What people want from relationships influences how they flirt, study finds

New research from Southwestern University has found that people who are pursuing short-term sexual relationships are more likely to engage in unusual flirting behaviors. But the study also uncovered a surprising mismatch: people who are interested in uncommitted relationships are not any more receptive to atypical flirting.

The research, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science, was conducted by Carin Perilloux, Justin White, Aliehs Lee, and Helena Lorenz.

“We became interested in this topic after coming across Geoffrey Miller’s application of ‘proteanism’ (or randomness for the sake of randomness),” the authors of the study told PsyPost.

“Proteanism is a strategy that certain prey animals appear to use to avoid predators by engaging in totally unpredictable (even to themselves) movements. The inability to predict one’s own behaviors makes it that much harder for predators to coordinate attacks.”

“A similar tactic might be effective within human mating, particularly when individuals engage in flirting because a lack of clarity on the part of the person flirting is actually advantageous in two ways. First, it prevents others from being able to determine whether a potential mate is actually being pursued, which could decrease interference while still casting a wide net for mates,” the researchers explained.

“Second, it provides protection from social shame in the form of plausible deniability if sexual advances are rebuffed. These benefits should be particularly useful for people pursuing short-term, rather than long-term, mates.”

“Upon researching this topic, we soon realized there wasn’t much documentation of human flirting tactics, much less protean ones, outside of lists of nonverbal behaviors such as licking one’s lips or crossing one’s legs toward the person. We conducted our studies to first create such a list and then use it to test our ideas about proteanism and its potential link to mating strategy.”

The study, which included nearly 1,300 participants in total, found that most people agreed on what the most typical flirting tactics were. Perilloux and her colleagues also found that individuals more interested in uncommitted sexual relationships were more likely to say they would employ atypical flirting behaviors compared to individuals more interested in long-term relationships. Men were also more likely to endorse using atypical behaviors than women.

“Although there is not a set script for communicating romantic interest, most people reported engaging in typical flirting behaviors (e.g., eye contact, playing with their hair, asking for their advice on something) significantly more than atypical flirting behaviors (e.g., offering a foot rub, buying a gift for the person’s mother, reciting Shakespeare),” the researchers told PsyPost.

“Second, people are good at recognizing and discerning whether a particular flirting behavior will be successful or unsuccessful in most circumstances. That is, people seemed to know, based on the behaviors we inventoried, whether or not their behavior was going to be considered appealing.”

“Third, we showed that short-term maters were more likely to indicate they would perform atypical (our version of ‘protean’) behaviors. Finally, however, we found that an overwhelming majority of participants found the most typical behaviors to be most attractive, even those participants interested in short-term mating! Our results converged on the conclusion that recipients prefer the certainty of being someone’s flirting target, even though people pursuing short-term mating might behave otherwise,” the authors of the study said.

The study — like all research — includes some caveats.

“One of the biggest caveats is the nature of proteanism itself, which is essentially pure randomness, or having no discernable strategy at all. We do not know enough about potential protean mechanisms in nature or how to truly test for absolute randomness in human flirtation, so we shifted our study to focus on atypical or unexpected flirting behaviors,” the researchers explained.

“Proteanism was the inspiration for the study, which provided valuable insight into flirting behaviors, but true protean strategies remain untested. Our results provided a very interesting mismatch between the use and preference for atypical flirting behaviors: it’s surprising that short-term maters indicated a tendency to use atypical behaviors given that no one, including other short-term maters, seemed to like them.”

“In other words, one would think that these unexpected strategies must work some of the time or else no one would use them, but we did not document how and with what frequency these atypical flirting tactics are successful,” Perilloux and her colleagues said.

“On an even more basic level though, questions remain as to whether individuals actually engage in these unexpected flirting behaviors in their real lives. The vignettes we used incorporated purely hypothetical scenarios, but in a face-to-face interaction when the consequences of a real missed mating opportunity are high, it is unclear if short-term maters will actually employ atypical behaviors.”

The study, “Creative Casanovas: Mating Strategy Predicts Using—but Not Preferring—Atypical Flirting Tactics“, was authored by Justin White, Helena Lorenz, Carin Perilloux, and Aliehs Lee.