Why Do We Flirt?

“How much does a Polar Bear weigh? [pause] Enough to break the ice.”

The quote above describes an awkward opening line, and one that is not recommended. Unfortunately, we have all been there, either as the recipient or sender of such cliché, trite, and potentially terrible flirtatious messages. You know, those situations where you actually hear yourself saying the line…and then you’re immediately filled with regret.

Despite the pitfalls associated with flirting, and early interactions, flirting is a key step toward initiating a date, and equally important in maintaining your romantic relationship. Although we have all flirted and been flirted with, have you ever thought about why we actually flirt? I am guessing most individuals have not had moments of deep self-reflection on that question, but recent research has identified key reasons why we flirt.

Aristotle argued that all communication was goal oriented, and Dr. David Henningsen proposed that there are six reasons why we flirt. First, we may flirt for relational reasons. When driven by this motive, individuals flirt because they want to alter the closeness of their relationship. Likely, then, people here flirt because they want to change a friendship to a romantic relationship or a casually dating scenario to a more serious dating relationship.

Second, flirters are sometimes driven by the exploring motive. Here, a person flirts to gauge the interest of the person he/she is flirting with. For instance, you may be romantically interested in another person and flirt to see his or her reaction. Does he/she flirt back? Laugh? Mace you?

Third, our flirtatious messages are sometimes driven by fun motivations. This motive describes the fact that we may flirt simply because it is fun or the interaction is playful.

Fourth, at times we flirt for instrumental reasons. When flirtatious messages are driven by this motive, we are flirting to achieve a goal. Perhaps you want someone to do you a favor, buy you a drink, or complete a household chore? Flirting in order to get someone to complete those tasks describes the instrumental motive.

Fifth, flirting can be driven by the esteem motive. This motive encompasses those times when individuals flirt to increase or reinforce their self-esteem. Namely, being flirted with makes us feel good about ourselves (unless the person is a creeper).

Finally, flirting can be driven by sex. Flirtatious messages born out of this motive are based on a physical attraction to someone and/or the desire to engage in sexual activity with that person.

It is important to note, though, that flirting can occur without physical or sexual attraction. Although this may seem counter-intuitive to some, individuals likely frequently flirt with others that they are not attracted to. Consider a time where you flirt with a bartender to get a free drink or a wedding where a 20-something jokingly flirts with the bride’s grandfather (or just watch The Girls Next Door…is that still on? Hope not.).

In his study of flirting motives, Henningsen had participants describe a standard flirting interaction. Not surprisingly, he found that many flirtatious interactions are driven by more than one motive. He also examined sex differences in flirting descriptions, finding that men viewed flirting as more sexually driven whereas women reported more fun and relational motives. The remaining motives, exploring, esteem, and instrumental, did not differ between sexes.

Collectively, though, the most frequently noted motive was relational, suggesting that flirting messages are driven by the desire to build a relationship. This finding may make readers feel more optimistic about flirting the next time they are hit on. In the interim, work on those opening lines— make sure they are practiced, polished, and well-rehearsed, all the while making it appear like they are not at all practiced or rehearsed.

-Sean M. Horan, Ph.D.

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