Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

How to flirt: 7 tips backed by science

When it comes to flirting, love meters have nothing on these researchers' findings.

(Photo from Wikimedia)
  • Flirting is an important part of life. It can be a fun, adventurous way to meet others and develop intimate relationships.
  • Many people find flirting to be an anxiety-ridden experience, but science can help us discover principles to be more relaxed while flirting.
  • Smiling and eye contact are proven winners, while pick-up lines are a flirty fallacy.

Flirting is a universal part of human life. As social animals, we require a natural way to express sexual interest in others and promote ourselves as worthy partners. This is why flirtatious behaviors appear in every culture in some form. Without it, our species would be in reproductive gridlock.

But then why does flirting make some of us so darn anxious?

Flirting is tied to the limbic system, those ancient parts of the human brain that control survival-based drives, such as sexuality and all the emotions that come with it. Here, flirtation is less a social skill and more an impulsive behavior that takes our intellect hostage. A flirt-or-flight response.

But flirting isn't entirely instinctual either. It's also governed by cultural rules and social etiquette. Breaking these rules, an embarrassing rejection, or pursuing affection at an inappropriate time can lead to a loss of social capital that can be hard to recover.

Stuck between the instinctual and social, it's no wonder that people feel at odds with themselves when it comes to the art of the flirt.

While we can't rewire the limbic system to be less overbearing, we can study this evolutionary equation and gather tips to help us become more comfortable in our own hormonal skin. Here are seven keys to flirting, according to science

Self-confidence

The Hireling Shepherd (1851) by William Holman Hunt.

(Photo by: Picturenow/UIG via Getty Images)

It's the well-intentioned platitude of mothers everywhere: "You just need to be yourself. Be confident." It's also the best and worst advice for flirting. Self-confidence is a prerequisite to many of the techniques mentioned below (see eye contact). Yet, it's easier to say be confident than to be it.

Dr. Ivan Joseph, author of the book You Got This: Mastering the Skill of Self-Confidence, doesn't consider self-confidence an inherent personality trait. As that title suggests, he views it as a skill that anyone can develop.

Joseph argues there are several habits you can adopt to foster self-confidence. He points to repetition (successful flirts are the ones who flirt), self-affirmation (believing in your value as a person), and the power of positive reinforcement (learning to recognize positive qualities you can bring to a relationship).

"If I could give you one thing to take from this [talk], it is no one will believe in you unless you do," Dr. Ivan Joseph said during his TED talk.

Smile

"Laugh and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone." Ella Wheeler Wilcox may not have known it while writing Poems of Passion and Solitude, but she unlocked a secret to being a fantastic flirter: smile.

Smiling triggers two psychological phenomena in people. The first is self-perception theory. As noted by Professors Simone Schnall and James D. Laird of Clark University, self-perception theory posits that if you act as though you are experiencing a certain emotion, you will feel that emotion. "In that sense, feelings are the consequences of behavior, not the causes: We feel happy because we smile, and angry because we scowl," they write.

Want to enjoy flirting? Smile.

The second phenomenon is emotional contagion. Happy people are more approachable, more attractive, and more enjoyable to be in relationships with because their happiness infects us. Morose people, in contrast, bring others down and are anything but approachable when moping in a corner.

Want others to enjoy flirting back? Smile.

Eye contact

Cafe Rendezvous (1868) by James Tissot.

Cafe Rendezvous (1868) by James Tissot.

(Photo by: Picturenow/UIG via Getty Images)

Compliment someone's shoes, and they'll be flattered you approve of their style. Stare at someone's shoes, and they may wonder exactly what is the object of your affection. Best look them in the eyes to avoid confusion.

In a study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, participants were paired with strangers of the opposite sex. They were then asked to either stare at the strangers' hands, gaze into their eyes, or count their eye blinks. Participants who gazed into each other's eyes reported higher feelings of affection and liking.

But some of us feel more comfortable staring at the Sun than making eye contact with an attractive other. Thankfully Jodi Schulz, an extension educator at Michigan State University, provides some pointers.

She endorses the 50/70 rule—that is, maintaining eye contact 50 percent of the time while speaking and 70 percent while listening. To prevent awkward staring, she also recommends glancing to the side occasionally. The movement should be slow and deliberate. Move your eyes quickly and you look nervous, while glancing downward signals a lack of confidence.

Schulz's pointers are for eye contact in everyday situations, but they provide a useful benchmark to get started. As the above study suggests, if the frequency, intensity, and duration of the eye contact intensifies naturally, it's a good sign you've moved from the friendly to the flirtatious.

Body language

Your smile is playful, and your eyes are engaged, but there's still the rest of you to consider. Body language is an essential component to communication and, like smiling, plays an important role in self-perception and emotional contagion.

Jean Smith, a social and cultural anthropologist who studies flirting, advises approaching people with an open body. Don't cross your arms and make sure your shoulders are facing the person.

Body language can also help you tell if the person returns your interest. If their feet are pointing at you, Smith says, then you have their attention. If they are pointed to the side away from you, they are subconsciously planning their escape route.

Humor

Humor is a congenial flirting technique. According to Jean Smith, laughter indicates attraction and, whether you are telling the joke or guffawing along, stimulates our brains to produce oxytocin, "a liking enhancer."

Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus, a part of the limbic system. It is also released during sex and plays a role in childbirth and nursing—so we see again how the social and instinctual are closely tied together in the human brain.

However, Smith does share a word of warning regarding humorous flirting: "This is where people often get it wrong, because they want to attract everybody. But no. You just want to attract those people who match with you."

A shared sense of humor, Smith points out, is a great measure for such matches.

Pick-up line prohibition

"Are you a parking ticket? Because you've got fine written all over you." There's a reason pick-up lines like these are the punchlines of uninspired jokes and lame memes. They're. The. Worst.

According to a study in the journal Sex Roles, both men and women found pick-up lines to be the least desirable way to start a flirtatious conversation.

While both sexes agreed pick-up lines are lame, they differed on the best way to begin a conversation. On average men preferred the direct approach, while women preferred innocuous, indirect conversation starters.

Learn to recognize how others flirt

The Constant Nymph, The annoying Kiss (1927) by Chole Preston.

(Photo by De Agostini via Getty Images)

Learning to recognize the signs of flirting can help you garner the confidence to flirt back or understand when the object of your attraction isn't interested. Unfortunately, we're all bad at this. On average, neither men nor women can recognize flirting, but both sexes are exceptionally good at recognizing when people aren't into them.

This mental blind spot is likely a way for us to manage social etiquette. If you don't recognize someone flirting with you, you lose nothing; however, if you misinterpret someone's interest, you run the risk of being perceived as crass, lacking in social grace, or being plain embarrassed.

Smith already taught us how to read feet and open body language, but there are other telltale signs. One study found that men are more likely to use dominance signals through body orientation, such as taking up space or leaning in. Meanwhile, women tend to engage in body presentation, by accentuating physical features through posture, twirling their hair, or caressing their lips or neck.

People are also more likely to flirt in locations that are sociable, such as gathering places for those with shared interest or those that, of course, serve alcohol.

Flirting with rejection

You may have noticed that a lot of these tips deal less with promoting one's self than they do with engaging with others. Smiling, humor, and body language all create connections through psychology that make others enjoy your presence as much as they promote your search for intimacy.

Not only does this take the pressure off flirting, but it also numbs the sting of rejection.

Dr. Smith sums it up nicely: "When we think about flirting like this, it totally changes our paradigm of rejection. And in situations where we're often feeling self-conscious or a bit nervous, we have scientific tools to help us remember what to do. And finally, it makes it not about us."

So go out, have fun, and make some connections. If you manage that, the survival of the species should work itself out.

Dr. Helen Fisher: Why casual sex doesn't exist

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Keep reading Show less

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

Keep reading Show less

Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Keep reading Show less
Videos

Unhappy at work? How to find meaning and maintain your mental health

Finding a balance between job satisfaction, money, and lifestyle is not easy.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast