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Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.

Body Language and Physical Attraction

Quick Access:
Relation Between Body Language and Physical Attraction

What is the relation between body language and physical attraction?


There’s actually a strong relation between body language and physical attraction, as flirting expert Dr. Monica Moore of Webster University has discussed many times in print and in the media. There’s also a long history of research into the subject. In the early 70s, fieldwork by investigators like Birdwhistell(1) and Morris(11) set the stage. Birdwhistell drew comparisons between the courting behavior of humans and other species. In fact, he saw the behavior of American adolescents as much like the courtship dance of the wild turkey or peacock! Birdwhistell suggested 24 steps from initial male/female contact to a fully intimate, sexual relationship and a sequence to those steps. Interestingly, it appeared to him that it was most often the girl who was responsible for the first move. In contrast, Morris proposed 12 steps that couples in Western culture go through from initial contact through intimacy. He indicated that the steps have an order that usually is followed in female/male relationships. The steps are as follows:

1) eye to body
2) eye to eye
3) voice to voice
4) hand to hand
5) arm to shoulder
6) arm to waist
7) mouth to mouth
8) hand to head
9) hand to body
10) mouth to breast
11) hand to genitals, and
12) genitals to genitals or mouth to genitals.

One who skips steps or fails to respond to a step may be seen as fast or slow. He agreed with Birdwhistell that it was the woman who most often regulated the movement from step to step.

Eibl-Eibesfeldt(3) used two approaches to describe flirting behavior in people from diverse cultural backgrounds. Using a camera fitted with right angle lenses to film people without their knowledge, he found that an eyebrow flash combined with a smile was a common courtship behavior. Secondly, through comments made to women, Eibl-Eibesfeldt was able to elicit the “coy glance” – an expression combining a half smile and lowered eyes. There’s a striking amount of agreement between his findings what Monica Moore has observed in American women. Indeed, Eibl-Eisesfeldt has a picture of a Himban woman demonstrating the coy glance that’s virtually identical to the same signal used by American women. Looking at a variety of cultures he found flirting to be prevalent and very much the same the world over. In his studies(3), Eibl-Eibesfeldt found that people attracted to one another also made small touching movements, moved closer together than normal, nodded in agreement, used their hands to emphasize points, moistened their lips often and held the other’s gaze.

Kendon and Ferber(6) reported a few nonverbal courtship behaviors such as smiling, making eye contact and touching as part of the rituals that surrounded greetings at social events, such as a party. Although their primary intent was to document greeting rituals, they observed the above behaviors in both men and women. Kendon(5) then covertly filmed a couple seated on a park bench in order to record the role of facial expressions during a kissing round. He discovered that it was the woman’s behavior, particularly her facial expressions, that functioned as a determinate in modulating the behavior of the man. Similarly, other research(2) showed that it was the woman’s behavior that was important in initiating conversation between strangers. Both in laboratory settings and in singles’ bars or dance clubs, conversation was initiated only after the woman glanced at the man more than once. He argued that experienced men looked for the woman who signaled her interest in them and that her glances and smiles, in essence, granted them permission to start a conversation.

Working in the field, Givens(4) described four cases of courtship behavior observed by him to document, in unacquainted adults, five phases of courtship: attention, recognition, interaction, sexual arousal, and resolution. In contrast to Givens, Lockard and Adams(7) worked with a large number of established couples of various ages and cataloged courtship behavior on the basis of age and gender. They covertly observed people in recreational settings such as shopping malls and zoos and described nonverbal behaviors such as kissing, hand linking, embracing, self-grooming, gazing, smiling, laughing, food sharing, touching and playing. Other investigators(8) also used the observation of public courtship as their method for isolating and describing nonverbal signaling. Although they worked with adult strangers meeting for the first time in social situations (singles’ bars) that were popular places for interacting with members of the opposite sex, they listed behaviors similar to those observed by Givens(4) and Lockard and Adams(7).

Researchers like Moore(9), Perper(12) and Walsh and Hewitt(13) observed unsuspecting men and women in dance clubs as well. In a study of eye contact and smiling, using confederates(13), men were found to be much more likely to approach a woman if she first made repeated eye contact followed by smiling. The researchers noted that this indicated that men first need encouragement before they will approach a woman. Perper’s naturalistic observations(12) documented the phases of early courtship behavior:

1) the approach of one stranger to another,
2) turn, first with the head, followed by the shoulders and torso, and finally the whole body,
3) touch, at first quickly withdrawn, then perhaps lingering longer and with increasing frequency, and
4) the steady development of body synchronization.

Monica Moore’s own research(9) focused on the nonverbal courtship behaviors of women as initiators of the courtship process. Through the covert observation of over 200 women during more than 100 hours, Moore compiled a catalog of 52 female courtship behaviors. The catalog included such behaviors as glancing, primping, smiling, nodding, kissing, leaning forward and soliciting help. In a later study(10), Moore found that female courtship behavior was so striking that a trained observer could use its frequency to predict with a high degree of accuracy the outcome of interactions between men and women! In addition, the frequency of signaling appeared to be the more important factor in eliciting approaches from men, overriding such attributes as physical attractiveness. Although a high signaling, beautiful woman would be the most likely to be approached by the man she had been signaling, a high signaling average attractiveness woman would be much more likely to be approached than her low signaling, beautiful counterpart. In other words, nonverbal “go” signals are more powerful in promoting action from an admirer than mere physical beauty alone. So, you can see that body language is a tremendously important aspect of attraction.

Men, do not jump the gun here….courtship isn’t made up of a single meeting of the eyes. A woman could be looking at a man standing nearby or merely looking for someone she knows. It’s also the case that courtship is a process, not a unitary event. Courtship signaling involves repeated nonverbal indications of attraction on the part of both partners. So if a woman in a club makes repeated eye contact, while moving her body to the beat of the music, all the while laughing and touching her hair, it may just be that she’s interested in a particular man or men. At least, that may be true for the moment. But the presence of these behaviors doesn’t guarantee that she’ll continue to be attracted. Each member of the courting couple gets the opportunity to decide periodically if s/he wants to move onto the next phase. If that’s the case, the behaviors that women use early to signal their initial interest, are later replaced with more intimate gestures.

There are several tips I give men based on the issues above. If you’re unclear if a woman is signaling you or your friend, move to another part of the room and see if she finds you and begins the process all over. Secondly, look for a number of indications of interest in you displayed across time. Thirdly, respect a woman’s right to change her mind, just as you retain the right to change your. A man may be well aware that a woman would like for him to ask her to dance, but refuse to approach her because he doesn’t find her attractive, he’s involved with someone else or a number of other reasons. Similarly, a man may sit down at a woman’s table with her and share a drink, only to find that something she says turns him off. Women also find themselves in the position of originally being attracted to someone, only to find somewhere along the way that that is no longer the case.

It’s helpful to view the above examples or similar situations as saving one’s valuable time and energy rather than be embarrassed or take it personally and be angry or depressed. Remember that all aspects of dating and relationships – including learning to read body language and attraction – are learning experiences.


(1) Birdwhistell, R. L. (1970). Kinesics and context. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

(2) Cary, M. S. (1976). Talk? Do you want to talk? Negotiation for the initiation of conversation between the unacquainted. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Pennsylvania.

(3) Eibl-Eibesfeldt, I. (1971). Love and hate. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

(4) Givens, D. (1978).The nonverbal basis of attraction: Flirtation, courtship, and seduction. Psychiatry, 41, 346-359.

(5) Kendon, A. (1975). Some functions of the face in a kissing round. Semiotica, 15, 299-334.

(6) Kendon, A., & Ferber, A. (1973). A description of some human greetings. In R. P. Michael & J. H. Crook (Eds.), Comparative ecology and behavior of primates (pp. 558-592). London: Academic Press.

(7) Lockard, J. S., & Adams, R. M. (1980). Courtship behaviors in public: Different age/sex roles. Ethology and Sociobiology, 1, 245-253.

(8) McCormick, N. B., Perper, T., & Jones, A. J. (1983, April). Bar hopping as science: Results and methodological issues related to naturalistic observational research in bars. Paper presented at the Eastern Region Conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex, Philadelphia.

(9) Moore, M. M. (1985). Nonverbal courtship patterns in women: Context and consequences. Ethology and Sociobiology, 6, 237-247.

(10) Moore, M. M., & Butler, D. L. (1989). Predictive aspects of nonverbal courtship behavior in women. Semiotica, 3, 205-215.

(11) Morris, D. (1971). Intimate behavior. New York: Random House.

(12) Perper, T. (1985). Sex signals: The biology of love. Philadelphia: ISI Press.

(13) Walsh, D. G., & Hewitt, J. (1985). Giving men the come-on: Effect of eye contact and smiling in a bar environment. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 61, 873-874.

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