this phenomena might, in fact, be more deeply rooted in biology than culture.
So hey, straight guy: Just because the flirting fallacy might be an evolutionary thing, it still does't mean it's OK for you to make unwelcome moves based off a hunch. Want know if a lady is flirting with you? Easy: Ask.
Watch the full episode below: