In case you needed proof that it's not just in your head, two new studies published last week in the journal Communication Research suggest that our flirting radars are hopelessly inadequate. In the first study, 52 male and 52 female college students — all single, and all straight — were each randomly matched up with a member of the opposite sex. They were put in a room together and told to converse with one another (with help from a set of cue cards) for 10 minutes, without stopping. Afterward, subjects completed a questionnaire reporting their own flirting (or lack thereof), that of their partner, and their level of attraction to their partner.
The data showed that, overall, the subjects were 84% accurate at detecting when their partner had not been interested — but only recognized when they had flirted about 28% of the time. Men were slightly better than women at correctly identifying a flirting partner (36% vs. 18%).
The researchers thought that third-party observers might be able to do a better job at recognizing flirting between two strangers — a phenomenon most of us have experienced in dark, dingy bars with our friends. Thus, in the second experiment, 261 college-age subjects (185 women and 76 men, some of whom identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual) were shown video footage of the interactions from the first study and were asked to identify whether or not each subject was flirting. It turned out that the observers were worse at recognizing when a subject was not flirting (guessing correctly 66% of the time), but slightly better at spotting flirting when it was happening (with a 38% accuracy rate).
So, while we're pretty good at recognizing a lack of interest on the part of the person we're talking to, we could very well be missing some (not-so-)subtle overtures from potential mates. Although, to be honest, maybe a little mystery is a good thing. Subtlety is probably better than the alternative — after all, who wants to date this guy?