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This Facial Expression Is A Clue That Someone Is Flirting With You, Research Finds

Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Writer
By Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Writer
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, and a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.
Image by RZCREATIVE / Stocksy
October 20, 2020

Try to picture a flirty smile. What do you see?

According to new research from the University of Kansas, the so-called flirty smile might be universally recognizable—and effective. In the study, researchers were able to pinpoint one particular facial expression that's consistently interpreted as flirtatious.

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The 4 ingredients of a flirty smile.

The team based their research on the Facial Action Coding System, which looks at 23 distinct facial movements and their associated emotions. The goal was to figure out which cues indicated a woman was flirting and which facial expressions men interpreted as being flirty.

They took nearly 500 photos of women making happy, neutral, or flirtatious facial expressions, coded all these different expressions using the FACS, and then presented the photos to dozens of men to interpret.

The researchers identified four factors that make a flirtatious expression apparent:

  1. Head turned to one side 
  2. Chin tilted down slightly
  3. A slight smile
  4. Eyes turned forward to gaze at the implied target of flirtation
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Some women were more effective than others at making this flirty face, the researchers noted, and some men were better at recognizing it. But overall, the researchers described this combination of features as "highly recognized flirtatious expressions."

"We found most men were able to recognize a certain female facial expression as representing flirting," study co-author and psychology professor Omri Gillath, Ph.D., said in a news release. "It has a unique morphology, and it's different from expressions that have similar features—for example, smiling—but aren't identified by men as flirting expression."

Notably, the flirtatious look didn't necessarily involve a Duchenne smile, the type of smile that shows in your eyes and is known to be more authentic. These types of smiles may be interpreted as "too happy, potentially resulting in the expression being interpreted as purely friendly," the researchers write in the paper on their findings.

The effect of the flirtatious smile on men.

Once they identified these factors, the team did additional research on the effects of this flirtatious smile. Men who'd seen this particular expression were more attuned to words related to sex, suggesting it's not only recognizable as a flirty look but also effective at making people think about sex.

"For the first time, not only were we able to isolate and identify the expressions that represent flirting, but we were also able to reveal their function—to activate associations related to relationships and sex," Gillath notes.

The bottom line? Nonverbal body language is a thing. Not only do we now know there's a near-universal flirting expression, but we also know it works. So the next time you're flirting with someone, think about the kind of smile you're making. You might want to ditch the friendly smile and opt for the flirtatious grin.

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Sarah Regan
Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Writer

Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, as well as a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.