'Do I know you from somewhere?'

In an online exclusive, David S. Smith considers patterns in male and female flirting behaviour.

Picture the scene: it’s a busy bar and psychology students are celebrating the end of exams. Among the crowd a young man nervously walks up to a woman and makes his move: ‘Is your name Broca’s Aphasia? Because you leave me speechless’.

Now, while the merits of his opener are subject to debate, it perfectly exemplifies flirting: i.e. when a person intentionally signals interest in someone else to capture their attention. This can take numerous forms, such as innuendos by the watercooler, dancing at the office party or loaded invitations to coffee. The common thread is they let us advertise romantic and sexual desires to others. Men and women show near identical standards for recognising it (Abrahams, 1994), yet it seems they don’t practice or respond to it the same ways. Here I show evidence of sex differences across verbal and non-verbal modes, then explore why these may have emerged.

Though flirting is not limited to the early stages of courtship, with its continued presence increasing relationship satisfaction and its absence predicting marital breakdown (Frisby & Booth-Butterfield, 2012), it is in this context I explore it. In doing so, I’ll look at how what people say and do impacts how well they are assessed, and some possible outcomes for our undergrads above.

Talking the talk

Given that men are consistently shown to pursue sex more readily than women (Baumeister et al., 2001), it is perhaps unsurprising researchers have tended to focus on flirtation as male driven (and, indeed, heterosexual). Bale and colleagues (2006) measured participant’s success-judgements of flirting, across 40 descriptions of men approaching women, to see what made for an effective opening gambit. They found the lines women liked best were ones that communicated character (e.g. ‘Excuse me lads, but I think this lady was first’) or qualities like wealth, dominance or fitness (e.g. ‘I’m one of the owners here, would you like to dance?’). The worst received were empty compliments and sexually loaded remarks (e.g. ‘I may not be Fred Flintstone, but I bet I can make your Bed Rock!’). This is consistent with the theory that women value personal traits over appearance or sexual availability (for a cross-cultural assessment, see Buss, 1989).

Still, there’s evidence of substantial variability in what lines women like best. Senko and Fyffe (2010) investigated how preferences for chat up styles changed depending on the sort of partner they were after. Participants got physical descriptions of different men, along with the approach they took. These included direct (e.g. ‘I saw you across the room and knew I had to meet you’), indirect (e.g. ‘Have we taken a class together?’), or sexually charged lines (e.g. ‘Can I get a picture of you so I can show Santa what I want for Christmas?’). Next, they considered each as a short- or long-term partner, and what the line said about the man’s personality. The authors found motivations mattered, and when primed with a long-term relationship women were put off by more direct lines regardless of how attractive the man was. These openers also indicated lower trustworthiness and intelligence. However, for the short-term, how a man looked mattered more than his flirting style.

A limitation with the work cited so far is it has relied on vignettes rather than necessarily reflecting flirtation in the real world. However, in an innovative observational study, Cantú1 et al. (2013) had female participants interact with a pair of male actors during high and low fertility stages of their menstrual cycle. One character was written to be caring and family oriented, but lacking in charisma or confidence, with these traits reversed in the other. Analysing their recordings, it was found women flirted more heavily when most fertile. Specifically, their flirting was more directed at the ‘sexy’ actor, correlating with a desire for them as a short- rather than long-term partner. This parallels face research showing women’s preferences for cues of biological quality over good behaviour positively correlate with conception-risk or how much they want a short-term relationship (Jones et al., 2008; Little et al., 2002). Ergo, the young man in the intro would do well to learn his tactic won’t work with everyone or at all times.

There is less evidence of differences in the kind of chat up lines men like, with them exhibiting a general preference for directness. Frisby et al. (2011) showed men videos of actors talking and found attractiveness ratings for women increased after seeing them flirt heavily. Similarly, a classic study by Clark and Hatfield (1981) had an attractive stranger approach opposite sex students with romantic or sexual offers including ‘would you go out with me tonight?’ or ‘would you go to bed with me?’. For the former, men and women were equally accommodating and around half of each agreed. But for the latter there was a huge difference, with three-quarters of men saying yes but no women. More recently this has been replicated in paper and pencil tasks, by Tappéa et al. (2013).

Walking the walk

Of course not all flirting is verbal: a trip to the nearest nightclub ought to show that. Everyone probably has an example of someone who held their gaze just a bit too long to be innocent. In addition to labs, naturalistic settings have been used to better reflect real-world flirting between strangers. Observations of unsuspecting club-goers have shown men are more likely to perform elaborate body language (e.g. puffing their chest or strutting) and initiate physical contact (e.g. touching or stroking) than women. Yet more often than not they need encouragement. Walsh and Hewitt (1985) found men were much more likely to approach if women first made eye contact and smiled. By engaging in subtle displays of interest, women can focus in on the men they like whilst putting off those they are less interested in (Perper, 1985).

But how about somewhere quieter? Grammer et al. (2000) duped mixed sex strangers into sitting together, thinking they were waiting for a different experiment, and analysed how they behaved. They noticed women performed ‘come on’ motions (e.g. sitting with their legs uncrossed) regardless of how interested they were in the men. But importantly, these signals got balanced out by signs of disinterest. It was only later in conversations that women’s actions and interest correlated, with only the most interested not reducing them. In addition, women gave affirmation towards the start (e.g. nodding) regardless of attraction, which men used as an invitation to talk more. Thus the authors suggest women use non-verbal cues to subtly control a conversation. In doing so they potentially goad more revelations from men without betraying their own intentionality. As per their verbal output, women were more likely to engage in non-verbal flirting during periods of high fertility. Although again, this was only observed when talking to attractive men.

Interestingly, hormones don’t just influence how women act, but what they wear. Durante et al. (2010) studied shopping behaviour, with a mock fashion catalogue, to see how menstrual cycle status mapped on to choices between ‘sexy’ or formal outfits. They recorded a correlation between women’s fertility and preferences for sexy clothing, shoes and accessories (although there are perhaps many reasons why women might choose to dress differently at different times in their cycle). Other research from the same team asked women to design a dress to wear at an imaginary party full of attractive singletons. More fertile participants drew more revealing garments. Both studies led the authors to suggest women are more likely to ‘dress to impress’ around ovulation. So returning once more to the pair of undergrads, our young man may have been particularly drawn to our young woman because of her attire. And though it seems that he approached her it’s possible she first prompted him with the right gesture. Yet it’s equally possible he misread the situation…

Blurred lines

We often fail to accurately read others’ intentions, and we can hold deeply ingrained biases. The ‘error management theory’ of Haselton and Buss (2000) suggested these common occurrences often occur when judgements are made under uncertainty, as they generally will be when trying to read someone else. Participants read scenarios involving typically flirty behaviours (e.g. complimenting, kissing or holding hands), with the task being to rate whether the imaginary dates were interested in sex or commitment. Afterwards they got asked what they would have meant by the same acts. The results showed women's assumptions of men's commitment tended to be significantly lower than men's own self-ratings. Furthermore, men's ratings of women's sexual intent exceeded their own. Hence there was evidence of men overestimating women’s sexual interest (i.e. inferring greater intent than present), and women underestimating men’s romantic interest (i.e. perceiving lower intent than present).

These mind-sets are as true to interpretations of real exchanges as imagined ones. Henningsen and Henningsen (2010) brought men and women together for a series of brief encounters and asked them to talk freely. Each meeting lasted five minutes, with them being asked to simply get to know one another. Afterwards both were asked about their interest in the other party, and to estimate their interest in return. Results mimicked the error management model, further implying neither men nor women are great at reading each other. So returning to our undergrads from the bar, she may hear his direct line, think he’s not serious and turn him away. But he’ll probably just tell himself he should have gone with his one about the ‘tip of the tongue’ phenomenon instead. 

A functionalist explanation

No one branch of psychology has a monopoly on flirtation, and different outlooks can claim to explain some of the work I have summarised. For instance, the over and under estimation biases in men and women may be socialised, with patriarchal norms meaning men objectify women more than women do them. Accordingly, men may view everyday interactions through a more sexual lens. Yet this kind of argument would struggle to explain the examples of hormonal modulation.

The framework that best accommodates the work here is a functionalist one. Parental investment theory anticipates differences in the evolutionary problems men and women faced will have resulted in separate romantic decision heuristics (Trivers, 1972). In humans the minimum investment women need to dedicate to offspring is a gestation phase, leading to birth, followed by a prolonged period as caregiver. Consequently, evolution should have favoured strategies attuned to picking men with a combo of good genetic inheritance plus resources and investment (i.e. mate quality). A man’s investment, by contrast, can be over in a matter of minutes (Waldinger et al., 2005, say an average of 5.4 if anyone’s interested). Moreover, unlike their female counterparts, men can increase the amount of progeny they have by finding as many sexual partners as possible. They should therefore be geared towards maximising opportunities (i.e. mate quantity). More cautious patterns in female partner choice have been observed across a number of species, hence Darwin originally dubbing sexual selection ‘female choice’.

Thus when considering a male as a long-term partner it makes evolutionary sense for women to be deterred by a direct approach, whereas for men it may be welcome, since it implies a relatively low investment threshold for sexual access. Bale and colleagues (2005) use this split to explain gender discrepancies in response to loaded lines. It’s also congruent with the attractiveness literature, for example that increased fertility or a desire for short-term relationships makes it more likely women will like cues associated with biological fitness instead of prosocial traits.

This explanation can also be used to explain variance in the non-verbal literature. Here women’s tactics are perhaps more understated than men’s. Baumesister and Vohs (2004) draw a comparison between sexual and market economics, arguing the perceived value of a product comes from how widely it is thought to be distributed. In other words, more openly flirty women might be less likely to attract men that are later willing to invest. Being sexually discreet is particularly important since men tend to overrate women’s interest.

Out of the Stone Age

Of course, the existence of predispositions does not limit us to them. Rather human behaviour is owed to a blend of biology and environment. In as much as evolution did not stop at the central nervous system, society didn’t at the savanna. Thus if Mother Nature bestowed us with a stone-age brain it ought to be one flexible enough for the modern day. It is this world of higher life expectancy, reduced child mortality, contraception and more widespread access to resources that will define our current selection pressures. Moreover the literature is very heteronormative, limiting how generalisable some of findings are. This is not surprising, given that an evolutionary view is not so effective for examining same-sex flirting. Similarly a relative growth in polyamorous relationships, along with culturally shifting attitudes towards promiscuity and sexuality, challenge the generalisation of more traditional mating models. More research is most definitely needed.

We also no longer expect to find our ideal person in our own, or a neighbouring, tribe. Each of us can now access a vast amount of potential partners to think about, ignore or swipe right on. Our dating pool is now more like an ocean. And, luckily for our budding psychologists at the start, it’s one with plenty of fish.

- David Smith is a psychology lecturer at BPP University, London. [email protected]

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