New research published in the Journal of Sex Research homed in on a female facial expression that men consistently recognize as flirtatious. The researchers also found that this flirtatious expression boosted men’s identification of sex-related words during a lexical task.
Facial expressions are said to be key tools for communicating interest in a romantic partner, and there is reason to believe that women should be especially adept at communicating such flirtatious cues. Evolutionary theory posits that women have a stronger motivation to be selective of potential partners compared to men. As child-bearers, women are more invested in childrearing and therefore stand more to lose by choosing an unsuitable partner.
Study authors Parnia Haj-Mohamadi and her team propose that women, being more in control of the initial mate selection, should be especially likely to have developed flirtatious cues, and men should be especially adept at detecting them. In a series of six studies, the researchers aimed to pinpoint a facial expression that men consistently recognize as flirtatious and to examine whether this flirtatious cue signals something to do with mating.
Haj-Mohamadi and colleagues began with a dataset of 482 pictures of nine different women displaying various facial expressions. The expressions had been generated after asking the women to display neutral, happy, and flirtatious expressions.
In two initial experiments, a group of male university students rated the flirtatiousness of these images, leaving researchers with 18 photos that garnered consistently high ratings on flirtatiousness. A third study, using these 18 flirtatious photos as well as 13 non-flirtatious photos, found that men’s ratings of the flirtatiousness in the faces were independent of their ratings of the women’s attractiveness — suggesting that the flirtation in the images was not simply being inferred from the attractiveness of the models.
In another study, the researchers used something called a Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to analyze the components of the faces that were deemed flirtatious. Two images in particular were recognized as flirtatious by 77% and 71% of men. According to the FACS, these expressions were characterized by a head turned to the side and tilted slightly downward, eyes turned forward, and a small smile.
Faces that were not often interpreted as flirtatious were characterized by a weaker head tilt, a head tilted upwards instead of downwards, a much larger smile, or a much smaller smile. The researchers say that these faces were likely either too ambiguous to interpret or too joyful and therefore interpreted as friendly instead of flirty.
Finally, Haj-Mohamadi and her team wanted to assess whether flirtatious facial expressions would activate sex-related schemas among men. This would be in line with the theory that these expressions act as cues that communicate interest in a potential mate.
Two studies had men complete a lexical decision-making task that asked them to identify whether a string of letters represented a word or a non-word. Before seeing each word, the men were primed with either an image of a flirtatious expression or an image of a non-flirtatious expression. Both studies found that men who were primed with flirtatious expressions were quicker to classify sex-related words than neutral words — compared to men primed with either neutral or happy facial expressions. “In other words,” the authors infer, “men detected the subtle differences between the flirtatious and happy expressions and responded faster to the flirting females.”
The researchers say their findings offer evidence that women’s facial expressions can effectively communicate romantic interest that is then noticed by men. They also say there is evidence that individual differences exist in both perceiving and expressing flirtatious facial expressions. “Some expressions in our research were rated as flirtatious in some studies, but not in others. This suggests that there is more than one way to signal interest in a mate and there are individual differences in both men’s recognition of a flirting expression and women’s expression of a flirting facial cue,” Haj-Mohamadi and associates say.
The researchers say their study was limited as it was conducted within a specific culture and among a certain age group. Future studies will be needed to confirm whether these findings can be generalized across different populations.
The study, “Identifying a Facial Expression of Flirtation and Its Effect on Men”, was authored by Parnia Haj-Mohamadi, Omri Gillath, and Erika L. Rosenberg.