Sex is complicated, not least because it generally involves two people with varying wants and needs that don't always match up—and aren't always obvious. In the context of evolution, heterosexually speaking (sorry), men are characterized as pursers who are always down to bone down. Women, on the other hand, are considered more selective. Because of these caveman instincts, research has suggested, men—when dimly trawling bars or Tinder for mates—tend to overestimate just exactly how interested a woman is in having sex with them so they don't "miss out" on the rare opportunity to spread their seed.
But does that perception last once these males enter into a long-term relationship? That's the question Amy Miuse, a researcher at the University of Toronto who has the fun job of studying couples and sex, asked in a recent report. "All of the research on perceiving desire has been done on initial encounters; people meeting for the first time. In those studies, men tend to over-perceive the amount that a woman is sexually interested in them than the women tend to report. What we were interested in is what happens when people enter into an established relationship," Miuse tells Broadly.
Muise and her team asked participating couples to complete individual background surveys about their sexual desire and subsequent surveys over a period of 21 days. For the most part, the lovers could accurately assess if their partner was in the mood or not. But the researchers discovered—surprisingly—that men in relationships consistently tend to think that their partners want to have less sex than they actually do. The reason for this, Muise said, is that latent under-perception of desire could have long-term benefits. While believing that your partner doesn't want to have sex with you (accurately or not) could be a bummer for you in the short term, the researchers found that the partners of under-perceiving men reported higher relationship satisfaction and commitment.
It's not entirely clear how under-perception bias explicitly leads to these positive associations, but Muise speculated that aside from the fact that it could lessen unwanted pressure on women to have sex, Muise says under-perception bias could also stop men from becoming complacent. "There's still some more work to be done to figure out exactly what's going on there. But one possibility is that perhaps when men are under-perceiving, they're much more motivated to do things to entice their partner, make their partner feel good, and express their love and commitment to the relationship. And women are feeling more satisfied and committed as a result," Muise says.
"For example, taking it outside of sexual desire, if I overestimate how much my partner loves me, I might just think that I can sit back and I that I don't have to put in a lot of effort into the relationship because they're already so much in love with me that it doesn't really matter what I do. But if I were to under-perceive that slightly then maybe that can keep me a little bit more motivated to keep my partner's interest," she says. Under-perception bias could also serve to help minimize the risk of rejection.
Importantly, however, Muise explains that the tendency to under-percieve sexual desire isn't gender specific. In most cases it corresponds to the partner with the higher sex drive. "The bias occurs in who tends to be more interested in having sex," she says. Because of this, Muise theorizes that under-perception bias could be a mechanism to balance conflicting levels of sexual interest and maintain harmony in the relationship. "Theoretically, this would help to maintain the relationship overtime, but to have that evidence we would need to follow couples for a longer period of time," she says.