Applied Anthropology

Why do people flirt?
Answered by Bambi Turner and Discovery Channel
  • Bambi Turner

    Bambi Turner

  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. Flirting isn't simply a way to find a mate, but a way to find the best mate, or the one that's most likely to help you carry on your DNA. This means looking beyond signals of fertility, and evaluating a partner's health to ensure that he or she will be able to produce offspring, and that these offspring will survive into adulthood. It also means finding a partner who is socially compatible, yet genetically different to maximize the health of your future children [source: Rodgers].

    When you spot someone you're attracted to, your body's limbic system kicks into action, sending nonverbal cues to let the other person know you're interested. Rather than risk embarrassment or rejection by coming right out and voicing your feelings, you flirt. It's a low-risk way of signaling your interest and initiating contact with a potential partner. Although the subtle touches and verbal cues associated with modern flirting may seem like nothing more than moves in a playful game, they represent a powerful evolutionary tool that has helped our species survive for thousands of years.

    So how does the simple act of flirting help you achieve these goals? In humans, symmetry of features is often viewed as one of the biggest clues to a person's health and wellness. Scientists repeatedly find that both men and women respond best to partners with even, matching features on both sides of their bodies, and that the most symmetrical people are seen as the healthiest and most fertile. Symmetrical features indicate well-being and natural disease resistance over time, characteristics that also point to the potential for healthy offspring.

    Humans aren't the only ones who use flirting techniques to evaluate potential mates, however. Many animals exhibit the same types of behaviors, often selecting partners based on their health and virility. Peacocks and other birds use their brilliant feathers to attract mates, just as the stag displays his magnificent antlers, or the lion shakes his mane. In the animal world, those with the biggest and brightest of these features often have the easiest time landing mates. To develop and maintain these features, animals must be able to gather plenty of food and nutrition, yet still fight off predators. This indicates that those with the biggest antlers or brightest plumes also are the most robust, and most likely able to produce and protect healthy offspring [source: Rodgers].

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  2. According to many scientists, the basis for flirting is both ancient and biological. These researchers believe that flirtation is a way to tell prospective mates how fit we are to reproduce and how interested we are in doing so. In many ways, flirting is an instinctually understood sexual negotiation process that resembles the various mating dances and displays exhibited by many animals. Studies also suggest that some flirtatious activities are common to diverse members of the human species with different languages and from different cultures.

    Women, for example, often try to bring attention to their pelvis by sticking out their hips. By doing so, a woman lets her potential mate know she's ready to carry a child. This can be an effective flirting technique. Studies have shown that men tend to be attracted to women with a hip-to-waist circumference ratio that puts the waist size at no more than 60 to 80 percent of the displayed hip size [source: Psychology Today]. Men, on the other hand, often make intense eye contact with or smile frequently at someone they're flirting with. This shows a man's strength and virility, but it is also meant to demonstrate that the man is not a threat.

    Flirting involves using many different gestures and signals -- some obvious, some not so obvious -- to let someone know you're interested. It can take a lot of effort to decipher all of this coded information. The physical appearance of the two people flirting also plays a big role in attraction. When all of this comes together in mutual attraction, our bodies' limbic systems take over. This is the same system involved in our fight-or-flight response to physical danger. The limbic system in large part governs our emotional and instinctual responses to different situations, and when we find someone we like and engage in flirting, our logical minds take back seats to our more primal urges.

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