Error Management Theory, Signal Detection Theory, and the male sexual overperception effect



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Men seem to misperceive women’s friendliness as sexual interest, known as male sexual overperception. Behaviors communicating sexual interest and disinterest were collected, evaluated, and combined into vignettes that were used to study male sexual overperception through a Signal Detection Theory (SDT) perspective and an Error Management Theory (EMT) perspective. SDT results revealed that sensitivity to the difference between signals of sexual interest and disinterest drove participants’ perceptions, rather than an overall bias to perceive sexual interest. Cues of interest were generally underperceived, but women were slightly more biased to perceive interest than men, who tended to perceive no interest. Sensitivity and accuracy were extremely high and did not differ between the sexes. Individual differences such as life history strategy, mating strategy, and mate value did not affect sensitivity or bias. EMT analysis also found an overall underperception of sexual interest, but contradictory to the SDT results, found that men were perceiving nearly the same amount of sexual interest as women. Further examination revealed that these different results were due to EMT using difference scores that did not accurately reflect the average levels of perception for men and women due to their calculation. While the previously researched “male sexual overperception effect” was not found, these studies show that sexual communication may be more nuanced than previously thought. Additionally, these studies establish SDT as a viable methodology for exploring sexual communication and show that SDT methods can be used on biases typically studied with EMT. SDT analyses were more reflective of the raw data, provided more information in standardized, comparable measurements, incorporated individual differences, and did not lose information to aggregation. Future research on biases examined with EMT should incorporate SDT analyses to explore topics more deeply.



Male sexual overperception, Signal Detection Theory, Error Management Theory, Evolutionary psychology, Social psychology, Cognitive psychology

Graduation Month



Master of Science


Department of Psychological Sciences

Major Professor

Gary L. Brase