A study of rhesus macaques indicates that males can tell when females are ovulating but that many can do so only with females they know. Basically, females’ faces change “luminance” when they’re fertile. But males are better at perceiving this change when they know what the female looks like at other times. One of the researchers told the New York Times, “I don’t think these things have been studied in humans.” Au contraire.
Indeed, this study reminds me of research that I performed years ago among salsa dancers at a club in Tucson. No, I didn’t study how ovulation influenced their moves. But I did come to similar conclusion: Dancers couldn’t accurately tell whether their partners were flirting with them – or disrespecting them – unless they had a baseline for comparison.
Without this baseline, miscommunications abounded. For example, many Anglo women failed to notice that many Latino men held them much more closely than they held Latino women. Anglo women typically told me that, while they found the pelvic rubbings unpleasant, Latino men were ‘just like that.’ And some women thought that the dance itself required this kind of contact.
Likewise, men of all sorts frequently misunderstood women’s signals, especially those of relatively friendly women. Men often misinterpreted women’s attempts to be polite as romantic reciprocation. Perhaps if they had noticed that these women were at least as friendly with absolutely everyone else, they would have moved on to another potential mate.
After much further investigation and contemplation, I’ve come to this conclusion: The best clue that Person A has nascent romantic interest in Person B is if A shows an active interest (asking questions, making eyes, stalking, etc.) in B beyond A’s normal level of interest in a similar acquaintance. If A is shy, his or her romantic interest might be less apparent than merely polite interest from an extrovert. So, as with macaques, it helps for humans to have a baseline for comparison.