The findings of the study were recounted by University of Kansas associate professor Jeffrey Hall and his team in an article entitled, “Accurately Detecting Flirting: Error Management Theory, the Traditional Sex Script, and Flirting Base Rate.” In the story, lead researcher Hall stated that not only were most of his subjects unable to tell when they were being flirted with, but were also oblivious when asked whether or not a third party couple was flirting with each other.
According to a University of Kansas release for the study, Hall and his team paired 52 heterosexual college women with 52 heterosexual college men and asked them to chat one-on-one for about ten minutes. The students were told they were participating in a study on first impressions and then were asked a series of questions about their counterpart — specifically whether they felt if they or the other party had flirted during the meeting.
The experiment found an 80 percent accuracy rate for subjects who had deducted their counterpart had not flirted with them, however, only 36 percent of men and 18 percent of women were able to correctly detect when flirtation actually occurred.
The researchers concluded that for humans, “flirting looks a lot like being friendly, and we are not accustomed to having our flirting validated so we can get better at seeing it.” So in the second half of their study, Hall and his team asked more than 250 subjects to watch six one-minute videos of students that had participated in their first study.
Just one person was shown at a time. The third-party observers were not any more accurate in detecting flirting than those taking part in the interactions. When flirting didn’t occur, they were 66 percent accurate. When it did, they were 38 percent accurate.
The lowest accuracy rate was found in females observing males flirting. They identified the flirting just 22 percent of the time. Both men and women had an easier time detecting when females were flirting. Hall said that could be because women tend to be more transparent.
Hall added, “It doesn’t appear to be the case that men have some intuition about women and women have some intuition about men. But it does seem that women are just a little more clear if they are interested or not.”
At the end of the study, the researchers concluded that flirting is decoded and deciphered by humans in the similar way we detect lying. Hall said that humans tend to have difficulty spotting a liar because the common assumption is that people are telling the truth. Flirting — as well-intended as it can occasionally be — falls into a likewise category, and most people require third-party confirmation to recognize. And that’s something, according to the second half of the study, that won’t be happening any time soon.
h/t Science of UsRachel Raczka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet her @rachelraczka.