Error Management Theory

Johnny Bravo

Error Management (EM) is an extensive theory of perception and cognitive biases that was created by psychologists David Buss and Martie Haselton. They describe a set of heuristics (mental shortcuts) that have survived evolutionary history because they hold slight reproductive benefits. The premise of the theory is built around the drive to reduce or manage costly reproductive errors. According to the theory, when there are differences in the cost of errors made under conditions of uncertainty, selection favors ‘adaptive biases,’ which ensure that the less costly survival or reproductive error will be committed.

When faced with uncertainty, a subject can make two possible errors: type I (false-positive or playing it safe, e.g. a fire alarm that later turns out to be a false alarm) and type II (false-negative or siding with skepticism, e.g. ignoring an often faulty fire alarm during an actual emergency). Error Management Theory asserts that evolved ‘mind-reading’ agencies will be biased to produce more for the first type of error, which explains the ‘sexual overperception bias,’ the tendency for men to incorrectly assume a platonic gesture from a woman is a sexual signal.

Males are more likely than females to commit sexual overperception bias, as evidenced by previous research. Findings have found that men ‘overestimate women’s sexual interest’ while women tend to ‘underestimate men’s interest.’ This is likely due to the fact that the reproductive costs of sexual underperception are greater for men than the risk of making false positives. Men who perceive themselves as especially high in mate value are especially prone to experiencing this phenomenon. In addition, men who are also more inclined to pursue a short term mating strategy exhibit a more prominent case of sexual overperception bias.

Males and females may also manipulate each other through sexual overperception. Knowing about sexual overperception, females may flirt with males to fulfill certain wants without possessing any sexual desires for the male. However, women are not the only sex to twist the overperception bias in their favor. Approximately ‘71% of men’ report using manipulation to gain favors, however this was done by manipulating how emotionally invested they appeared to be. Contrary to the previously reported statistics, approximately ‘97% of women’ state that they had experienced emotional manipulation by a male. The manipulations performed by both sexes lead to conflicts in opinions on the standings of their relationships. Common statements made by males experiencing the manipulation may include the complaint of being led on by the female. As for women, complaints of moving too quickly in a relationship are more typical.

Women also fall victim to misconceptions during male-female interactions. Haselton and Buss advocate that these errors primarily stem from women’s perceived desire for a committed relationship by a male counterpart. Women have evolved strategies to protect themselves from deception. One of these evolved strategies is to commit the skeptical commitment bias, a type II error and an error management bias, where women early in a courtship underestimate the amount of relational devotion and commitment a potential mate is willing to give. For example, if a male gives a female flowers during courtship the recipient tends to underestimate the extent to which the flowers signal commitment in comparison to outside observers. This bias functions to decrease the costs of being sexually deceived by men who fake commitment in order to attain casual sex.

Evolutionarily speaking, sexual overperception is more costly than underperception. As stated by Haselton and Buss, in the past, women who over-perceived the commitment of a male, were more likely to end up with an unintended pregnancy, lack of a partner to raise a child with, and her own reputation at risk. Whereas committing a type I error might lead to complications in the female’s life and the added responsibility of rearing a child on her own, a type II error might serve to arouse further displays of sexual attraction to help indicate intent.

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