Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Science of Flirting

Body language matters but laughter is absolutely essential.

Key points

  • Flirting isn't an inborn trait; it's a skill people can develop and learn, and science can help.
  • Different flirting styles work better at certain times; playful flirting is best for short-term relationships.
  • Research shows there are specific facial expressions and ways to stand that are more effective.
  • Once the conversation is going, expressing that you find the other person funny is essential.
Source: Sanneberg/Shutterstock

When you’re single, meeting people is hard.

You see someone attractive and hope they’ll find their way over to you and start an amazing conversation.

If only it were that easy. Instead, you usually need to take a little initiative to get the sparks going.

If that feels awkward, or you’re thinking, “I don’t know how to do that,” don’t worry. Being good at flirting and meeting people isn’t a trait you’re either born with or not. Rather, it’s a skill you can develop and learn (Allemand et al., 2022).

Here are several common questions about flirting and initial conversations, each with a research-backed answer and strategy for improvement.

What can science teach you about improving your flirting?

When flirting, is it better to be subtle or more obvious?

Research finds that those being flirted with accurately perceived that the other person was interested only 28 percent of the time (Hall et al., 2014). In other words, roughly three out of four times that people flirt, it goes undetected. Women were especially bad at accurately detecting male flirting (18 percent). Notably, outside observers did even worse.

What does this suggest? Flirters are hard to read because they’re being too subtle, likely because they want to protect their self-esteem and avoid rejection. However, if someone doesn’t even know you’re flirting, what’s the point? Put yourself out there, be a little vulnerable, and make your flirtations more obvious. Direct is best.

Do people have different flirting styles?

There are many flavors of flirting. Researchers at the University of Kansas identified five distinct styles: physical, playful, polite, sincere, and traditional (Hall et al., 2010). Physical flirts rely on body language; playful flirts treat interactions like a game; polite flirts are cautious; sincere flirts seek to establish an authentic connection; and traditional flirts rely on typical gender roles, in which men pursue and women aren’t too forward.

Playful flirting tends to be better for short-term relationships. Men are more likely to be playful overall, while women are more likely to be traditional. Overall, in the study, those using physical, playful, and sincere styles all had more dating success.

Overall, what are the best flirting tactics?

A large-scale study in the U.S. and Norway aimed to see which flirtation strategies worked best (Kennair et al., 2022). The researchers found that the single best tactic for both men and women was expressing that the other person was funny by giggling or laughing at their jokes.

Women flirted more effectively when they used physical contact and didn’t use hugs or humor because those suggested more of a friendly (vs. romantic) intention. Men were most effective when they focused on having good conversations, giving compliments, and using humor.

What’s the best flirty expression for women looking to attract men?

A study by the University of Kansas and UC Davis revealed that 77 percent of men perceived a specific expression—head tilted to the side and slightly downward, eyes forward, with a slight smile—as flirtatious (Haj-Mohamadi et al., 2021). To pull it off, avoid too big or too small smiles, which can be seen as simply friendly rather than flirty.

Are certain body positions more flirty and effective?

A study of participants at a speed-dating event found that having an expansive body posture—such as taking up more physical space with a wider stance and having your arms open and out to the side (vs. crossed over your body) made both men and women more desirable (Vacharkulksemsuk et al., 2016). The researchers speculate that being more expansive is a subtle sign of dominance. In a dating context, greater dominance may also signal greater confidence or social status, which are both appealing.

Once the conversation gets going, what should I do?

Everyone wants a partner who will be there for us when we need them. In other words, we want a responsive partner who pays attention to our needs, wants, and goals.

In a dating context, the easiest way partners can show responsiveness is through being a good listener (Itzchakov et al., 2022). You can do this by facing the other person, maintaining eye contact, nodding, giving good facial expressions, asking follow-up questions, and giving your thoughts. Showing sincere interest can be extremely attractive.

A Little Strategy: A 5-Step Flirty Challenge

It can feel intimidating to go out in the world and start flirting, even at a social gathering. To make it less daunting, you can start small and improve little by little with micro goals. For example, you could give yourself this challenge the next time you’re in a social setting:

  1. Make eye contact with seven people.
  2. Smile at five people.
  3. Say “Hi!” to three people.
  4. Ask two people an innocent question or for help.
  5. Flirt with at least one person.

The other key is to give yourself a deadline. For example, from the moment you get there, you have five minutes to make your first eye contact. Once you get started, you’ll see that it gets easier and easier.

Have fun with it. You’re not doing this to meet your forever person, just to be social and meet interesting new people—and who knows where that will lead you?

Facebook image: Max kegfire/Shutterstock


Allemand, M., Gmür, B., & Flückiger, C. (2022). Does extraversion increase following a three-hour flirt training? Exploring two training routes. Scandinavian journal of psychology, 63(3), 265–274.

Haj-Mohamadi, P., Gillath, O., & Rosenberg, E. L. (2021). Identifying a Facial Expression of Flirtation and Its Effect on Men. Journal of Sex Research, 58(2), 137–145.

Hall, J. A., Carter, S. Cody, Michael, J. & Albright, J. M. (2010). Individual differences in the communication of romantic interest: Development of the flirting styles inventory. Communication Quarterly, 58, 365-393. doi: 10.1080/014633 73.2 010.524874

Hall, J. A., Xing, C., & Brooks, S. (2015). Accurately detecting flirting: Error management theory, the traditional sexual script, and flirting base rate. Communication Research, 42(7), 939-958.

Itzchakov, G., Reis, H. T., & Weinstein, N. (2022). How to foster perceived partner responsiveness: High‐quality listening is key. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 16(1), Article e12648.

Kennair, L. E. O., Wade, T. J., Tallaksen, M. T., Grøntvedt, T. V., Kessler, A. M., Burch, R. L., & Bendixen, M. (2022). Perceived effectiveness of flirtation tactics: The effects of sex, mating context and individual differences in US and Norwegian samples. Evolutionary Psychology, 20(1), 14747049221088011.

Vacharkulksemsuk, T., Reit, E., Khambatta, P., Eastwick, P. W., Finkel, E. J., & Carney, D. R. (2016). Dominant, open nonverbal displays are attractive at zero-acquaintance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(15), 4009–4014.

More from Gary W. Lewandowski Jr. Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today