Your Self-Esteem Affects When and How You Flirt

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So you’re browsing through Cosmopolitan reading article after article promising useful dating advice. You then decide to create an online profile for a dating site, with the hope that online dating will help you meet someone new. What you don’t realize is that looking at those article titles, combined with the current state of your self-esteem, may have just influenced what you include on your dating profile. 

Research indicates that self-esteem affects people’s motivation and behavior in situations where both the potential for rewards and costs are present. An example of such a situation is asking someone out on a date: There’s both the potential for the reward of acceptance and the cost of rejection. However, it is unclear whether self-esteem is sensitive to rewards, costs, or both. To find out, researchers examined how subtle reminders of rewards or costs and self-esteem affect people’s motivation to start a relationship. In the first study, participants sorted words that were related to either rewards (e.g., win) or costs (e.g., fail), or were neutral (e.g., opera). Participants then filmed a video introducing themselves to someone they thought was in the next room. Afterwards, they watched a video (actually a prerecorded tape) of the person they thought was in the other room and reported how flirty the other person came across in the video. 

People with lower self-esteem perceived more flirty behaviors than people with higher self-esteem after sorting reward-related words (win!) and compared to when they sorted cost-related words (fail!). In contrast, people with higher self-esteem perceived more flirty behaviors than people with lower self-esteem after sorting cost-related words and compared to when they sorted reward-related words. In other words, people were more likely to notice flirting when they were in certain conditions, and which condition they were more likely to notice it depended on their self-esteem. Contrary to what some might think, people with lower self-esteem aren’t always oblivious to flirting cues: When reminded of rewards, they notice even more flirting than people with higher self-esteem. 

In the second study, participants viewed dating-book titles focused on attaining rewarding relationships (e.g., Become Your Own Matchmaker: 8 Easy Steps for Attracting Your Perfect Mate) or avoiding costly relationships (e.g., How to Avoid Falling in Love With Mr. or Miss Wrong). These same participants then created a dating profile. They also imagined that they were going on a date and had to choose from a list of date conversation topics. 

Consistent with the first study, people with lower self-esteem chose more intimate conversation topics after viewing book titles focused on attaining rewards versus when they viewed book titles focused on avoiding costs. In contrast, people with higher self-esteem chose more intimate conversation topics after viewing book titles focused on avoiding costs versus when they viewed book titles focused on attaining rewards. Furthermore, higher self-esteem individuals created profiles that were more expressive (i.e., more positive) than lower self-esteem individuals after viewing book titles focused on avoiding costs. This expressivity led others to view their profiles as more appealing than the profiles of people with lower self-esteem. So, people with lower self-esteem were more motivated to start a relationship when reminded of rewards, whereas people with higher self-esteem were more motivated when reminded of costs.

In a second set of studies, participants again filmed a video introducing themselves to someone they thought was in the next room. When reminded about the potential costs of meeting someone new (e.g., rejection), people with lower self-esteem behaved coolly (e.g., crossed their legs, looked away), whereas people with higher self-esteem weren’t as cool. Participants’ behavior influenced how much others liked them, with people liking those with higher self-esteem more than those with lower self-esteem. It appears that people with lower self-esteem put up a shield when reminded of potential costs, likely as a way of protecting themselves. This strategy has the unfortunate effect of leading to the rejection they’re trying to protect themselves from in the first place. 

The take-home message of these studies is that when looking to start a relationship, people with lower self-esteem do better when reminded of potential rewards whereas people with higher self-esteem do better when reminded of potential costs. If you’re trying to set up a friend who you think has low self-esteem with someone who really likes him or her, it may be best to remind him or her of all the benefits of relationships and to make the other person’s affections obvious. 

This post first appeared on Science of Relationships.

Your Self-Esteem Affects When and How You Flirt