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Language of Love

For Man and Beast, Language of Love Shares Many Traits

By Daniel Goleman
New York Times

With the same ethological methods they have long used in studies of animals, scientists are turning their attention to the nuances of human courtship rituals-otherwise known as flirting.

By turning the ethologist's lens on human courtship, scientists are finding striking similarities with other species, suggesting that the nonverbal template used by Homo sapiens for attracting and approaching a prospective mate is to some extent part of a larger, shared animal heritage.

A woman parades past a crowded bar to the woman's room, hips swaying, eyes resting momentarily on a likely man and then coyly looking away just as she notices his look. This scenario exemplifies a standard opening move in courtship, getting attention, said Dr. David Givens, an anthropologist in Washington who is writing a book about evolution and behavior. "In the first phase of courting, humans broadcast widely a nonverbal message that amounts to 'notice me,'" said Dr. Givens. "They'll do it through movement, through their dress, through gesture."

From hundreds of hours of observations in bars and at parties, Dr. Givens discovered that women, more than men, tend to promenade, making numerous trips to the woman's room, for instance, both to scout and to be seen.

A second nonverbal message in this earliest stage is "I am harmless," Dr. Givens has found. The gestures and postures humans use to send this message are shared with other mammals, particularly primates. Charles Darwin, who noted the same gestures in his 1872 book, "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals," called them "submissive displays."

Perhaps the first serious study of flirting was done in the 1960's by Dr. Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, an eminent ethologist at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. Dr. Eibl-Eibesfeldt traveled to cultures around the world with a camera that took pictures from the side so he could stand near couples and take their pictures without their realizing they were being observed. In research in Samoa, Brazil, Paris, Sydney and New York, Dr. Eibl-Eibesfeldt discovered an apparently universal human vocabulary for flirting and courtship.

In humans, one such gesture is a palm-up placement of the hand, whether on a table or a knee, a reassuring sign of harmlessness. Another submissive display is the shoulder shrug, which, ethologists suggest, derives from an ancient vertebrate reflex, a posture signifying helplessness. A posture combining the partly shrugged shoulder and a tilted head-which displays the vulnerability of the neck-is commonly seen when two people who are sexually drawn to each other are having their first conversation, Dr. Givens said.

Being playful and childish is another way potential lovers often communicate harmlessness. "You see the same thing in the gray wolf," said Dr. Givens.

When wolves encounter each other, they usually give a show of dominance, keeping their distance. But in a sexual encounter, they become playful and frisky, "like puppies," said Dr. Givens, "so they can accept closeness." The next step is a mutual show of submission, all of which paves the way for physical intimacy.

"We still go through the ritual of courtship much like our mammalian ancestors," said Dr. Givens. "These same gestures are subcortical, regulated by the more primitive part of our brain. They have nothing to do with the intellect, with our great neocortex."

The nonverbal repertoire for flirting is "part of a natural sequence for courtship worldwide," said Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University in Brunswick, N.J., and author of "The Anatomy of Love" (Fawcett, 1993). "Mothers don't teach this to their daughters."

In the long view of evolution, courtship is less about romance than about genetic fitness, the struggle to pass on the maximal number of one's own genes to future generations.

"In evolutionary terms, the payoff for each sex in parental investment differs: to produce a child a woman has an obligatory nine-month commitment, while for a man it's just one sexual act," said Dr. David Buss, a psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and author of "The Evolution of Desire" (Basic Books, 1994). "For men in evolutionary terms what pays is sexual access to a wide variety of women, while for women it's having a man who will commit time and resources to helping raise children."

From this view, the coyness of courtship is a way to "test a prospective partner for commitment," said Dr. Jane Lancaster, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "Women, in particular, need to be sure they're not going to be deserted."

Coyness is not seen in species where the female does not need the sustained help or resources of a male to raise her young, said Dr. Lancaster. In species where a single act of copulation is the only contact a female requires with the father of her young, "there's a direct assertion of sexual interest by the female," said Dr. Lancaster.

But in species where two parents appreciably enhance the survival of offspring, "females don't want to mate with a male who will abandon them," said Dr. Lancaster. In such species, "the courtship dances are coy, a test to see if the male is willing to persist and pursue or simply wants a momentary dalliance," she said. "Instead of the female simply getting in a posture for mating, she repeats a promise-withdraw sequence, getting in the mating posture and then moving away."

In humans, flirtatious looks imitate this sequence. The coy look a woman gives a man is the beginning of a continuing series of approach-withdraw strategies that will unfold over the course of their courtship. These feminine strategems signal the man, "I'm so hard to win that if you do win me you won't have to worry about me getting pregnant by another male," said Dr. Lancaster.

A taxonomy of 52 "nonverbal solicitation behaviors" observed in flirting women has been garnered by Dr. Monica Moore, a psychologist at Webster University in St. Louis. In her research, conducted in singles bars, shopping malls and other places young people go to meet those of the opposite sex, Dr. Moore has found that the women who send flirtatious signals most frequently are most likely to be approached by men-even more so than are women who are rated as more attractive.

"It's not who's most physically appealing," said Dr. Moore, "but the woman who's signaling availability that men approach."

Flirting is the opening gambit in a continuing series of negotiations at every step of the way in courtship. Indeed, the first negotiation point is signaled by the flirtatious look itself.

"When a man is looking at a woman and she senses it, her first decision is, 'Do I have further interest in him?'" said Dr. Beverly Palmer, a psychologist at California State University in Dominguez Hills who has studied flirting. "If so, by flirting she sends the next signal: 'I'm interested in you, and yes, you can approach me.'"

Once the conversation begins, there is "a major escalation point," said Dr. Fisher.

"The woman has a whole new basis for judging the man," she said. "A large number of prospective pickups end here."

Though men may say they are well aware of the tentativeness of flirting, Dr. Buss's findings suggest a male tendency-at least among college-age men-toward wishful thinking in interpreting flirtatious looks. In settings where men and women go to meet someone of the opposite sex, Dr. Buss said, "we find that when you ask men what it means for a woman to smile at them, they interpret it as a sexual invitation."

"But when you ask women what it means," he continued, "they'll say it just indicates she wants to get to know him better."

In interviews with 208 college-age men and women published this month in The Journal of Sex Research, Dr. Buss and colleagues found that when it comes to seduction, "the sexual signals that work for women backfire for men."

"There's a huge sex difference in how effective different tactics are," he added.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the research showed that for women, direct sexual approaches-dressing seductively, dancing close, staring into a man's eyes-worked well in leading to sexual contact. But for men similar direct strategies were failures.

Instead, for men the less overtly seductive tried-and-true romantic strategems fared best. "For men the most effective approaches are displays of love and commitment," said Dr. Buss. "Telling her he really loves her, that he cares and is committed. (February 14, 1995, C1)

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