70 percent of college women reporting an experience in which a guy mistook her friendliness for a sexual come-on, Farris said.
In the study, appearing in the April issue of the journal Psychological Science, men who viewed images of friendly women misidentified 12 percent of the images as sexually interested. Women mistook 8.7 percent of the friendly images for sexual interest.
Both men and women were even more likely to do the opposite -- when viewing images of sexually interested women, men mistakenly called 37.8 percent of the images "friendly." Women mistook 31.9 percent of the sexual interest cues for friendliness.
"Relative to women, men did not oversexualize the image set in our study," said lead author Coreen Farris, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at IU Bloomington. "Both men and women were reluctant to state that ambiguous cues were 'sexual interest.' In fact, men and women utilized nearly identical thresholds for the degree of sexual interest that must be perceived before they were willing to go out on a limb and state that the nonverbal cues were sexual in nature."
[...] "The observed advantage among women in ability to discriminate between friendliness and sexual interest extends to processing of sad and rejecting cues. This suggests that the increased tendency among young men to incorrectly read sexual interest rather than friendliness may simply be an extension of a general disadvantage in reading nonverbal cues, rather than a process unique to sexual signaling."
The study involved 280 heterosexual college-age men and women, average age of 19.6. Seated in a private computer room, the men and women each categorized 280 photo images of women (full body, fully clothed) into one of four categories -- friendly, sexually interested, sad or rejecting. Images were selected for each of the categories based on an extensive validation process.
The study found that both men and women were least accurate at correctly identifying the photos indicating sexual interest. Farris, whose research focuses on sexual aggression in men, noted that the results reflect average differences.
"The data don't support the idea that all men are bad at this or that all women are great at this," she said. "It's a small difference."
Pretty interesting stuff. Another study (pdf warning) had a different finding, women are harder to read:
Furthermore, as predicted, it was on average easier for observers to gauge men’s intentions than it was to gauge women’s intentions (though there was high variance in observers’ performance levels across individual daters of both sexes). The lower overall accuracy concerning women’s intentions was not due to observers guessing or
performing at chance but to a systematic overperception of female daters’ interest (Fig. 3)—surpassing 80% erroneous interest predictions for the five hardest-to-read women.
This dramatic rate of incorrect perception supports our hypothesis that women are harder to read, presumably because
they mask their true intentions: As Grammer et al. (2000) argued, the biologically deep-rooted sex inequality in parental investment (Trivers, 1972) puts greater risks on the females of a species during mate choice. As a result, females, including women in speed dating (Todd, Penke, Fasolo, & Lenton, 2007), are much more critical and picky when making mate-choice decisions. And, in order to evaluate potential mates longer without signaling their true intentions, women behave more covertly and ambiguously during initial interactions with the opposite sex. Men, in contrast, face lower risks and consequently should be less likely to hide their intentions.
And while we are at it, something about women initiating:
He (Perper 1985) made note, however, of the fact that it was the womans's behaviour, that was more likely to usher in the next stage. Similarly, when Kendon (1975) filmed a kissing couple seated on a park bench he found that the womans's behavior particularly her facial expressions, functioned as a regulator, modulating the behaviour of her partner. Cary (1976) also has shown that the woman's behavior is important in initiating conversations between strangers. Both in laboratory settings and in singles' bars, conversation was initiated only after the woman glanced at the man. And Perper (1985) discovered in his filed of studies on couples in singles' bars that the woman was responsible for courtship initiation approximately seventy percent of the time.
EDIT: And a recent one:
The researchers found that:
Men who wanted a short-term sexual encounter were more likely to overestimate a woman's desire for them.
Men who believed they were "hot" also thought the women were hot for them, but men who were actually considered attractive by women did not think this way.
The more attractive a woman was to a man, the more likely he was to overestimate her interest.
Women tended to underestimate men's desire.