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Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.
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(Illustration: zphoto/Shutterstock)

(Illustration: zphoto/Shutterstock)

So, guys, you’re out to impress a woman on a first date. You’re attentive, polite, and respond thoughtfully to what she has to say. Then, as the evening ends, she informs you she isn’t interested in seeing you again.

What did you do wrong? New research suggests you mistakenly assumed that certain attitudes and behaviors that are a turn-on for guys have a similar effect on women.

In fact, according to a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, they do not.

Researchers in Israel and the U.S. report that, at least in the beginning stages of a romantic relationship, men find emotionally responsive women to be more feminine and attractive. Women, on the other hand, do not equate responsiveness in men with attractiveness or masculinity.

Attentiveness and responsiveness can, in most cases, increase a woman’s perceived attractiveness. If there is a similarly surefire strategy for men, it has yet to be discovered.

The researchers, led by psychologist Gurit Birnbaum of the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya, Israel, describe three studies that examine the complexity of how signals are sent, and received, early in the dating process. One featured 112 Israeli undergraduates (56 men and 56 women), each of whom was paired with a stranger of the opposite sex for a five- to seven-minute discussion.

Depending upon the results of a coin flip, each participant was assigned the role of “discloser” or “responder.” Disclosers were instructed to talk about “a recent personal negative event,” such as failing an exam. Responders were told to react to this story by talking “about as much or as little as they would under normal circumstances.”

Afterwards, disclosers assessed “how understood, validated, and cared for” they felt during the interaction. They were then asked to “evaluate the responder’s sexual attractiveness.”

As expected, “men who perceived a new acquaintance as more responsive also perceived her as more feminine and, in turn, more sexually attractive,” the researchers report. However, among women participants, they found no significant association between partner responsiveness and perceived masculinity.

These findings were confirmed and expanded upon in two additional studies, one of which found that, for men but not women, a partner’s responsiveness led to heightened feelings of sexual arousal, which was linked to a “greater desire for a long-term relationship.”

So what’s behind this latest example of disconnection between the sexes? In the getting-to-know-you phase, “potential partners often tend to rely heavily on conventional cultural scripts of how women and men should behave toward one another,” the researchers write.

In other words, men are looking for signals of femininity, and perceive responsiveness as a reflection of that desirable quality. “These perceptions may increase sexual attraction to this partner, and heighten the desire to bond with her,” they write.

In contrast, the researchers speculate, women may see emotionally responsive men as “overly eager to please,” or as insincere cads who are clumsily trying to ingratiate themselves.

It all suggests that the dating minefield is, in one sense, trickier to navigate for males. Attentiveness and responsiveness can, in most cases, increase a woman’s perceived attractiveness. If there is a similarly surefire strategy for men, it has yet to be discovered.