Sex + Dating

Why Dating Signals Are Easy To Misread

I sat eating donuts in Madison Square Park with a handsome man I'd recently met, thinking, finally, I found someone. I spent a few seconds admiring his perfect face and imagining our wedding as the sun set behind him, all unicorns and rainbows and gushy feelings. Then he mentioned his girlfriend. Snapped from my trance, suddenly I could hear the ambulance blaring by, the man at the next table yelling at his friend for feeding the pigeons, and a Pomeranian barking uncontrollably.

The illusion of the date was gone. The two of us, I realized, were just friends.

Fifteen years of dating, and you'd think I'd know the signs. But in spite of being a life coach and reading people for a living, I still misread signs when it comes to my own dating life. I think people are interested in me romantically who aren't, I’m blindsided by breakups, and I still think charming, good-looking men who try to pick me up at the bar are interested in more than sex. And, it is not because I have an inflated ego.

After the millionth time of being wrong, I decided to figure out why I was so bad at reading the opposite sex. Turns out, I'm not alone. Every human being has psychological biases when it comes to reading others' feelings towards them.

We see what we want to see

A group of psychologists found that our motivations influence the arousal we perceive in others. In experiments, people with strong mate-search goals tended to perceive more arousal in attractive potential mates. That means if I see an attractive man at the bar, I'm going to think he is more interested in me than he may be. Merely being attracted to someone inhibits my ability to accurately read signals.

Once we believe a guy is interested, then confirmation bias takes over. Confirmation bias is the phenomenon where we selectively remember and interpret information to confirm our existing beliefs. For example, as a Republican I might only watch Fox News, while as a Democrat I might only read The New York Times. Confirmation bias is even more likely to occur in emotional experiences. In the case of my "date," I focused on how he constantly smiled at me instead of how he recoiled when our knees touched by accident under the table.

Love is blinding

Confirmation bias is stronger in highly emotional situations because when we experience strong negative or positive emotions we have trouble empathizing. This is especially true in relationships. In one experiment, researchers videotaped couples in a threatening situation. Then each person watched the videotape and identified what their significant other was feeling. Controlling for the closeness of the relationship, people who felt more threatened in the situation less accurately identified their partner's emotions. The stronger we feel the less empathetic we become. The crazier in love we are, the less we are able to identify our partner's emotions.

Instead of "love is blind," I've now adopted the stronger motto "love is blinding." My ability to interpret signals is blinded by my emotional state and desires.

We forget to fact-check our guts

To overcome confirmation bias in the business sector, many suggest that you attempt to disprove your belief and wait till you collect more information before drawing conclusions. "Trust your gut, but verify with data," urges author and executive coach Alli Worthington. The same applies to dating.

"Most men share what they are capable of or not capable of within the first two dates," says matchmaker Amy Andersen of Linx Dating. So if you "listen to every detail, treating it as fact not fiction," she says, you usually have your answer.

After receiving this advice, I decided to see if given more data I could have correctly assessed Park Guy's interest. I asked mutual friends how he treated his female friends. While we chatted for hours over messenger, it turns out he messages with a lot of female friends. I went back through our time together and tried to recall what he did to indicate he wasn't interested. I discovered that I had initiated every interaction. All in all, the data saying he wasn't interested outweighed my overwhelming gut feeling that he was.

You can't always trust your gut. Your gut wants you to be loved. Sometimes you are, but sometimes you aren't.

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Emily Grewal is the creator of Love (decision) maker. She's a statistician-turned-life coach who studied decision-making at Stanford and NYU. Follow her on Twitter: @emilygrewal.