The confidence level of students or employees may be lowered -- especially if they're women -- when professors, business supervisors or others in positions of power flirt with them, two Kansas University researchers say.
In their study, two psychology researchers found that women's self-confidence falls when supervisors flirt with them.
"I think all of us are constantly evaluating how we are doing, and we use other people to do that," said Charlene Muehlenhard, associate professor of psychology and of women's studies.
"Women who were in the flirtatious group tended to think of themselves as being less creative ... because they felt they were being judged on their appearance and not their abilities."
Two studies on flirtation were conducted by Muehlenhard and psychology graduate Art Satterfield in 1989 and 1991 as part of Satterfield's master's thesis.
In both studies, dozens of KU undergraduate students in introductory psychology courses were asked to take part in a voluntary study about creativity.
Students who participated in the studies were interviewed by an "advertising executive," played by other psychology students.
In the first study, 56 women were interviewed; in the second study, there were 50 men and 61 women.
The women were interviewed by a male ad executive; men by a female ad executive.
Students portraying executives asked participants identical questions about creativity during the interview and asked them to fill out a questionnaire rating their own creativity.
Women were asked to design an advertisement for a new perfume called "Silk" and men were asked to make a design for a new cologne called "Suede."
The ad executives flirted with half of the students and were neutral with the other half. The flirtation included prolonged handshakes, extended eye contact, extended smiling, a wink, small talk and the compliment, "you have beautiful eyes."
Other research students observed the interviews through a one-way window to ensure integrity of the study.
After the students completed their projects, they again met with the ad executive, who gave them identical positive feedback about their designs, saying, "To tell you the truth, this is one of the best designs I've seen so far. You must be a very creative person."
The students then were asked to fill out a questionnaire rating the creativity of their designs.
The results showed that women who had neutral interviewers gave their designs an average rating of 3.31 on a scale of 1 (not at all creative) to 6 (very creative).
The women who were the object of flirtation had a average score of 2.97 on the same scale.
The flirtatious group also had lower average scores when asked about their creativity levels.
Although the studies did not directly involve the classroom, the researchers say it has strong implications for women there and in the workplace.
"There are some women who may begin to say, 'I thought I was doing well because of my ability,' but all of a sudden they begin to wonder if it's just because of their appearance," Muehlenhard said. "It (flirting) doesn't even necessarily have to be unwanted for it to affect people in a negative way."
Muehlenhard recommended that professors and employers "keep professional relationships professional."
Men in the study were not as largely affected.
But the researchers said they would expect similar results as more women enter positions of power.