Why Men and Women Aren’t “Just Friends”

    Over 20 years ago, Meg Ryan’s now-iconic orgasm-faking skills brought the question of whether men and women can be “just friends” into the public consciousness. Though the question is now trite, and even somewhat offensive, researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison took to the lab (er, questionnaire) to solve this query, and their research suggests the answer to the famous question is “no.”

    Granted, the researchers have no statistics-ladden, brain scan-induced method for verifying this; their conclusions come from questioning pairs of heterosexual friends of the opposite gender about each other, and seeing how two different people experience the same friendship. And differences there were: Apparently, men overestimate romantic interest, women underestimate romantic interest and, in both cases, this has little relation to how much interest the other person is displaying. In fact, it was almost wholly dependent on how confident the man or woman was — which the researchers said was the cause of said over- and underestimation, as men, in general, tend to be more confident.

    Of course, there’s no dearth of amusing, love-related research about hidden attraction. Another recent study asked Cornell University undergraduates about how much jealousy they would feel about their partner grabbing lunch with an ex over lunch, versus talking on the phone, eating dinner or grabbing coffee. The results showed that people were more jealous about dinner than lunch and lunch than “late morning coffee,” suggesting that food is a strong social and romantic marker we often subconsciously internalize and, as the study title asserts, oftentimes “it’s not just lunch.”

    In the end, there may be little reason to obsess too much about the unconscious social meaning of “catching up” at Zanzibar. In March, a group of international researchers published a paper that hints at the nature of our real favorite people. By making their subjects (mostly German volunteers around age 35) take a variety of surveys and implicit association tests, and crunching the numbers, they concluded that most people said their favorite person was a child, spouse or best friend. But the results of the implicit association test — which uses reflexes to gauge unconscious motivation and feelings — suggest that for most people, regardless of what we say, our favorite people are, in actuality, ourselves.

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