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What's her body language saying? Don't ask him

Short of broadcasting her romantic feelings in a headline, Katy Anderson felt she had sent some obvious signals to Jon Roe, a fellow editor at the University of Calgary's student newspaper.

She had pulled all-nighters at the office to maximize their time together, shot him lingering looks, and laughed extra hard at his jokes - even the not-so-funny ones.

Now, on a ski trip with mutual friends, the two of them were lying in the dark on the floor of a cabin, and had been talking all night. Time for Mr. Roe to make a move, Ms. Anderson thought.

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"Then he, like, started cuddling a pillow at 8 [a.m.]" said Ms. Anderson, a 22-year-old political science major.

"I'm pretty bad at picking up signs," admits Mr. Roe, 21, who's studying economics.

Turns out Mr. Roe isn't the only guy who has trouble deciphering what a woman wants.

New research to be published in the April issue of Psychological Science suggests university-aged men are more likely than their female peers to confuse friendly signals with sexual ones, and sexual ones with friendly ones.

In a Yale University and Indiana University study of 280 heterosexual, university-aged men and women, subjects were asked to arrange 280 photos of fully clothed women into four categories: friendly, sexually interested, sad or rejecting.

Men who viewed images of friendly women mistakenly labelled 12 per cent of those images as sexually interested. Women got it wrong 8.7 per cent of the time.

But both men and women fared even worse at realizing when women were sexually interested. Men mistakenly interpreted 37.8 per cent of the "sexually interested" images as "friendly," while women mislabeled about 32 per cent of those images.

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"Both men and women were pretty hesitant to call anyone sexually interested," said Coreen Farris, the study's lead author and a doctoral student at Indiana University's department of psychological and brain sciences.

The researchers noted that future studies could be enhanced if subjects looked at more than photos - such as a video of a person's body language or eye contact.

So why are guys seemingly more clueless than women? Psychologists have a few hunches.

One popular theory is that young men tend to oversexualize their environment. Jordyn Marcellus, a 20-year-old University of Calgary student, agrees: "Guys tend to think, 'Oh, she's being friendly - that means she's interested,' when really maybe she's just a friendly girl."

Another theory - and the one Ms. Ferris says her research supports - suggests that women have the advantage when it comes to interpreting facial expressions and body language for a variety of emotions. Men are simply a little less adept at reading non-verbal cues such as body language and batted eyelashes.

Antonia Abbey, professor of psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit, adds that socialization may play a role too.

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Because men are generally expected to make the first move, they may be more prone to taking risks on the off chance a girl is interested, even if he is not sure.

"They have to be a bit bold," said Dr. Abbey, who began studying these types of gender dynamics as a graduate student in the early 1980s, after a guy at a bar kept pestering her despite her insistence that she only wanted a dance - not a relationship.

For Ms. Anderson and Mr. Roe, at least, things worked out in the end.

About a week after their 2006 ski holiday, the pair met at the campus bar. After a couple of pitchers of beer, Ms. Anderson leaned in for the kiss - and they've been together ever since.

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