What Is Flirting? A Psychological Explanation

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Flirting is a social behavior related to romantic interest and attraction. Flirting behaviors can be verbal or non-verbal. While some flirting styles are culturally specific, others are universal. Psychologists who study flirting from the evolutionary perspective view flirting as an innate process that developed as a result of natural selection. These psychologists consider flirting to be the human equivalent of the courtship rituals practiced by non-human animals.

Did You Know?

Psychologists have found that one of the most common flirting behaviors is the eyebrow flash: raised eyebrows held for a fraction of a second. An eyebrow flash is a social signal used to indicate recognition and a desire to initiate social contact. Eyebrow flashes are common in flirting interactions, but they are also used in platonic contexts.

Universal Flirting Behaviors

In a 1971 study, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt observed flirting behaviors among Balinese, Papuan, French, and Wakiu individuals. He found that certain behaviors occurred were common to all four groups: the "eyebrow flash" (a social signal that involves raising one's eyebrows for a fraction of a second), smiling, nodding, and moving closer to the other person.

A 2018 meta-analysis of previous behavior and attraction studies reached similar results, concluding that the behaviors most significantly related to attraction are smiling, laughing, mimicry, eye contact, and increasing physical proximity. These behaviors are not limited to romantic attraction; these behaviors occurred when study participants felt positively about another person, whether in a romantic or platonic context. However, the researchers point out that these behaviors are important for building trust and strengthening a relationship, which might explain why we tend to show these behaviors when we’re attracted to someone.

Styles of Flirting

Some nonverbal flirting behaviors are universal, but not everyone flirts in exactly the same way. In a 2010 study, Jeffrey Hall and his colleagues asked over 5,000 people to rate how accurately different behaviors described their own flirting style. They concluded that flirting styles can be grouped into five different categories:

  1. Traditional. The traditional style refers to flirting that follows traditional gender roles. People who employ this flirting style would tend to expect men to approach women, rather than vice versa.
  2. Physical. People with a physical flirting style report are likely to openly express their romantic interest in another person. This flirting style is also related to extroversion. People who report using the physical flirting style also tend to rate themselves as more social and outgoing.
  3. Sincere. People who use a sincere flirting style are interested in forming an emotional connection. They engage in friendly behavior and show a genuine interest in getting to know the other person.
  4. Playful. People who use a playful flirting style see flirting as fun. They often engage in flirting behaviors for enjoyment, rather than to form a relationship. In Hall's study, "playful" was the only flirting style for which men rated themselves more highly than women.
  5. Polite. People who use the polite flirting style engage in flirting behaviors that carefully follow social norms. They are particularly cautious and seek to avoid any behavior that might be deemed inappropriate.

    In real life scenarios, multiple flirting styles can be used at once, and an individual may use different flirting styles in different situations. However, this inventory of flirting styles clearly demonstrates that flirting behaviors vary across individuals. These findings suggest that, while flirting is universal, exactly how we flirt depends on our individual preferences and social context.

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