Flirting is a tricky dance that is mostly awkward and subjective. It’s hard to decipher whether someone is actually interested in you or just being nice, and when a situation is misinterpreted, it can be really awkward for all parties involved.
But does flirting actually work? According to a new paper, it does.
Researchers from the University of Kansas published an analysis of six studies that looked took a deep-dive into the world of flirting and whether certain facial expressions actually hold meaning or are just misinterpreted by someone.
The study, published in the Journal of Sex Research, specifically examined whether a certain facial cue used by women can indicate interest in a man.
“There are very few scientific articles out there that have systematically studied this well-known phenomenon,” Omri Gillath, professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, said in a press release. “None of these studies have identified the flirting facial expression and tested its effects.”
While flirting is a slippery slope and can often be awkward in the workplace, researchers said that romantic or sexual interests in someone can be demonstrated through facial expression.
The studies had women engage in two forms of flirting: one where participants — some professional actresses and others volunteers — posed with a typical flirting expression often seen at a bar to get someone’s attention, according to the press release.
As always, flirting can often be awkward — especially when it’s deliberate. Researchers said that some women were more effective in properly conveying flirting via facial cue, and some men better at recognizing it. The study said that most men identified certain expressions as flirting.
“Across our six studies, we found most men were able to recognize a certain female facial expression as representing flirting,” Gillath said. “It has a unique morphology, and it’s different from expressions that have similar features — for example, smiling — but aren’t identified by men as flirting expression.”
The way researchers identified flirting expressions was through the Facial Action Coding System — also known as FACS. This system shows modes of flirting such as a “head turned to one side and titled down slightly, a slight smile, and eyes turned forward (toward the implied target),” per the study.
Gillath said that the study’s findings enabled researchers to “isolate and identity” how expressions are used for flirting, and what their purpose is.
“Our findings support the role of flirtatious expression in communication and mating initiation,” he said. “For the first time, not only were we able to isolate and identify the expressions that represent flirting, but we were also able to reveal their function — to activate associations related with relationships and sex.”
While flirting during COVID-19 is restricted to online dating and eye-lash bats behind a mask, past studies found the flirting can be a good thing — especially at work. Research from Washington State University found that casual flirting is relatively harmless and can even reduce stress and help other issues like insomnia from workplace injustice.