A Behavior Analytic Perspective on Flirtation and the Complexity of Tacting Repertoires


By Jennifer Wade, PhD

Guest Author

I’ve always been a fan of people watching; any opportunity when I can watch individuals interact with one another has been engaging. My fondness for people watching encompasses every day behaviors such as people meeting for the first time and making small talk to unexpected behaviors such as when a couple has a loud dispute in a very public place such as a shopping mall.

In general, it makes sense for a behavior analyst to enjoy people watching considering we study the science of human behavior. In fact, if it were socially appropriate we’d probably see behavior analysts in public places with tally counters and data sheets to record data on a myriad number of human behaviors. For myself and various colleagues, it’s been a popular assignment to give undergraduates in introductory behavior analysis classes…collect data on some human behavior that occurs in a public place that is measurable and observable. Collection of simple behaviors such as the number of individuals who use the trashcan vs litter can easily be the basis for observation based “studies” by students, graphing projects, or have even served as the basis of a variety of research papers. We’ve all seen the somewhat baffling displays in Whole Foods with exemplar items of what goes in the trash, landfills, and recycling… and if we have the patience to figure out their oh-so-confusing three-bin system maybe we’ve saved a tree.  Even when behavior analysts are not doing so overtly, they may indeed be tracking the behavior of others without any tools (I am guilty of this myself especially when I see someone engage in a specific behavior at a high frequency). We might find ourselves counting the number of “ums” used by someone else, the duration of time an individual checks his phone over a five minute period, or the number of people we pass on the walk to the train station.

As a huge fan of people watching, and of verbal behavior, I found myself inevitably fascinated by phenomena such as rallying at sports events, observing family dynamics of others at the grocery store, but most of all I am intrigued by the opportunity to observe the first date. There are so many interesting aspects of a first date and of the phenomena we label as flirtation. First, it’s important to acknowledge physical attractiveness. This may serve as a motivating operation altering both the likeliness of and intensity of the flirtatious act. It is not at all surprising to observe two individuals of approximately the same attractiveness level on a date engaging in flirtatious behavior. However, the situation becomes much more interesting when one individual is much more attractive than the other. Behaviorally speaking, what makes an individual able to consistently date individuals more attractive than him/herself? In behavior analysis speak, what verbal behavior does he/she engage in that the rest of us may not be participating as part of a more dynamic and complex verbal repertoire?  At the end of the day, does flirtation, and the very success of a first date, depend much on one’s persuasion skills? So, if even in the moment, successful flirtation is a type of persuasion that enables both participants to engage in the verbal episode longer than if flirtation were not successful. While the space here does not allow an in-depth look into what may be successful flirtation, I certainly can provide a behavior analytic interpretation of some basic tendencies of what successful flirtation is and is not…

What flirtation is…

  • We cannot rely on a simple analysis of the speaker to discern if flirtation is successful. Flirtation is best measured as the interaction of the speaker and the listener rather than a summary of the speaker’s intent. If “you must be tired because you have been running through my head all day” is met with rolled eyes, it isn’t successful flirtation. On the other hand, if it is invited with the comeback, “I don’t know…I can go all day ” it is successful flirtation (we could assume…it at least keeps the conversation going regardless of the cheese factor).
  • There are not pre-emptive rules that are exhaustive for participants in a flirtatious act…the “flirts”; rather both flirts must rely on the context and both the entire (molar) interaction and the more recent aspects (molecular) of the interaction such as each turn in the conversation. Therefore, in analysis we are looking at both the big picture of the entire interaction and small snippets simultaneously. Sabini and Silver (1982) perhaps had it right when they said that flirtation was like a game of chess.
  • To bring in Skinner’s (1957) verbal operants, flirtation is complex and certainly involves a combination of the verbal operants…mands, tacts, intraverbals, and autoclitics. For those less familiar with autoclitics, they are secondary verbal operants that modify other verbal behavior or the behavior of the listener. Consider the following example: if the tact, “you are pretty” resulted in a “thank you” from the listener but the autoclitic tact, “you are so pretty” resulted in flirtation from the listener, we would say that the “so” modification had an autoclitic function (changed the listener’s behavior). It is also appropriate to consider verbal operants of the listener (Zettle & Hayes, 1982) such as the general acknowledgement a listener provides in response to a tact (tracking) or the specific reinforcer a listener provides in response to a mand (pliance).
  • There is not a simple formula for varying verbal operants or “types of statements” when engaging in a flirtatious episode. One could compare a flirtatious act to something along the lines of spin selling, whereby we can qualitatively alter the value of mands to be of more interest to the recipient but there is no simple formula for how many mands, tacts, intraverbals, autoclitics, etc. to use.

We have all seen journal articles on positive results. What something is not is rarely published. After the preceding brief summary of what flirtation is, I want to spend a little more time elaborating on what it is not.

What flirtation certainly is not…

Many of our interactions with others start with common features of the environment as the basis for the interaction. For example, we will commonly resort to talking about the weather when the situation becomes “uncomfortable” or we may spend unnecessary amounts of time tacting different features of the environment such as “it’s so loud in here” or “I love the décor” or “I’ve never seen a restaurant with such a nice patio.”  When conducting research on flirtation (yes, I was lucky enough to do this, and I didn’t need to awkwardly hover over my participants with data sheets or tally counters) I found that many of the statements emitted by individuals engaging in speed-dating were simply tacts. Participants consented to audio and video recording of their speed-dating interactions at a research based speed-dating event that I hosted at a major University (Wade, 2013).

While we could label all of the small talk between participants as intraverbals, this doesn’t differentiate verbal operants in a fashion that sheds any light on what makes for successful conversation or flirtation vs what contributes to a “train-wreck.”  I shuttered to listen to and watch such train-wreck situations in the aftermath; even knowing the participants had seven awkward minutes of interaction at maximum, I felt a bit of empathy for those who were clearly not succeeding in keeping conversation going with speed-dating partners.

During my event, there were individuals who were always rated “yes” by other participants for wanting to talk again and being interested in getting a phone number. Conversely, there were participants that were always rated “no” by other participants. Here, I’d like to discuss the pattern of behavior characteristic with the always “no” ratings. These individuals lacked the ability to be able to adequately tact aspects of the environment around them. One participant, sadly always rated “no” by others, stated, “I’m glad we’re sitting right now and not having to walk around.” By itself, this tact is fine. It could logically lead to a joke about how weird it would be to be standing with audio recording equipment nearby or how sitting at least approximated speed-dating in the outside world or many other at least semi-probable statements given the initial tact (ingredients for a sensible intraverbal that follows). Instead, “I’m glad we’re sitting right now and not having to walk around” was followed by “because I have to walk around a lot when I buss tables” and “I really had to walk around a lot when I was in marching band.” Needless to say, there was little tracking (evidence of listening) of these faulty tacts from the speed-dating partner, and there were many periods of awkward silence. Let’s call this unsuccessful speed-dater George.

By far, George used more tacts than any other verbal operant, which lead to improbable intraverbals or additional dysfunctional tacts. Skinner (1957) introduces the term runaway intraverbal briefly in Verbal Behavior (much like a runaway train, intraverbals are linked together bearing little relevance to one another in the case of a runaway intraverbal) but perhaps we should consider the possibility of the runaway tact (or inadequate tact that contributes to the runaway intraverbal).

In today’s world we often take a paraphrase of an earlier tact to be truth. For example, when we ask an individual what he/she ate for breakfast, we do not doubt the answer “cornflakes” when it seems feasible enough. Perhaps this is because of the difficulty of verifying the accuracy of the tact when only part of the audience had contact with the initial nonverbal stimulus; in a case where an individual reports “cornflakes,” this answer may be maintained by a community that is health conscious and more likely to react favorably to the answer “cornflakes” than “donuts.” I recall a friend that ate healthy choice dinner meals for breakfast, and when reporting this to be the case because he found them to be more filling than the conventional breakfast items, people looked at him strangely; however, this in fact was the “truth.”

It seems that a more important ingredient rather than accuracy for tacting may be the theorized probability or feasibility of the tact from another’s perspective (or how in line it is with others’ “expectations”). One could argue this to be an intraverbal; however, it is also paraphrase of an earlier tact even if the tact occurred covertly. At the end of the day, as simplistic as tacts may seem to be for the general public, choosing the most context-appropriate tacts for a situation that are high probability tacts for others may be key in successful flirtation.

How have you applied the science of behavior to successful flirting?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!



Skinner, B.F. (1957).  Verbal Behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Wade, J. A. (2013). Analyzing “word games:” complex functions of language during traditional face-to-
face speed-dating and online speed-dating events. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Temple
University, Philadelphia, PA.

Zettle, R. D., & Hayes, S. C. (1982). Rule governed behavior: A potential theoretical framework for cognitive behavior therapy. In P. C. Kendall (Ed.), Advances in cognitive behavioral research and therapy (pp. 73-118). New York: Academic Press.

Link to interesting article on flirtation: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/246974326_Nonverbal_courtship_patterns_in_women_Context_and_consequences


Jennifer A. Wade, PhD earned her Doctorate at Temple University working with Phil Hineline, PhD and Don Hantula, PhD. The study of verbal behavior during online and traditional speed-dating was the basis for her dissertation. She is currently working on a book that provides insights on a science of flirtation in addition to publishing various results from this dissertation work. She has taught at Temple University, Rowan University, and University of North Texas. Currently, she serves as the Executive Director of ABA Services in North Texas for Epic Developmental Services.  You can contact Dr. Wade at jwademarchini@gmail.com.

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