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Health, psychology & science stories


Courtship and sexual signalling

6 October 2002

Published in The Age

In 1982, two US academics, Monica Moore and Diana Butler, published a now-famous study of women in a singles bar. From the women’s behaviours - “the room-encompassing glance, smiling at a male, smoothing the hair” and so on - Moore and Butler were able to accurately predict those who would be approached by men, and those who would not. Physical attractiveness was a far less reliable predictor of male interest than the women’s “signals”.

“Many studies show that women have more control over the process,” The Age was told by Moore - now Professor of Behavioural and Social Sciences at Webster University in Missouri. It seems males may be the “sexual aggressors” only superficially. It’s women who dictate the real action.

Certainly women have an impressive repertoire of flirting signals. Professor Moore has identified a 52-item catalogue, from “facial mid-head” patterns (glancing, lip-pouting, smiling, and the world-famous hair-flip), “gestures” (primping, caressing, nodding) through to “posture patterns” (teasing, soliciting aid).

Some of this is conscious, Moore said, and some is not. She also hypothesises that women mix positive and negative signals to “pace” interactions with men. Negative signals might include yawning, frowning, sneering, head-shaking, hand-pocketing, arm-folding, holding the trunk rigidly, closing legs tightly, recoiling from contact with the man, nail-cleaning or teeth-picking. Then there’s the dreaded “hair gaze” - always a bad omen on a date - where a women pulls her hair across her face and studies the ends.

Female control of early courtship has probably evolved because sexual encounters have been far more costly for women (pregnancy, child-raising). This female control, in turn, is possibly why researchers have done much more study on women than  men.

For both sexes, sexual signalling begins early. “At or about age 12,” writes Professor Karl Grammer, “girls all over the world begin applying makeup to their faces, while boys roll up their sleeves to reveal the biceps brachii of masculine arms.” Working from Vienna’s Institute for Anthropology, Grammer is one of the world’s best-known human ethologists - ethologists being scientists who study animal behaviour.

In early courtship, things escalate by a series of oft-unconscious physical cues, not by words. “The more you reveal,” Grammer told The Age, “the higher is the possibility of deception and sexual exploitation, when searching for a long-term relationship.” Non-verbal communication, he said, also has the advantage of being “non-binding”. For example after the event a man can say he massaged a woman’s neck for purely altruistic reasons. It’s what the CIA calls “plausible deniability”.

What kicks the whole mating game off, of course, is men noticing women, and vice-versa. It seems the body issues the right instructions at the right time to make this happen: Grammer’s studies tell us that women wear tighter clothing and reveal more skin at the time of ovulation.

Courtship itself is usually initiated by a display - however small - of female interest. A woman then regulates the pace of the interaction through her physical cues - the positive ones ranging from turning toward the male, to synchronising her movements with his.

Other signals along the way include whispering, the object caress (fondling keys or rings) and the skirt hike (to expose more leg). Monica Moore thinks these signals might have a cumulative effect - that is, that a man waits till he has seen a certain number before responding.

If most signals a partner receives are positives, the couple might progress to the intention cue - for instance hands may begin reaching out across a restaurant table in the general direction of the other person.

But the gold standard for denoting serious intent is the first touch: a hand reaching out to touch a neutral body part such as an arm, apparently casually. The first touch may be responded to positively - a head-tilt, returning the touch - or negatively, such as leaning away.

Either way, the first touch “captures full attention,” writes David Givens, of the US Center for Nonverbal Communication. “It is the evolutionary true test of where a partner stands.”

It’s not known how much sexual signalling is innate, and how much is learned. But there are clues. Moore did a study of adolescent girls - titled “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” - and found they have less moves (signals) than women, and their moves were less subtle. But the girls also mimicked the signals of the group’s dominant female (the one who attracted the highest male gaze frequency). In other words the girls started with a rudimentary repertoire, and learned on the job.

Prospective couples have to go through quite an obstacle course before they get to copulate - or, more precisely, before the woman permits this to happen. If they get through stranger anxiety, speech and eye contact, negative cues such as lip compression, or turning the face away too far, can bring things to a halt.

But that isn’t simple either, at least for our species’ historically bewildered males. Karl Grammer’s studies show that females who are “not interested” don’t just send negative signals - their signals are 60% positive and 40% negative. Which  confirms what every man has known since puberty: that women are wilfully confusing in their sexual signalling.

Well, not really. Grammer explains that females actually do this to prevent face-loss in the male: outright rejection might result in aggression.

And all of that, in turn, is complicated by what men think is going on. Martie Haselton, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, has done studies on men’s perceptions of women’s sexual interest in them, and vice-versa. He told The Age that men falsely perceive female sexual interest more often than women perceive it in men. Why?

“My interpretation...is that this bias evolved in men because those ancestral men who erred on the side of assuming sexual interest in women missed fewer sexual opportunities than those who erred in the reverse direction or were accurate.

“It's easy to see how this works in a simple example. Like much of human inference, fire alarms are imperfect systems - they will make errors. The costs of a false positive - a false alarm - are much lower than an false negative - a missed fire. So fire detection systems should be biased toward making false alarms.”

The broader field of non-verbal communication has been documented down to some fine detail now: for example “Ekman and Friesen’s Facial Action Coding system”, and “Berner’s system for decoding muscle movements”. But most modern experts on sexual signalling aren’t too smug about their level of knowledge. Researchers have found vast differences within each sex in signalling behaviours. Big generalisations are unwise.

On top of that, Monica Moore says that one might never know exactly what a particular cue means:

“Signals may have multiple meanings at any one time - for example anxiety and invitation. There is no dictionary for non-verbal behaviours. Context is very important. There is a great deal of room for misunderstanding.”

So what is the way through this wilderness of mirrors for a person seeking a mate? Or simply seeking to discover whether a prospect is interested in him?

There is, Professor Grammer says rather finally, “no chance to find this out. It seems that two bodies negotiate this, and then tell us the truth later.”

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