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How to flirt: 7 tips backed by science

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

  • 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

(Photo by: Picturenow/UIG via Getty Images)

The Hireling Shepherd (1851) by William Holman Hunt.

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.

(Photo by: Picturenow/UIG via Getty Images)

Cafe Rendezvous (1868) by James Tissot.

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

(Photo by De Agostini via Getty Images)

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

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.

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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