Why People Flirt
Flirting comes in many forms: a casual gaze that lingers a half second longer than normal, a light touch, a “flirty face”, an overenthusiastic laugh during conversation, or even some overtly sexual or playful banter. Regardless of the technique employed, flirting aims to fulfill one purpose: stimulate sexual interest. To be clear, flirting’s pursuit of sexual interest may not have the explicit goal of having sex or even physical intimacy of any kind. Rather, a person may flirt simply to pass the time, to feel close, to see if they still “have it” or because it is fun.1 Flirting motivations differ by gender with men’s flirting more motivated by sex, while women’s flirting more motivated by having fun or to become closer to another person.
Self-Esteem and Flirting
Regardless of one’s motivation, flirting benefits from keeping the flirter’s intentions ambiguous. When done well, flirting is not overt or obvious and always leaves open the possibility that flirting wasn’t occurring at all. This allows a person to put her or himself “out there” with less fear of embarrassment, rejection or damaged self-esteem. It isn’t surprising that a person’s self-esteem may affect one’s flirting approach.2 For men, when the risk of being rejected was low those with low self-esteem used more obvious approaches than men with high self-esteem. When rejection risk was high, the high self-esteem males were more direct, perhaps because they were less concerned with how being shot down would impact their self-esteem. For women, when rejection risk was low, they were more direct regardless of their self-esteem, which may be because they traditionally initiate relationships less often than men.3
How to Flirt: Subtle vs. Direct
When it comes to flirting technique the research is pretty clear that, while subtle techniques are more likely to protect the flirter’s self-esteem, if you really want to get your message across, direct is best.4 A study asked college students about the most effective ways to show interest in someone. Both men and women agreed that subtle flirting was less likely to get the job done, and that the best approach would be a direct “Do you want to go to dinner with me?” Of course, this study put people in the position of being propositioned by someone else, a situation when clarity would certainly be useful.
Detecting Flirting: Now You See It, But Maybe You Don’t
A key benefit to direct flirting approaches, especially to the person on the receiving end, is that they are clear and easier to interpret. Much like trees falling in a forest, if a flirting attempt occurs and the intended receiver doesn’t realize it, did flirting ever really happen? To see how easy it was for receivers to accurately perceive another person’s flirting, researchers gave over 100 heterosexual strangers the opportunity to interact for 10 minutes.5 Afterward, each participant indicated whether they were flirting or not and whether they thought their partner was flirting.
Overall, 24% of the participants flirted during their interaction. Participants accurately perceived flirting only 28% of the time with males more accurately detecting female flirting (36%) than females were at detecting male’s flirting (18%). Those numbers are all fairly low, but participants were much better at knowing when their partner was not flirting, accurately characterizing lack of flirting 84% of the time. Of course, this could be because most of the time participants weren’t flirting with each other making it easier to correctly guess that a participant wasn’t flirting.
A follow-up study wanted to see if outside observers were any better at accurately detecting flirting. To test this, researchers had over 250 participants view 1-minute video clips from Study 1 interactions to see if they could accurately identify flirting in strangers. Results indicate that males were again more accurate at determining when women flirted, but that this was likely because men generally tend to overestimate women’s interest, giving them more of a chance to be correct when women were actually flirting. This study also showed that observers who were not involved in the actual interaction were less accurate at identifying flirting than those who were actually involved.
Across both studies, the ability to detect flirting was probably lower than any flirty person would like. But as lead researcher Jeffrey Hall explains, “Behavior that is flirtatious is hard to see, and there are several reasons for that…People aren’t going to do it in obvious ways because they don’t want to be embarrassed, flirting looks a lot like being friendly, and we are not accustomed to having our flirting validated so we can get better at seeing it.”
Overall, the science of flirting seems to suggest that if you want to create sexual interest in another person through flirting and really want to get your message across, direct methods are best. While an ambiguous approach is less threatening, it ultimately is not very effective because accurately perceiving another person’s flirting is actually quite difficult. As they say, practice makes perfect, so you may want to test your flirting skills by finding a partner at online dating sites like Flirt.com where you can flirt with singles from all around the globe.
1Henningsen, D. (2004). Flirting with meaning: An examination of miscommunication in flirting interactions. Sex Roles, 50(7-8), 481-489. doi:10.1023/B:SERS.0000023068.49352.4b
2Cameron, J. J., Stinson, D., & Wood, J. V. (2013). The bold and the bashful: Self-esteem, gender, and relationship initiation. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(6), 685-691. doi:10.1177/1948550613476309
3Metts, S., & Mikucki, S. (2008). The emotional landscape of romantic relationship initiation. In S. Sprecher, A. Wenzel, & J. Harvey (Eds.), Handbook of relationship initiation (pp. 353–371). New York, NY: Psychology Press.
4Wade, J., Butrie, L., Hoffman, K. (2009). Women’s direct opening lines are perceived as most effective. Personality and Individual Differences, 47, 145-149.
5Hall, J. A., Xing, C., & Brooks, S. (2014). Accurately detecting flirting: Error management theory, the traditional sexual script, and flirting base rate. Communication Research. doi: 10.1177/0093650214534972
Dr. Gary Lewandowski – Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski’s research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.