Why Many “Tell-Tale Signs” of Attraction Are Likely Nonsense
By Jeffrey A. Hall, Ph.D.
Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a large study on nonverbal behavior reveals that all types of attraction are expressed similarly, casting doubt on the diagnostic value of any one “flirting” behavior.
When I was promoting my book, The Five Flirting Styles, the most common question I was asked was, “How can I tell if someone really likes me.” Implicit in this question is the notion that there are different types of attraction, a position that Communication research has long adopted. For decades, researchers of nonverbal communication have sought answers, producing a catalogue of studies on the expression of, the interpretation (and misinterpretation) of, and the frequency of nonverbal cues associated with attraction of all types. In my book, I concluded that the most common signs of attraction are quite similar for flirting and friendly, and that while truly flirtatious behaviors might be diagnostic of romantic attraction, they are also quite rare (because they risk embarrassment, women face the double-standard, etc.). A recent meta-analysis has further clarified why it is so hard to distinguish flirting from friendly.
Before I continue, please keep in mind this limitation: Most research on courtship, including my own flirting styles research, is heteronormative; the vast majority of research participants are heterosexual and cisgender.
Let’s consider this scene: A man and a woman are talking with one another. How would observers know if they were attracted to each other? Are they being flirty or friendly? Are they romantically interested in one another, and is that behaviorally different from being sexually attracted to one another? This paradigm – zero acquaintance, face-to-face communication between strangers – is the most dominant one in the study of nonverbal behavior and attraction and it (fortunately) has the advantage of having some real-world applicability.
Doing us all a great service, Montoya, Kershaw, and Prosser (2018) combined the findings of decades of research into one meta-analysis. They identified 138 studies on interactions with high romantic/sexual intensity and 148 studies on heterosexual dyads that explored verbal and nonverbal correlates of attraction. Focusing on the verbal components of attraction, Montoya and colleagues found that the number of words exchanged (r = .298), the amount of time talking (r = .191), and frequency of laughter (r = .130) were among the best predictors of attraction. The nonverbal manifestations of interpersonal attraction were decreased proximity (r = .207), frequency of eye contact (r = .189), nodding (r = .162), and smiling (r = .131). These primary correlates of attraction reflect an intuitive sense of what it means to be interested in someone: you talk and laugh while sitting close to the other person and looking them in the eye.
Because the meta-analysis focused on attraction in general, these findings, taken alone, cannot offer an answer to our big question. To do so, romantic attraction and social attraction had to be statistically separated. Examining those results, Montoya et al. (2018) “failed to identify a main effect for attraction type” (p. 692). In other words, the strength of association between attraction and the verbal and nonverbal behaviors was the same whether it was romantic interest (i.e., flirting) or social attraction (i.e., friendly). Thus, any claim of there being a “tell-tale sign” that someone is really into you is probably false. Laughing, smiling, nodding, and eye contact are the best signs of attraction, but they are not sufficient to distinguish friendly from flirting.
This conclusion makes a lot of sense to me. The flirting styles approach promotes the idea that there is more than one way to flirt (take the quiz). My own research (Hall & Xing, 2015) found that different flirting styles had different verbal and nonverbal behaviors associated with attraction. In other research, I found that communicative indicators of liking inform perceptions of both social and sexual attraction (Hall, 2016). And in the most pertinent study, I found that flirting was very hard to detect (Hall, Xing, & Brooks, 2015).
An additional issue likely plays a role in perceptual accuracy: the biological sex of observer and actor. Although we (i.e., Hall et al., 2015) did not find that men and women differed in accuracy, such differences may exist. When engaging in speed dates, males’ interest is more accurately perceived by third-party observers than females’ interest (d = 2.94) (Place, Todd, Penke, & Asendorpf, 2009). Furthermore, men and women may have different perceptual biases: Men are more likely to infer sexual interest and women are more likely to underestimate the sexual intent of others (La France, Henningsen, Oats, & Shaw, 2009). The nature of sex differences in accuracy is far from a resolved debate.
Taken together, this means there may be zero obvious, normative, or valid cues that differentiate one type of attraction from another. I noted in my book that the most seductive cues are exceedingly rare in frequency and normatively unusual as well. Consider that Montoya et al. (2018) found no support for the following tell-tale signs: primp, head tilt, and hair flip. Instead, feeling that you are “clicking” with someone is the best internal guide that there is something special happening (McFarland, Jurafsky, & Rawlings, 2013).
Although it may come as a disappointment to people who want certainty in an uncertain situation, the best indicator of really liking someone is probably repeated, ongoing reciprocation of the core signs of attraction – talking, smiling, laughing, siting close, and sharing eye contact.
Hall, J. A. (2013). The five flirting styles: Use the science of flirting to attract the love you really want. Don Mills, Ontario, CA: Harlequin Nonfiction.
Hall, J. A. (2016). Interpreting social-sexual communication: Relational framing theory and social-sexual communication, attraction, and intent. Human Communication Research, 42, 138-164. doi:10.1111/hcre.12071
Hall, J. A., & Xing, C. (2015). The verbal and nonverbal correlates of the five flirting styles. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 39, 41-68. doi:10.1007/s10919-014-0199-8
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, 939-958. doi:10.1177/0093650214534972
La France, B. H., Henningsen, D. D., Oates, A., & Shaw, C. M. (2009). Social-sexual interactions? Meta-analyses of sex differences in perceptions of flirtatiousness, seductiveness, and promiscuousness. Communication Monographs, 76, 263-285. doi:10.1080/03637750903074701
McFarland, D. A., Jurafsky, D., & Rawlings, C. (2013). Making the connection: Social bonding in courtship situations. American Journal of Sociology, 118(6), 1596-1649. doi:10.1086/670240
Montoya, R. M., Kershaw, C., & Prosser, J. L. (2018). A meta-analytic investigation of the relation between interpersonal attraction and enacted behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 144, 673-709. doi:10.1037/bul0000148
Place, S., Todd, P. M., Penke, L., & Asendorpf, J. B. (2009). The ability to judge the romantic interest of others. Psychological Science, 20, 22-26. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02248.x