It’s a story as old as time.
Guy spots girl across the bar. Girl smiles coyly. Guy saunters over and asks if it hurt. Girl finishes the line, “When I fell from heaven? You bet.” Cue the laugh track.
Flirting. We’ve been at it since the days of playground hair-pulling and sweaty-palmed school dancing. Getting the hang of it is a lot like riding a bike – there are bruises at the start, but eventually it becomes second nature. And once we master the playful banter and arm grazing, we stop thinking so much about what works and what doesn’t.
So of course some psychologists asked men and women to do just that.
For a study recently published in the journal Interpersona, participants were asked to examine which flirting techniques they thought were most successful. First, men and women listed the actions they’d do to attract a member of the opposite sex (the study focused only on straight individuals). Researchers compiled those answers given by at least five participants and then swapped lists, so men were given a list of flirting techniques that women thought were most effective and vice versa. Then they ranked each action by what they thought might actually work on them.
“There were no major surprises; things were consistent with what one would expect,” said study co-author Joel Wade, a psychology professor at Bucknell University. As predicted, Wade said men rated higher “those acts they thought might lead to sex.” On the other hand, women were more responsive to acts that suggested exclusivity and emotional commitment.
Women, Wade said, seemed more in tune with what moves worked best on their male counterparts. Most of the flirting techniques women said they’d use to attract male attention were physical, such as “dancing with you” or “smiling at you.” When men were asked to rank the women’s moves, they scored actions involving direct physical contact the highest. “She kisses you on the cheek” got the No. 1 spot, followed by “she rubs against you” and “she moves closer to you.”
Men, on the other hand, “miss the subtleties,” Wade said. “Some of the things they wrote down … kind of make you wonder.”
Among the actions submitted by men and ranked highly by women: “he has dinner with you” and “he acts interested in you” (presumably by grabbing a slice of pizza with you). And then there was this gem: “he spends time with you,” which was second only to “holding hands.” Oof.
Citing some older research, Wade said one of the reasons the men’s flirt list was far more general could be because “men aren’t that attuned to actions that work especially well.” If you asked even the most successful men how they pick up women, Wade said many would have trouble articulating specific behaviors.
He suggested that if we observed men interacting with women in a more natural environment (such as a bar) rather than have them list what they think works, “you wouldn’t see things that are so relationship-specific.” That’s the difference between perceived and actual effectiveness.
But don’t worry, guys, it’s really not that complicated. The study concluded that women perceived men who acted committed and caring to be the best at flirting. Maybe eat a slice of pizza with her every so often.