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4 Features of an Effective Flirtatious Facial Expression

Straight men respond to women who use cliché facial expressions of flirtation. 

Source: gdakaska/Pixabay

New research titled "identifying a facial expression of flirtation and its effect on men" deconstructs the morphology of highly-recognized flirtatious facial expressions used by heterosexual women to flirt with straight men. This paper (Haj-Mohamadi, Gillath & Rosenberg, 2020) was published on September 3 in The Journal of Sex Research.

This paper answers the research question: "Is there a unique, identifiable facial expression representing flirting—and if there is, what does it convey, and how effective is it?"

For this six-part study, a trio of researchers used the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) to investigate "the existence of a particular facial cue that may be effectively used by women to indicate interest in a man." As might be expected, the researchers found that internal states that reflect a heterosexual woman being sexually or romantically interested in a man are conveyed by an easily-identified, nonverbal "facial expression of flirtation."

FACS is based on 23 different facial movements that correspond to varying displays of emotion; this coding system (Hjortsjö, 1969) was initially developed by a Swedish anatomist, Carl-Herman Hjortsjö (1914-1978), in the 1960s. Throughout the late-20th century, Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen built on Hjortsjö's original concept; they published a landmark paper (Ekman & Friesen, 1978) describing what we now refer to as the Facial Action Coding System in the late 1970s.

In 2002, Ekman and Friesen published a significantly updated version of FACS with Joseph Hager. As of this writing, the Paul Ekman Group's website currently states: "The original version [1978] is out of print, and techniques have been modified since then. The 2002 manual is the current version, and it is the only one that should be used for scoring today."

Decoding the Key Ingredients of Effective Flirting Based on FACS

The latest FACS-based (2020) paper was co-authored by Erika Rosenberg of the Center for Mind and Brain at UC Davis. Rosenberg is a globally-recognized expert on "the science of facial expressions" and fellow Psychology Today blogger. Another co-author, Omri Gillath, is a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas; he's also a PT blogger.

Lead author, Parnia Haj-Mohamadi (who is currently a visiting lecturer at Cornell), conducted this research on the facial expression of flirtation and its effect on men as a doctoral student in psychology and a member of KU's Gillath Lab.

"There are very few scientific articles out there that have systematically studied this well-known phenomenon," Gillath said in a news release. "None of these studies have identified a flirting facial expression and tested its effects."

"Across our six studies, we found most men were able to recognize a certain female facial expression as representing flirting," Gillath added. "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."

What is the morphology of highly-recognized flirtatious facial expressions? After coding different female facial expressions using FACS, the researchers concluded that a highly-recognizable flirtatious expression tends to have four key components:

  1. Head turned to one side
  2. Chin tilted down slightly
  3. A slight smile
  4. Eyes turned forward to gaze at the implied target of flirtation

According to the authors, most straight men recognized a female facial expression with these four facets as representing flirting. "Flirtatious expressions receiving low recognition by men differed in morphology from the highly-recognized flirting expressions," the authors noted.

Haj-Mohamadi, Gillath, and Rosenberg also found that "flirtatious facial expressions, as compared with happy or neutral expressions, led to faster identification of sex words by men." Based on these observations, the authors note: "These findings support the role of flirtatious expression in communication and mating initiation."

Interestingly, some women seem to be more effective at conveying flirtatious facial cues, and some men are more adept at recognizing the morphology associated with facial expressions of flirtation. "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 to relationships and sex," Gillath concluded.

Facebook image: Nestor Rizhniak/Shutterstock


Parnia Haj-Mohamadi, Omri Gillath, Erika L. Rosenberg. "Identifying a Facial Expression of Flirtation and Its Effect on Men." The Journal of Sex Research (First published: September 03, 2020) DOI: 10.1080/00224499.2020.1805583

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