Is flirting real? New study shows it can work.


Misunderstandings about flirting could possibly lead to awkwardness or perhaps accusations of sexual harassment. How can we determine what other people mean when they smile at us? Can there be a unique, recognizable facial expression representing flirting — and when there is, what does it convey, and how effective is it?

“She was totally flirting with you,” my friend told me following the hostess left our table.

“No, she wasn’t. She was just being polite,” said the other friend.

Although flirting is said a lot in the overall media, and examples are everywhere, there is comparatively little scientific work on this issue of flirting, its underlying mechanics and function.

Now, a paper by researchers in the University of Kansas was published in the Journal of Sex Research analyzing whether flirting has a specific facial cue effectively used by women to indicate interest in a guy.

“There are very few scientific articles out there that have systematically studied this well-known phenomenon,” said Omri Gillath, professor of psychology at KU, who co-wrote the paper. “None of these studies have identified the flirting facial expression and tested its effects.”

Gillath’s collaborators were lead writer Parnia Haj-Mohamadi, a Doctoral student in psychology at KU, and Erika Rosenberg at the University of California-Davis.

The researchers discovered internal states — for example being sexually or romantically interested in someone — can be conveyed to other people nonverbally through facial expression.

In other words — flirting works.

“Across our six studies, we found most men were able to recognize a certain female facial expression as representing flirting,” Gillath said. “It has a unique morphology, and it’s different from expressions that have similar features — for example, smiling — but aren’t identified by men as flirting expression.”

“Around our six studies, we found most guys were able to recognize a certain feminine facial expression as symbolizing flirting,” Gillath explained. “It has a exceptional morphology, and it’s different from expressions that have similar attributes — for instance, grinning — but are not identified by men as flirting saying “

From the studies, women — some actresses and some volunteers from the neighborhood — were asked either to spontaneously pose a flirting saying (like what they would use at a bar to get attention from a potential partner ) or to follow instructions based on present anthropological literature to what investigators specify as flirting.

The team found some girls are more effective than others in effectively communicating a flirtatious facial cue, though some men are much better at recognizing this cue. Beyond these individual differences, a few expressions were identified with many (if not all) men as flirting.

The researchers used the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to classify highly recognized flirtatious facial expressions. The coding revealed the best flirting cues include a face turned to one side and tilted down slightly, a slight smile, and eyes facing forward toward the suggested target.

After identifying these most recognized expressions of flirting, the researchers utilized them in experimental research studies.

“Our findings support the role of flirtatious expression in communication and mating initiation,” Gillath said. “For the first time, not only were we able to isolate and identify the expressions that represent flirting, but we were also able to reveal their function — to activate associations related with relationships and sex.”

The new paper puts flirting in the same category as other well-studied emotions and offers researchers resources to further study the functions of flirting. It can also give sometimes-clueless guys, such as the one in the example above, a more concrete way to figure out if a woman is truly flirting.

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