Science Shows Why It Seems Impossible for Men and Women to "Just Be Friends"
It's one of the oldest questions known to man (and woman): Can truly platonic relationships ever exist, or will there always be some bit of attraction there?
For those who believe that men and women really just can't be friends, a new study in the journal Evolutionary Psychology has some compelling findings. The research, conducted in Norway, found that men and women fundamentally misunderstand each other: She interprets his signals of sexual interest as friendliness. He reads her signals of friendliness as sexual interest.
The study: It may sound stereotypical, but men do have sex on the mind. Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology surveyed 308 heterosexual undergrad students between the ages of 18 and 30, asking them about their friendships, sexual attractions and experiences with misread social signals.
The result was that men commonly overperceived sexual interest from women, with the female participants saying they'd had their friendly actions misunderstood by men about 3.5 times over the past year on average. On the flip side, women reported underperceiving sexual interest from men, although markedly less so.
The research falls in line with the findings of previous studies; one from 2009, for example, found that males observed women to be more seductive, promiscuous and flirtatious (indicators of sexual interest) than females observed men to be.
Evolution may be behind men's tendency to overperceive sexual signals. The Norwegian researchers hypothesized that men overperceive sexual interest in order to minimize "errors" in choosing a mate; when it comes to natural selection, a man's ability to reproduce is paramount, so he can't miss opportunities.
(Natural selection doesn't explain women's underperception of men's signals, but past research confirms its commonness.)
One-sided feelings are common: A 2012 study found that men are actually more likely to be sexually attracted to their female friends than their female friends were to them. They also, like in the recent study, were more likely to think that their female friends were sexually attracted to them when they weren't.
On the other hand, Scientific American noted, "Women, too, were blind to the mindset of their opposite-sex friends; because females generally were not attracted to their male friends, they assumed that this lack of attraction was mutual."
That's when shit gets awkward: When straight men and women don't have an accurate read on how one feels about the other, things can get weird. That doesn't mean a friendship is impossible; the latest study didn't specifically examine whether these misunderstood signals actually got in the way of friendships.
Instead, the researchers consider how misread intentions might contribute to sexual harassment. "A woman who laughs at your jokes, stands close or touches your arm at a party doesn't mean that she's sexually interested, even if you think she is," lead researcher Mons Bendixen said, a helpful point to remember.
But it's clear to see how misreading a friend's sexual interest in you can compromise a platonic friendship. After all, it took Harry and Sally years of stress and separation to really figure things out (and it's only because it was a romantic comedy that they were guaranteed a happy ending).
That said, misread signals or not, cross-sex friendships do exist, now more than ever. According to sociologist Michael Kimmel, millennials are far more likely than older generations to see friendships between women and men as normal.
Plus, there's reason to think that having more male friends can help straight women have more sex — which just might make any awkwardness worth it.