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Humans Flirt Like Animals, Experts Say

Tue., Feb. 14, 1995

With the same methods they long have used in studies of animals, scientists are turning their attention to the nuances of human courtship rituals - otherwise known as flirting.

Scientists are finding striking similarities with other species.

A woman parades across a crowded bar to the women’s room, hips swaying, eyes resting momentarily on a likely man and then coyly looking away just as she notices his look. This scenario exemplifies a standard opening move in courtship - getting attention, said Dr. David Givens, an anthropologist in Washington.

“In the first phase of courting, humans broadcast widely a non-verbal message that amounts to `notice me,”’ said Givens. “They do it through movement, through their dress, through gesture.”

From hundreds of hours of observations in bars and at parties, Givens discovered that women, more than men, tend to promenade, making numerous trips to the women’s room, for instance, both to scout and to be seen.

A second non-verbal message in this earliest stage is: “I am harmless,” Givens has found. The gestures and postures humans use to send this message are shared with other mammals, particularly primates. Charles Darwin called them “submissive displays.”

In humans, one such gesture is a palm-up placement of the hand, whether on a table or a knee, a reassuring sign of harmlessness. Another submissive display is the shoulder shrug, which, ethologists suggest, derives from an ancient vertebrate reflex, a posture signifying helplessness. A posture combining the partly shrugged shoulder and a tilted head - which displays the vulnerability of the neck - is commonly seen when two people who are sexually drawn to each other are having their first conversation, Givens said.

Being playful and childish is another way potential lovers often communicate harmlessness. “You see the same thing in the gray wolf,” said Givens.

When wolves encounter one another, they usually give a show of dominance, keeping their distance. But in a sexual encounter, they become playful and frisky, “like puppies,” said Givens, “so they can accept closeness.” The next step is a mutual show of submission, all of which paves the way for physical intimacy.

“We still go through the ritual of courtship much like our mammalian ancestors,” said Givens. “These gestures are subcortical, regulated by the more primitive part of our brain. They have nothing to do with the intellect, with our great neocortex.”

In the long view of evolution, courtship is less about romance than about genetic fitness, the struggle to pass on one’s own genes to future generations.

“In evolutionary terms, the payoff for each sex in parental investment differs: To produce a child, a woman has an obligatory nine-month commitment, while for a man, it’s just one sexual act,” said Dr. David Buss, a psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and author of “The Evolution of Desire” (Basic Books, 1994).

From this view, the coyness of courtship is a way to “test a prospective partner for commitment,” said Dr. Jane Lancaster, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. “Women, in particular, need to be sure they’re not going to be deserted.”

Coyness is not seen in species where the female does not need the sustained help or resources of a male to raise her young, said Lancaster. In species where a single act of copulation is the only contact a female requires with the father of her young, “there’s a direct assertion of sexual interest by the female,” she said.

But in species where two parents appreciably enhance the survival of offspring, “females don’t want to mate with a male who will abandon them,” said Lancaster. In such species, “the courtship dances are coy, a test to see if the male is willing to persist and pursue or simply wants a momentary dalliance,” she said. “Instead of the female simply getting in a posture for mating, she repeats a promise-withdraw sequence, getting in the mating posture and then moving away.”

In humans, flirtatious looks imitate this sequence. The coy look a woman gives a man is the beginning of a continuing series of approach-withdraw strategies that will unfold over the course of their courtship.

These feminine stratagems signal the man, “I’m so hard to win that if you do win me, you won’t have to worry about me getting pregnant by another male,” said Lancaster.

Flirting is the opening gambit in a continuing series of negotiations at every step of the way in courtship.

Though men may say they are well-aware of the tentativeness of flirting, Buss’ findings suggest a male tendency - at least among college-age men - toward wishful thinking in interpreting flirtatious looks. In settings where men and women go to meet someone of the opposite sex, Buss said, “we find that when you ask men what it means for a woman to smile at them, they interpret it as a sexual invitation.”

“But when you ask women what it means,” he continued, “they’ll say it just indicates she wants to get to know him better.”

In interviews with 208 college-age men and women, Buss and colleagues found that when it comes to seduction, “the sexual signals that work for a woman backfire for men.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the research showed that for women, direct sexual approaches - dressing seductively, dancing close, staring into a man’s eyes - worked well in leading to sexual contact. But for men similar direct strategies were failures.

“For men, the most effective approaches are displays of love and commitment,” said Buss. “Telling her he really loves her, that he cares and is committed.”

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