Should We Expect Cross-Cultural Perceptual Errors?

There was a rather interesting paper that crossed my social media feeds recently concerning stereotypes about women in science fields; a topic about which I have been writing lately. I’m going to do something I don’t usually do and talk about it briefly despite having just read the abstract and discussion section. The paper, by Miller, Eagly, and Linn (2014), reported on people’s implicit gender stereotypes about science, which associated science more readily with men, relative to women. As it turns out, across a number of different cultures, people’s implicit stereotypes corresponded fairly well to the actual representation of men and women in those fields. In other words, people’s perceptions, or at least their responses, tended to be accurate: if more men were associated with science psychologically, it seemed to be because more men also happened to work in science fields. In general, this is how we should expect the mind to work. While our minds might imperfectly gather information about the world, they should do their best to be accurate. The reasons for this accuracy, I suspect, have a lot to do with being right resulting in useful modifications of behaviors.

   Being wrong about skateboarding skill, for instance, has some consequences

Whenever people propose psychological hypotheses that have to do with people being wrong, then, we should be a bit skeptical. A psychology designed in such a way so as to be wrong about the world consistently will, on the whole, tend to direct behavior in more maladaptive ways than a more accurate mind would. If one is positing that people are wrong about the world in some regard, it would require either that (a) there are no consequences for being wrong in that particular way or (b) there are some consequences, but the negative consequences are outweighed by the benefits. Most hypotheses for holding incorrect beliefs I have encountered tend towards the latter route, suggesting that some incorrect beliefs might outperform true beliefs in some fitness-relevant way(s).

One such hypothesis that I’ve written about before concerns error management theory. To recap, error management theory recognizes that some errors are costlier to make than others. To use an example in the context of the current paper I’m about to discuss, consider a case in which a man desires to have sex with a woman. The woman in question might or might not be interested in the prospect; the man might also perceive that she is interested or not interested. If the woman is interested and the man makes the mistake of thinking she isn’t, he has missed out on a potentially important opportunity to increase his reproductive output. On the other hand, if the woman isn’t interested and the man makes the mistake of thinking she is, he might waste some time and energy pursuing her unsuccessfully. These two mistakes do not carry equivalent costs: one could make the argument that a missed encounter is costlier on average, from a fitness standpoint, than an unsuccessful pursuit (depending, of course, on how much time and energy is invested in the pursuit).

Accordingly, it has been hypothesized that male psychology might be designed in such a way so as to over-perceive women’s sexual interest in them, minimizing the costs associated with making mistakes, multiplied by their frequency, rather than minimizing the number of mistakes one makes in total. While that sounds plausible at first glance, there is a rather important point worth bearing in mind when evaluating it: incorrect beliefs are not the only way to go about solving this problem: a man could believe, correctly, that a woman is not all that interested in him, but simply use a lower threshold for acceptable pursuits. Putting that into numbers, let’s say a woman has a 5% chance of having sex with the man in question: the man might not pursue any chance below 10%, and so could bias his belief upward to think he actually has a 10% chance; alternatively, he might believe she has about a 5% chance of having sex with him and decide to go after her anyway. It seems that the second route solves this problem more effectively, as a biased probability of success with a woman might have downstream effects on other pursuits.

Like on the important task of watching the road

Now in that last post I mentioned, it seems that the evidence that men over-perceive women’s sexual interest might instead be better explained by the hypothesis that women are underreporting their intentions. After all, we have no data on the probability of a woman having sex with someone given she did something like held his hand or bought him a present, so concluding that men over-perceive requires assuming that women report accurately (the previous evidence would also require that pretty much everyone else but the woman is wrong about her behavior, male or female). Some new evidence puts the hypothesis of male over-perception into even hotter water. A recent paper by Perilloux et al (2015) sought to test this over-perception bias cross-culturally, as most of the data bearing on it happens to have been derived from American samples. If men possess some adaptation designed for over-perception of sexual interest, we should expect to see it cross-culturally; it ought to be a human universal (as I’ve noted before, this doesn’t mean we should expect invariance in its expression, but we should at least find its presence).

Perilloux et al (2015) collected data from participants in Spain, Chile, and France, representing a total sample size of approximately 400 subjects. Men and women were given a list of 15 behaviors. They were asked to imagine they had been out on a few dates with a member of the opposite sex, and then about their estimates of having sex with them, given that this opposite sex individual engaged in those behaviors (from -3 being “extremely unlikely” to 3 being “extremely likely”). The results showed an overall sex difference in each country, with men tending perceive more sexual interest than women. While this might appear to support the idea that over-perception is a universal feature of male psychology, a closer examination of the data cast some doubt on that idea.

In the US sample, men perceived more sexual interest than women in 12 of the 15 items; in Spain, that number was 5, in Chile it was 2, and in France it was 1. It seemed that the question concerning whether someone bought jewelry was enough to driving this sex difference in both the French and Chilean samples. Rather than men over-perceiving women’s reported interests in general across a wide range of behaviors, it seemed that the cross-cultural sample’s differences were being driven by only a few behaviors; behaviors which are, apparently, also rather atypical for relationships in those countries (inasmuch as women don’t usually buy men jewelry). As for why there’s a greater correspondence between French and Chilean men and women’s reported likelihoods, I can’t say. However, that men from France and Chile seem to be rather accurate in their perceptions of female sexual intent would cast doubt on the idea that male psychology contains some mechanisms for sexual over-perception.

I’ll bet US men still lead in shooting accuracy, though

This paper helps make two very good points that, at first, might seem like they oppose each other, despite their complimentary nature. The first point is the obvious importance of cross-cultural research; one cannot simply take it for granted that a given effect will appear in other cultures. Many sex differences – like height and willingness to engage in casual sex – do, but some will not. The second point, however, is that hypotheses about function can be developed and even tested (albeit incompletely) in absence of data about their universality. Hypotheses about function are distinct from hypotheses about proximate form or development, though these different levels of analysis can often be used to inform others. Indeed, that’s what happened in the current paper, with Perilloux et al (2015) drawing the implicit hypothesis about universality from the hypothesis about ultimate functioning, using data about the former to inform their posterior beliefs about the latter. While different levels of analysis inform each other, they are nonetheless distinct, and that’s always worth repeating.

References: Perilloux, C., Munoz-Reyes, J., Turiegano, E., Kurzban, R., & Pita, M. (2015). Do (non-American) men overestimate women’s sexual intentions? Evolutionary Psychological Science, DOI 10.1007/s40806-015-0017-5

Miller, D., Eagly, A., & Linn, M., (2014). Women’s representation in science predicts national gender-science stereotypes: Evidence from 66 nations. Journal of Educational Psychology,

Comments are closed.