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9 facts about flirting that single -- and married -- people should know

Fallon miller laughAndrew H. Walker / Getty

What could be more terrifying than talking to someone you’re attracted to?

Luckily, social science has figured out what makes flirting work — or not.

People flirt for six different reasons.

In a 2004 review of the literature on flirting, Northern Illinois University professor David Dryden Henningsen identified six different motivations for the behaviour:

• Sex: trying to get in bed

• Fun: treating it like a sport

• Exploring: trying to see what it would be like to be in a relationship

• Relational: trying to increase the intimacy of a relationship

• Esteem: increasing one's own self esteem

• Instrumental: trying to get something from the other person

In that study, Henningsen asked 101 female and 99 male students to write out a hypothetical flirty conversation between a man and a woman, then identify the motivations for the things they said.

The behaviours broke down along gender norms: men were significantly more likely to have a sexual motivation, while women tended to have a relational one.

Some conversation starters are better than others.

For a study in the journal Sex Roles, University of Alaska psychologist Chris L. Kleinke asked 600 respondents to rate the effectiveness of three varieties of opening lines in a flirtatious situation:

• 'Pick-up' lines like 'You must be a librarian, because I saw you checking me out'

• Open-ended, innocuous questions like 'What do you think of this band?' or 'What team are you rooting for?'

• Direct approaches like 'You're cute -- can I buy you a drink?'

The responses were pretty evenly split along gender lines: While the men in the study tended to prefer the more direct approach, the women tended to prefer the open-ended, innocuous questions. Not surprisingly, very few people said they preferred the pick-up lines.

Men over-estimate how interested women are.

Evidence from multiple studies supports the idea that, among heterosexual people, men tend to overperceive sexual interest from women, while women tend to underperceive sexual interest from men.

In other words, men tend to think women are into them when they aren't, and women tend to not notice when men are into them.

In a 2000 analysis of several of these studies, University of Texas psychologists Martie G. Haselton and David M. Buss offered several explanations for this finding, including that men are raised to see more sex in their environments while women are brought up to be more modest, but psychologists still haven't quite nailed down a perfect explanation for their observations.

The most attractive characteristics depend on gender.

According to a 2011 study led by University of British Columbia psychologist Jessica Tracy, heterosexual men and women diverge greatly in the facial expressions they fancy.

After showing 1,041 people images of different facial expressions, Tracy found that:

• Happiness was the most attractive female expression, but one of the least attractive for men.

• Pride was the most attractive male expression, but one of the least attractive for women.

Subtlety goes a long way.

University of New Mexico evolutionary psychologist Steven W. Gangestad recently told Psychology Today that flirting is a 'negotiation process' that happens after the first moments of attraction.

It's a subtle sort of testing-the-waters. You don't just say I'm attracted to you, are you attracted to me?

'It works much better to reveal (your attraction) and have it revealed to you in smaller doses,' Gangestad says. 'The flirting then becomes something that enhances the attraction.'

Eye contact really helps.

Without being too much of a creep, staring into another person's eyes really does have effects.

In one study, researchers had 48 pairs of unacquainted, opposite-sex undergrads spend two minutes at each of the following tasks: 1) gazing at their partner's eyes, 2) gazing at their partner's hands, or 3) counting how many times their partner blinked.

When both pairs were doing the eye-gazing task at the same time -- meaning they were looking at each other -- they were far likely to report feelings of affection than when they were doing any other task.

People feel connected when they get past the small talk.

You probably already know that asking questions of the person you fancy is a good idea.

But it's all about the kind of questions you ask.

According to a widely cited 1997 study by State University of New York psychologist Arthur Aron, people feel more closely bonded when they asked each other intimate questions, as in What roles do love and affection play in your life? and What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?.

Six months later, two of the participants (a tiny fraction of the original study group) even found themselves in love -- an intriguing result, though not a significant one.

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