The psychology of flirtation: how to know when someone's interested

In a recent study, only 28% of people accurately detected when people were flirting with them

Have you ever wondered to yourself, “Was that person just flirting with me?” This may not only happen at a bar or party. It could be after a pleasant exchange at the supermarket, a few shared glances at a coffee shop, or following a more involved conversation at a social event. It is important to read these situations properly because the line between friendly and more than friends can be difficult to discern.

First off, it is important to realise that when men and women look at the same behavior, men are more likely see behaviors as more flirtatious, seductive and promiscuous.  Whether it is wishful thinking on their part or a failure to properly identify cues, men are not setting themselves up for accuracy and are going to have a harder time knowing if a woman is actually flirting or merely being friendly.

Much of what takes place when people flirt is intentionally subtle and hard to decode. Though that may seem counterproductive for relationship formation, it is strategic.  Often the person doing the flirting is not sure whether the target of their affection will have similar levels of interests. By cloaking their intentions in ambiguous flirting, the flirter can “test the waters” without being too vulnerable.

It is no surprise then that knowing if someone is flirting with you is difficult. In fact, a recent study looked at how accurately people perceive flirting by having over 100 heterosexual strangers engage in conversation with another participant. Afterward, researchers asked each person if they flirted during their interaction and whether they thought their partner flirted with them. Participants accurately detected flirting only 28% of the time. A follow-up study found that outside observers who were not in the actual interaction were even less accurate, suggesting that their objectivity did not help but only made things worse.

 

If you want to be better than 28% accuracy at detecting flirting, research has uncovered a few things to look for that may help. To determine what people do to show romantic interest in others, researchers had two opposite-sex strangers meet, and videotaped their interaction for 10 minutes. Afterward, researchers asked each person about their romantic interest and matched it up with their behaviors during the interaction. The amount of laughter itself did not indicate romantic interest. However, males who were more interested gave off more dominance signals (e.g. taking up space/leaning forward) during laughter, while women who were more interested engaged in more body presentation (such as sitting in a way or postures that accentuate physical features).

A similar study gave participants the opportunity to flirt, videotaped it, and then asked participants to indicate whether certain behaviors were indeed flirting.  Behaviors early in the interactions, were not indicative of actual interest. This suggests that the initial glances you exchange with someone probably do not hold much meaning.  In fact, women with low and high interest gave off the same amount of solicitation signals. Real interest was only discernable if women kept giving signals over time.  Later in the conversation, women who were interested tended to tilt their head, used more hand gestures, smiled a suggestive way, and were more likely to play with their clothing.

Overall, men were more interested in females than females were in them, and were most interested when they considered females physically attractive. Men who were more interested tended to spend more time talking throughout the interaction. Importantly, female’s non-verbal signals (e.g. head-nodding) served as indicators to encourage or discourage men’s talking. Men need to pay attention to these signals because the study also found that women reacted negatively if men spoke too much. 

To create a catalog of women’s flirting behavior, a researcher observed over 200 women in a singles bar to identify 52 flirting behaviors.  Some of the most common behaviors included smiling, glancing around the room, solitary dancing, and laughing. But as mentioned earlier, though these are common, none are clear-cut signs of actual interest.  Subtlety reigns.

Accuracy in detecting flirting would increase rapidly if the flirters of the world were simply more direct and obvious about their intentions. Incidentally, research shows that direct flirting is what most people prefer. Alas, it is clear that attempting to accurately detect flirting is a challenge. Yet, it is important to get it right. You don’t want to risk embarrassment by misreading the signals, but more importantly, you don’t want to miss out on potentially starting a great relationship if someone is interested.

Dr. Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at Monmouth University, and editor of www.scienceofrelationships.com

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