What ‘Error Management Theory’ can tell us about why men and women are different!

A new study has found that men and women perceive friendliness very differently.

Female university students reported that they had been ‘sexually overperceived‘ more times than they had been ‘sexually underperceived‘ both during the last year and at any time prior to that. For the male students, the misperceptions tended to go either way.

The study by psychologist Mons Bendixen showed that young men are more likely to misperceive young women as being sexually interested, when in fact they are just being friendly, than young women do with men.

If there’s a surprise, it’s that the students were Norwegian. Norway regularly tops the UN’s world tables in terms of gender equality. As the study points out, women’s participation in the workplace and in parliament is much higher in Scandinavia than other developed countries. So one might imagine that men’s and women’s attitudes to one another might be a little more egalitarian.

Although the ‘Mars and Venus’ differences between men and women now turn out to be overplayed, one unavoidable difference between men and women remains in whatever country and circumstances you live. Women have children and men don’t. Perhaps it should be less of a surprise that the interesting differences between men and women found in today’s studies tend to relate to the way we find and commit to our partners.

In terms of this study and the way un-partnered men and women view one another, young women are more likely to be weighing up longer term considerations when they talk to a man. Even in countries where work opportunities and childcare are far more egalitarian once women become mothers, getting to motherhood still involves nine months incubating a baby.

Interestingly, in this study, women reported being misinterpreted as ‘sexually overperceived‘ more times regardless of whether they themselves had a partner and regardless of how attractive they rated themselves or thought others rated them.

Now maybe I live a sheltered life. But reading this study taught me about a new theory of why all this happens. It’s called ‘Error Management Theory’. EMT (as I will henceforth call it!) is apparently all about weighing up the costs of making mistakes in life, whether because you don’t act and miss an opportunity or because you do act and waste time pursuing a dead end.

For a man, the authors argue, the cost of a missed sexual opportunity for him is far greater than the lost time, effort, and potential embarrassment, of misreading the signals from her. So he is more likely to take the risk of pursuing what he perceives as sexual interest, whether or not she is either interested or single, simply because she is female and friendly and therefore a potential mate.

For a woman, it’s the opposite. She has only one shot at getting it right with a sexual partner, more or less. So for her the big issue is reliability, The cost of a missed opportunity is then far less than the cost of having sex with somebody who won’t stick around as a fellow parent.

It occurs to me that EMT might also shed some light on why men and women commit in different ways. Scott Stanley’s and Galena Rhoades’s work on this shows that, generally speaking, women tend to commit when they move in with a man whereas men commit when they make a decision.

For a woman, moving in, having sex, and getting pregnant are all intimately linked together. If, having moved in, she were to have doubts about her choice of cohabitee, she would quickly realise that the cost of moving out exceeds the cost of sticking it out and hoping things get better. Scott and Galena call this ‘inertia’.

For a man, moving in does not necessarily bring all these long term connotations. If he has doubts, he has a more straightforward comparison to make of the cost of moving out and finding somebody new versus the cost of sticking it out. It’s only when he actively dismisses the possibility of moving out that the balance shifts.

Maybe this is why men’s commitment is so much more strongly linked to decisions about the future and willingness to sacrifice.

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