Sexual overperception bias
“I take other people's actions as a sign that they are attracted to me when they are not.”
How do I know if someone is attracted to me? This question has occupied the minds of many of us and has been the subject of several magazine articles. It can indeed be difficult to decode the interest of others behind subtle acts like a smile or a furtive glance. But as if that weren't hard enough, research points to a cognitive bias that can make it even more difficult: the sexual overperception bias. This bias corresponds to the tendency to overestimate a person's sexual interest in oneself . This seems to be mainly present in men, even in societies with high gender neutrality, where domestic tasks and wealth are only weakly (or not at all) correlated to gender. . However, this bias has only been demonstrated in studies of heterosexual populations whose biological sex was male, so it is not yet known whether it is also present in men of sexual and gender diversity.
Sexual overperception has been illustrated using a situation in Safeway stores . This supermarket chain had a policy in place requiring employees to serve customers with a smile, which led to complaints from some female employees. These women reported that several customers, mostly men, believed that the employees were sexually attracted to them, while they were in fact only respecting the new policy of serving with a smile. The policy even led to instances of harassment where customers went so far as to wait for the employee at the end of their shift . It seems likely that the clients’ misinterpretation of employee smiles as a sexual interest is a manifestation of the sexual overperception bias.
Studies identify several explanations for this bias, but the hypothesis most often presented concerns the evolution of the human species. According to this perspective, males would benefit from having multiple sexual partners on a regular basis, thus having the ability to rapidly inseminate multiple sexual partners, so that their genes will be more present in the population than those of other males. Thus, men pay more attention to signs that may indicate a chance to spread their genes in order to avoid missing an opportunity. By this logic, time wasted courting an uninterested woman is judged to be less detrimental than missing the chance to mate. Given the time and energy associated with pregnancy, however, women do not have the same advantage associated with the rapid multiplication of genes and therefore have no evolutionary interest in being more sensitive to potential sexual partners . This theory’s explanatory power is limited, however, as it looks at the experiences of men and women in a homogeneous way, and is heavily influenced by biological considerations. Indeed, the bias can present itself differently from one person to another and could also be influenced by cultural factors not yet explored.
Other social factors have also been proposed to explain the bias. Notably, studies have suggested that a strong adherence to typically masculine values such as aggression or the tendency to dominate may give more rise to this bias . In addition, it has been observed that men generally judged as more attractive seem to exhibit more sexual overperception than those judged to be less attractive. As attractive people often receive more sexual advances regardless of this bias, they might generally expect more and therefore sometimes mistakenly perceive greater sexual interest in others. The reverse applies to people who find themselves less attractive. Indeed, a person who has low self-esteem can doubt that others could find them attractive and therefore demonstrate less of this bias .
Sexual overperception can have serious interpersonal effects, including sexual harassment and even sexual assault . In some cases, when the woman refuses the advances, some men may wrongly interpret the refusal as a sign that the woman is interested but wants to be seduced, so the false perception of sexual interest can lead to disregard for the consent of the other. Some individuals may even go so far as to believe that a woman "deserves" to be assaulted because of this interpretation of false refusal . Obviously, refusal should always mean the end of the advances or sexual relations. Another potential consequence of this bias is that when a man is motivated to have sex, he may do favors that he would not normally do for the person who is the target of his interest. There may also be negative effects for men who may be manipulated due to this bias. Indeed, a man could be subject to manipulation on the part of the person arousing his interest who may take advantage of the error of perception to elicit favors .
Thoughts on how to act in light of this bias
Interpret the behavior of others by considering the context: a gesture may have different meanings in different contexts.
When contemplating having sex with someone, make sure you have the verbal consent of the other. Consent, to be valid, must be lucid, informed and free. A resource that better explains sexual consent can be found in the references.
How is this bias measured?
Sexual overperception bias can be measured by asking participants to rate someone’s level of sexual interest in themselves. A comparison is then made between this assessment and the level of actual sexual interest as reported by the other person . This measure is used to conclude the existence of the sexual overperception bias when the participant considers the sexual attraction of the other to be higher than it really is.
This bias is discussed in the scientific literature:
This bias has social or individual repercussions:
This bias is empirically demonstrated:
 Carmen Kohl & Julia Robertson (2014). The sexual overperception bias: an exploration of the relationship between mate value and perception of sexual interest. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 8(1), 31-43.
 Mons Bendixen (2014). Evidence of systematic bias in sexual over- and underperception of naturally occuring events: a direct replication of Haselton (2003) in a more gender-equal culture. Evolutionary Psychology, 12(5), 1004-1021.
 Martie G. Haselton (2003). The sexual overperception bias: evidence of a systematic bias in men from a survey of naturally occuring events. Journal of Research in Personality, 37(1), 34-47.
 Antonia Abbey, Angela J. Jacques-Tiura & James M. LeBreton (2011). Risk factors for sexual aggression in young men: an expansion of the confluence model. Aggressive Behavior, 37(5), 450-464.
Éducaloi. 2013. Sexual consent. Last modified on january 26th, 2021. Online : https://educaloi.qc.ca/en/capsules/sexual-consent/
Interpersonal level, Need for self-esteem
Sexual underperception bias
Gabriel Piuze-Bourgeois is a Bachelor in psychology from the University of Sherbrooke and undergraduate student in sexology at the University of Quebec in Montreal.
Translated from French to English by S. D. Renaud.
How to cite this entry
Piuze-Bourgeois, G. (2021). Sexual overperception bias, trans. S. D. Renaud. In C. Gratton, E. Gagnon-St-Pierre, & E. Muszynski (Eds). Shortcuts: A handy guide to cognitive biases Vol. 4. Online: www.shortcogs.com