DRMacIver's Notebook

Vampire bats as a model for flirting

Vampire bats as a model for flirting

Because everything is a teachable moment and all knowledge is connected, I'm now going to explain why the social behaviour of vampire bats tells us important things about flirting.

Disclaimer: I am bad at flirting. I've got a lot better at it recently, but I am definitely not good at it. This is a post based on the process of my becoming less bad at it. Fortunately that's apparently the perfect time to write about such things.

Anyway, before we talk about flirting, lets talk about vampire bats. Vampire bats know sharing blood with friends is good manners, and this is how flirting works too. Well, flirting rarely involves the sharing of blood except for at very specific sorts of parties that I do not get invited to, but the general principle is sound.

The way vampire bats share blood between non-kin is that they start by grooming. If that's reciprocated, they maybe share a little bit of blood. If that too is reciprocated, they share more, and so on. They build trust by repeatedly offering slightly more than was previously offered, and waiting to see if it's reciprocated. This is called a raising-the-stakes game. The general strategy is described in Development of cooperative relationships through increasing investment, although I confess to not actually having read it yet.

This is also how flirting works.

I previously wrote about sexiness and the process of attraction:

Experiencing someone as sexy is about fascination. You see something about them, and it draws you in, and makes you want to learn more about them and to explore it. It makes you want more of it.

Skillfull flirting is about mutually cooperating to escalate this fascination. You exhibit interest, to see if it is reciprocated, and you progressively dance your way through this back and forth, each of you expressing some interest and seeing how the other responds to it. If they don't, you back off (or at least stop escalating and stay at the currently comfortable level). If they do, you escalate further.

Eventually, if you both want it to, you've each drawn the other in enough that it becomes time to make the fascination more explicit, either by action (e.g. kissing) or talking about it, but this doesn't have to happen. Flirtation is about escalating fascination, but you don't have to keep escalating, you can just have fun with it at whatever level you like.

This can go wrong in three major ways.

The first is that you can just mess it up. Unskillful performance of flirting is incompetent, and thus unsexy, so may turn the other party off and lose the fascination. (If you're lucky and they're into you it may be adorable rather than unsexy, which has some chance of success. If I'm honest this is historically the most successful flirting strategy I have adopted).

The second, is that you may lack the skills of picking up on interest. This is particularly true if you struggle to conceive of yourself as attractive (you miss interest that is there). It can also be true if you read interest that is not there (men are often bad at this - I've heard it said that men tend to overinterpret friendliness as flirting and women tend to overinterpret flirting as friendliness), but that tends to lead to unskillful performance.

The third, and is the way I have personally failed at this until recently, is that you can be bad at showing interest you actually feel.

If attraction is fascination, then flirting is a process by which you create attraction. Usually it starts from some initial seed, but it can go down as well as up - if your attraction is very obviously not reciprocated, it will tend to diminish (this isn't always true, and there are some ways the opposite can play out, but they tend to be predicated on both a high level of initial attraction and the possibility in principle of it being reciprocated).

A consequence of that is this is that unless you are in some way extraordinarily attractive, unless you can demonstrate the attraction you feel towards others, they will probably not exhibit much attraction to you. If you find yourself in a situation where people just don't seem to find you attractive, consider whether that might be what's going on.