For our Valentine’s-Day series, we’ve mashed up several recent articles summarizing some of the possible situational causes of flirting. The articles are Belinda Luscombe’s article in Time Magazine titled “Why We Flirt,” Joann Ellison Rodgers’s article in Psychology Today, “Flirting Fascination,” and Deborah A. Lott and Frank Veronsky’s piece in Psychology Today, “The New Flirting Game.”
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Long trivialized and even demonized, flirtation is gaining new respectability thanks to a spate of provocative studies of animal and human behavior in many parts of the world. The capacity of men and women to flirt and to be receptive to flirting turns out to be a remarkable set of behaviors embedded deep in our psyches. Every come-hither look sent and every sidelong glance received are mutually understood signals of such transcendent history and beguiling sophistication that only now are they beginning to yield clues to the psychological and biological wisdom they encode.
This much is clear so far: flirting is nature’s solution to the problem every creature faces in a world full of potential mates-how to choose the right one. We all need a partner who is not merely fertile but genetically different as well as healthy enough to promise viable offspring, provide some kind of help in the hard job of parenting and offer some social compatibility.
Our animal and human ancestors needed a means of quickly and safely judging the value of potential mates without “going all the way” and risking pregnancy with every possible candidate they encountered. Flirting achieved that end, offering a relatively risk-free set of signals with which to sample the field, try out sexual wares and exchange vital information about candidates’ general health and reproductive fitness.
“Flirting is a negotiation process that takes place after there has been some initial attraction,” observes Steven W. Gangestad, Ph.D., an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque who is currently studying how people choose their mates. “Two people have to share with each other the information that they are attracted, and then test each other” on an array of attributes. Simply announcing, ‘I’m attracted to you, are you attracted to me?’ doesn’t work so well. “It works much better to reveal this and have it revealed to you in smaller doses,” explains Gangestad. “The flirting then becomes something that enhances the attraction.”
It is an axiom of science that traits and behaviors crucial to survival-such as anything to do with attraction and sex-require, and get, a lot of an animal’s resources. All mammals and most animals (including birds, fish, even fruit flies) engage in complicated and energy-intensive plots and plans for attracting others to the business of sex. That is, they flirt.
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But what about people?
Contrary to widespread belief, only two very specific types of people flirt: those who are single and those who are married. Single people flirt because, well, they’re single and therefore nobody is really contractually obliged to talk to them, sleep with them or scratch that difficult-to-reach part of the back. But married people, they’re a tougher puzzle. They’ve found themselves a suitable–maybe even superior–mate, had a bit of productive fun with the old gametes and ensured that at least some of their genes are carried into the next generation. They’ve done their duty, evolutionarily speaking. Their genome will survive. Yay them. So for Pete’s sake, why do they persist with the game?
And before you claim, whether single or married, that you never flirt, bear in mind that it’s not just talk we’re dealing with here. It’s gestures, stance, eye movement. Notice how you lean forward to the person you’re talking to and tip up your heels? Notice the quick little eyebrow raise you make, the sidelong glance coupled with the weak smile you give, the slightly sustained gaze you offer? If you’re a woman, do you feel your head tilting to the side a bit, exposing either your soft, sensuous neck or, looking at it another way, your jugular? If you’re a guy, are you keeping your body in an open, come-on-attack-me position, arms positioned to draw the eye to your impressive lower abdomen?
Scientists call all these little acts “contact-readiness” cues, because they indicate, nonverbally, that you’re prepared for physical engagement. (More general body language is known as “nonverbal leakage.” Deep in their souls, all scientists are poets.) These cues are a crucial part of what’s known in human-ethology circles as the “heterosexual relationship initiation process” and elsewhere, often on the selfsame college campuses, as “coming on to someone.” In primal terms, they’re physical signals that you don’t intend to dominate, nor do you intend to flee–both useful messages potential mates need to send before they can proceed to that awkward talking phase. They’re the opening line, so to speak, for the opening line.
One of the reasons we flirt in this way is that we can’t help it. We’re programmed to do it, whether by biology or culture. The biology part has been investigated by any number of researchers. Thirty years ago, Ethologist Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, then of the Max Planck Institute in Germany (now honorary director of the Ludwig-Bohzmann Institute for Urban Ethology in Vienna), was already familiar with the widespread dances and prances of mate-seeking animals. Then he discovered that people in dozens of cultures, from the South Sea islands to the Far East, Western Europe, Africa and South America, similarly engage in a fairly fixed repertoire of gestures to test sexual availability and interest.
Having devised a special camera that allowed him to point the lens in one direction while actually photographing in another, he “caught” couples on film during their flirtations, and discovered, for one thing, that women, from primitives who have no written language to those who read Cosmo and Marie Claire, use nonverbal signals that are startlingly alike. On Eibl-Eibesfeldt’s screen flickered identical flirtation messages: a female smiling at a male, then arching her brows to make her eyes wide, quickly lowering her lids and, tucking her chin slightly down and coyly to the side, averting her gaze, followed within seconds, almost on cue, by putting her hands on or near her mouth and giggling. (The technical name for the head movement is a “cant.” Except in this case it’s more like “can.”)
Regardless of language, socioeconomic status or religious upbringing, couples who continued flirting placed a palm up on the table or knees, reassuring the prospective partner of harmlessness. They shrugged their shoulders, signifying helplessness. Women exaggeratedly extended their neck, a sign of vulnerability and submissiveness.
For Eibl-Eibesfeldt, these gestures represented primal behaviors driven by the old parts of our brain’s evolutionary memory. A woman presenting her extended neck to a man she wants is not much different, his work suggested, than a gray female wolf’s submissiveness to a dominant male she’s after.
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Why this elaborate dance?
From nature’s standpoint, the goal of life is the survival of our DNA. Sex is the way most animals gain the flexibility to healthfully sort and mix their genes. Getting sex, in turn, is wholly dependent on attracting attention and being attracted. And flirting is the way a person focuses the attention of a specific member of the opposite sex. If our ancestors hadn’t done it well enough, we wouldn’t be around to discuss it now.
A silent language of elaborate visual and other gestures, flirting is “spoken” by intellect-driven people as well as instinct-driven animals. The very universality of flirting, preserved through evolutionary history from insects to man, suggests that a flirting plan is wired into us, and that it has been embedded in our genes and in our brain’s operating system the same way and for the same reasons that every other sexual trait has been-by trial and error, with conservation of what works best.
Like any other language, flirting may be deployed in ways subtle or coarse, adolescent or suave. Nevertheless, it has evolved just like pheasant spurs and lion manes: to advertise ourselves to the opposite sex.
Evolutionary biologists would suggest that those individuals who executed flirting maneuvers most adeptly were more successful in swiftly finding a mate and reproducing and that the behavior therefore became widespread in all humans. “A lot of people feel flirting is part of the universal language of how we communicate, especially nonverbally,” says Jeffry Simpson, director of the social psychology program at the University of Minnesota.
Simpson is currently studying the roles that attraction and flirting play during different times of a woman’s ovulation cycle. His research suggests that women who are ovulating are more attracted to flirty men. “The guys they find appealing tend to have characteristics that are attractive in the short term, which include some flirtatious behaviors,” he says. He’s not sure why women behave this way, but it follows that men who bed ovulating women have a greater chance of procreating and passing on those flirty genes, which means those babies will have more babies, and so on. Of course, none of this is a conscious choice, just as flirting is not always intentional. “With a lot of it, especially the nonverbal stuff, people may not be fully aware that they’re doing it,” says Simpson. “You don’t see what you look like. People may emit flirtatious cues and not be fully aware of how powerful they are.”
Recently, researchers have been studying compressed bouts of flirting and courtship in their natural habitat-hotel bars and cocktail lounges. From observations at a Hyatt hotel cocktail lounge, researchers documented a set of signals that whisks a just-met man and woman from barroom to bedroom. Her giggles and soft laughs were followed by hair twirling and head-tossing; he countered with body arching, leaning back in the chair and placing his arms behind head, not unlike a pigeon puffing his chest.
If all went well, a couple would invariably progress from touching themselves to touching each other. The first tentative contacts could be termed “lint-picking.” She would lift an imaginary mote from his lapel; he would brush a real or imaginary crumb from her lips. Their heads moved closer, their hands pressed out in front of them on the table, their fingers inches from each other’s, playing with salt shakers or utensils. Whoops! An “accidental” finger touch, then perhaps some digital “dirty dancing,” more touching and leaning in cheek to cheek. By body language alone, the investigators could predict which pairs would ride up the elevators together.
Social psychologist Timothy Perper, Ph.D., an independent scholar and writer based in Philadelphia, and anthropologist David Givens, Ph.D., spent months in dimly lit lounges documenting these flirtation rituals. Like the ear wiggles, nose flicks and back arches that signal “come hither” in rodents, the women smiled, gazed, swayed, giggled, licked their lips, and aided and abetted by the wearing of high heels, they swayed their backs, forcing their buttocks to tilt out and up and their chests to thrust forward.
The men arched, stretched, swiveled, and made grand gestures of whipping out lighters and lighting up cigarettes. They’d point their chins in the air with a cigarette dangling in their mouth, then loop their arms in a wide arc to put the lighter away. Their swaggers, bursts of laughter and grandiose gestures were an urban pantomime of the prancing and preening indulged in by male baboons and gorillas in the wild. Man or monkey, the signals all said, “Look at me, trust me, I’m powerful, but I won’t hurt you.” And “I don’t want anything much . . . yet.”
All the silent swaying, leaning, smiling, bobbing and gazing eventually brought a pair into full frontal alignment. Face to face, they indulged in simultaneous touching of everything from eyeglasses to fingertips to crossed legs. Says Perper, “This kind of sequence–attention, recognition, dancing, synchronization–is fundamental to courtship. From the Song of Songs until today, the sequence is the same: look, talk, touch, kiss, do the deed.”
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The rational brain is always on the lookout for dangers, for complexities, for reasons to act or not act. If every time man and woman met they immediately considered all the possible risks and vulnerabilities they might face if they mated or had children, they’d run screaming from the room.
It’s no secret that the brain’s emotionally loaded limbic system sometimes operates independently of the more rational neocortex, such as in the face of danger, when the fight-or-flight response is activated. Similarly, when the matter is sex–another situation on which survival depends–we also react without even a neural nod to the neocortex. Instead, the flirtational operating system appears to kick in without conscious consent.
The fact that flirting is a largely nonexplicit drama doesn’t mean that important information isn’t being delivered in those silent signals. By swaying her hips, or emphasizing them in a form-fitting dress, a flirtatious woman is riveting attention on her pelvis, suggesting its ample capacity for bearing a child. By arching her brows and exaggerating her gaze, her eyes appear large in her face, the way a child’s eyes do, advertising, along with giggles, her youth and “submissiveness.” By drawing her tongue along her lips, she compels attention to what many biologists believe are facial echoes of vaginal lips, transmitting sexual maturity and her interest in sex. By coyly averting her gaze and playing “hard to get,” she communicates her unwillingness to give sex to just anyone or to someone who will love her and leave her.
For his part, by extending a strong chin and jaw, expanding and showing off pectoral muscles and a hairy chest, flashing money, laughing loudly or resonantly, smiling, and doing all these things without accosting a woman, a man signals his ability to protect offspring, his resources and the testosterone-driven vitality of his sperm as well as the tamer side of him that is willing to stick around, after the sex, for fatherhood. It’s the behavioral equivalent of “I’ll respect you in the morning.”
The moment of attraction, in fact, mimics a kind of brain damage. At the University of Iowa, where he is professor and head of neurology, Antonio Damasio, M.D., has found that people with damage to the connection between their limbic structures and the higher brain are smart and rational-but unable to make decisions. They bring commitment phobia to a whole new level. In attraction, we don’t stop and think, we react, operating on a “gut” feeling, with butterflies, giddiness, sweaty palms and flushed faces brought on by the reactivity of the emotional brain. We suspend intellect at least long enough to propel us to the next step in the mating game-flirtation.
Somewhere beyond flirtation, as a relationship progresses, courtship gets under way, and with it, intellectual processes resume. Two adults can then evaluate potential mates more rationally, think things over and decide whether to love, honor and cherish. But at the moment of attraction and flirtation, bodies, minds and sense are temporarily hostage to the more ancient parts of the brain, the impulsive parts that humans share with animals.
Flirtation occurs even among those who are not consciously or intentionally seeking a mate.
And there are some schools of thought that teach there’s nothing wrong with that. Flirtation is a game we play, a dance for which everyone knows the moves. “People can flirt outrageously without intending anything,” says . . . Timothy Perper . . . . “Flirting captures the interest of the other person and says ‘Would you like to play?'” And one of the most exhilarating things about the game is that the normal rules of social interaction are rubberized. Clarity is not the point. “Flirting opens a window of potential. Not yes, not no,” says Perper. “So we engage ourselves in this complex game of maybe.”
Once we’ve learned the game of maybe, it becomes second nature to us. Long after we need to play it, we’re still in there swinging (so to speak) because we’re better at it than at other games. Flirting sometimes becomes a social fallback position. “We all learn rules for how to behave in certain situations, and this makes it easier for people to know how to act, even when nervous,” says Antonia Abbey, a psychology professor at Wayne State University. Just as we learn a kind of script for how to behave in a restaurant or at a business meeting, she suggests, we learn a script for talking to the opposite sex. “We often enact these scripts without even thinking,” she says. “For some women and men, the script may be so well learned that flirting is a comfortable strategy for interacting with others.” In other words, when in doubt, we flirt.
The thing that propels many already committed people to ply the art of woo, however, is often not doubt. It’s curiosity. Flirting “is a way of testing one’s mate-value and the possibility of alternatives–actually trying to see if someone might be available as an alternative,” says Arthur Aron, professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. To evolutionary biologists, the advantages of this are clear: mates die, offspring die. Flirting is a little like taking out mating insurance.
If worst comes to worst and you don’t still have it (and yes, I’m sure you do), the very act of flirting with someone else may bring about renewed attention from your mate, which has advantages all its own. So it’s a win-win.
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In our culture today, it’s clear that we do not always choose as the object of our desire those people the evolutionists might deem the most biologically desirable. After fill, many young women today find the pale, androgynous, scarcely muscled yet emotionally expressive Leonardo DiCaprio more appealing than the burly Tarzans (Arnold Schwartzenegger, Bruce Willis, etc.) of action movies. Woody Allen may look nerdy but he’s had no trouble winning women–and that’s not just because he has material resources, but because humor is also a precious cultural commodity. Though she has no breasts or hips to speak of, Ally McBeal still attracts because there’s ample evidence of a quick and quirky mind.
In short, we flirt with the intent of assessing potential lifetime partners, we flirt to have easy, no-strings-attached sex, and we flirt when we are not looking for either. We flirt because, most simply, flirtation can be a liberating form of play, a game with suspense and ambiguities that brings joys of its own. As . . . Tim Perper says, “Some flirters appear to want to prolong the interaction because it’s pleasurable and erotic in its own right, regardless of where it might lead.”
Flirting is also emotional capital to be expended in return for something else. Not usually for money, but for the intangibles–a better table, a juicier cut of meat, the ability to return an unwanted purchase without too many questions. It’s a handy social lubricant, reducing the friction of everyday transactions, and closer to a strategically timed tip than a romantic overture. . . .
But . . . . [f]lirt the wrong way with the wrong person, and you run the risk of everything from a slap to a sexual-harassment lawsuit. And of course, the American virtue of plainspokenness is not an asset in an activity that is ambiguous by design. Wayne State’s Abbey, whose research has focused on the dark side of flirting–when it transmogrifies into harassment, stalking or acquaintance rape–warns that flirting can be treacherous. “Most of the time flirtation desists when one partner doesn’t respond positively,” she says. “But some people just don’t get the message that is being sent, and some ignore it because it isn’t what they want to hear.”
One of the most fascinating flirting laboratories is the digital world. Here’s a venue that is all words and no body language; whether online or in text messages, nuance is almost impossible. And since text and e-mail flirting can be done without having to look people in the eye, and is often done with speed, it is bolder, racier and unimpeded by moments of reflection on whether the message could be misconstrued or is wise to send at all. “Flirt texting is a topic everyone finds fascinating, although not much research is out there yet,” says Abbey. But one thing is clear: “People are often more willing to disclose intimate details via the Internet, so the process may escalate more quickly.”
Most people who flirt–off-line at least–are not looking for an affair. But one of the things that sets married flirting apart from single flirting is that it has a much greater degree of danger and fantasy to it. The stakes are higher and the risk is greater, even if the likelihood of anything happening is slim. But the cocktail is in some cases much headier. It is most commonly the case with affairs, therapists say, that people who cheat are not so much dissatisfied with their spouse as with themselves and the way their lives have turned out. There is little that feels more affirming and revitalizing than having someone fall in love with you. (It follows, then, that there’s little that feels less affirming than being cheated on.) Flirting is a decaf affair, a way of feeling more alive, more vital, more desirable without actually endangering the happiness of anyone you love–or the balance of your bank account. So go ahead and flirt, if you can do it responsibly. You might even try it with your spouse or partner.
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