Neurochemical Changes During the Initial Stages of Online Flirtation       

Dopamine, oxytocin, testosterone, and estrogen are released when we flirt, flirting effectively, why people flirt, synced behaviour and long-term relationships.  

What is flirting, actually?

Whether online or offline, flirting goes with the same neurochemical changes in 2024 as it did when it originated as a mating ritual 500 million years ago. Pleasure and fear intertwine in flirting. The ritual today shares two messages: “I’m interested in you” and “Don’t be afraid.” Flirting is successful when you show a moderate level of interest – enough to attract attention, but not so much as to scare the person away. 

Both men and women experience a surge of the hormone dopamine during flirting. Vasopressin is important to men, accounting for the physical aspect of attraction. For women, oxytocin plays an important role in building trust. 

When someone flirts with you, your sympathetic nervous system is triggered – signs of this are a racing heart, sweaty palms, an increase in blood pressure, and blushing. Blood flows away from the digestive system, which is behind the butterflies in your stomach.

What about the impact of flirting? Researchers tried to discover the most effective flirting strategy. 1000 students in Norway and the US were asked to rate the effectiveness of 40 different types of flirting for a short—or long-term relationship. Humor was the one approach that almost always worked for everyone to some extent. For men and women, giggling or laughing at the other person’s jokes was the most effective flirtation tactic. 

Hormones and chemicals released during flirting 

Romantic love has three stages: lust, attraction, and attachment. The process of flirting is part of the first stage. The need for sexual gratification drives lust, and the hypothalamus plays a critical role in this. This is an organ in the brain that stimulates the production of oxytocin, testosterone from the testes, and estrogen from the ovaries. Both of these chemicals play a role in men and women. In fact, testosterone strengthens everyone’s sex drive. Estrogen’s effects aren’t as strong, but some women report being most aroused when they are ovulating when estrogen levels are at their highest. 

Studies have shown that people in the early stage of romantic love have much higher levels of oxytocin than people who are not “courting.” Positive communication, gazing, and processing bonding cues are also among oxytocin’s potentially relationship-enhancing effects. 

When you meet someone online, hormonal and neurochemical effects may not be as pronounced as in person, but they definitely still exist. Flirty questions like these will enhance them: 

  • Do you have a go-to pick-up line?
  • What’s your idea of the perfect date?
  • What do you find the most attractive about other people?
  • How do you know you really like someone?

On the subject of flirty conversations, university professor D. Henningsen asked 200 students to make up a flirty conversation between a man and a woman and explain what motivated them to write what they did. Male students’ motivation was much more likely to be sexual, and female students’ motivation tended to be relationship-related.

According to data from recent PET scans, flirting also activates the parts of the brain that release dopamine and other “feel-good” chemicals. Dopamine and serotonin contribute to feelings of happiness. When two people are mutually attracted, their brains release dopamine, and their serotonin levels increase. This makes them feel happier, but neurochemical changes aren’t necessarily visible. In a study of 100 heterosexual strangers talking, just 38 realized someone was flirting with them. 

Behavior synchronicity as a factor 

A 2023 study showed that activation of neural systems for desire and arousal mediates attention and synchrony in the process of initial attraction. These systems also recognize and mimic physical movements individuals make. Behavior synchronicity strengthens bonding, attraction, and the display of common motor patterns. Nonverbal behavior becomes asynchronous as relationships falter.The attention and motivation systems at play when we flirt include the mesolimbic system, which releases dopamine; arousal systems releasing noradrenaline; and pleasure and reward systems behind endorphins. All of these systems interact and play a key role for emotional and behavioral synchrony (when you smile, your partner smiles back). People with synchronous behavior are more likely to develop a long-term relationship.

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