The Truth Behind Flirting & Your Self-Esteem

Photographed By Lauren Perlstein.
How do our self-esteem levels influence the way we flirt?

Researchers set out to answer
this question. They hypothesized that because people with high self-esteem tend to worry less about being rejected, they would express their romantic interest directly when wanting to start a relationship. For example, they might ask the other person out on a date. The researchers hypothesized that people with low self-esteem, on the other hand, would express their interest indirectly — that they would merely hint, by giving someone "the look," a.k.a. "bedroom eyes" — just in case the object of their affection didn't feel the same way. The researchers also wanted to know what happens if the risk (i.e., uncertainty about the flirtation's outcome) is reduced. That is, do the self-esteem differences in behavior persist when risk is low? Or do they disappear?

Related: How Does Rejection Affect Self-Esteem? 

The researchers conducted two studies of heterosexual men and women. The participants were all evaluated and given a self-esteem score according to Rosenberg's Self-Esteem Inventory. In the first study, college students wrote about a time when they had asked someone out and were rejected. They then used a checklist to note which behaviors they used to initiate the relationship (e.g., kissing the other person) and rated how risky they thought their behaviors were. The behaviors on the checklist varied from direct (e.g., directly asking the other person out) to indirect (e.g., waiting for the other person to make a move).

In the second study, participants who were single made a video where they answered questions about themselves (similar to video personal ads). They were led to believe that someone of the opposite sex was watching the video and would make a response video.
Further, participants were either led to believe that they could meet the other person if that person wanted to meet them (which researchers deemed a high risk of rejection), or that they had no chance of meeting in person (low risk). Research assistants later watched each video and noted how direct participants were in their expressions of interest towards the other person. For example, assistants noted whether participants said they wanted to meet (a direct behavior).

Results were the same for both studies. Researchers found that men with high self-esteem who thought there was a high risk of rejection used more direct flirting techniques than did men with lower self-esteem —  no surprises there. However, when the risk of rejection was low, men with low self-esteem used more direct flirting than the high self-esteem men did. The low-self-esteem men were also more direct in the low-risk situation than they had been when they thought the risk was high. So, these guys could flirt — they just needed the right situation.

If women thought the risk of rejection was low, their flirting was more direct — regardless of their self-esteem levels. Of course, it's possible that if the context were different (e.g., if looking at same-sex flirtations among a non-heterosexual group of participants), women’s behaviors might parallel men's. 

TL;DR: Anyone can flirt; you just need the right setting.

Next: When You Should Be Using Pick-Up Lines 

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