'Playing hard to get' really works; here's why

June 08, 2020

We tend to like people who like us--a basic human trait that psychologists have termed "reciprocity of attraction." This principle generally works well to start relationships because it reduces the likelihood of rejection. Yet, making the chase harder also has its upsides. Which one then is the better strategy for finding a partner?

A team of researchers from the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, they show that making the chase harder increased a potential mate's desirability.

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"People who are too easy to attract may be perceived as more desperate," says Birnbaum. "That makes them seem less valuable and appealing--than those who do not make their romantic interest apparent right away."

While playing hard to get is a common strategy used to attract mates, past research has been unclear about whether, and if so, why this strategy works--which this study sought to clear up. Of course, some are reluctant to employ this strategy, worrying that it'll backfire and drive prospective partners away out of fear of being rejected.

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However, in their latest undertaking the team tested tactics across three interrelated studies, which gave the impression that potential partners were hard to get, signaling their "mate value" by being, for example, selective in their partner choices. Participants interacted with what they believed to be another research participant of the opposite-sex, but who was in reality an insider--a member of the research team. Next, participants rated the extent to which they felt the insider was hard to get, their perceptions of the insider's mate value (e.g., "I perceive the other participant as a valued mate"), and their desire to engage in various sexual activities with the insider.

In study 1, participants interacted with study insiders whose online profile indicated that they were either hard to get or easy to attract. The researchers discovered that participants who interacted with the more selective profile perceived the insider as more valued and therefore more desirable as a partner, compared to participants who interacted with less selective insiders (who seemed easier to attract).

In study 2, the researchers looked at the efforts invested in pursuing a potential partner and whether such efforts would inspire heightened sexual interest. Here participants were led to exert (or not) real efforts to attract the insider during face-to-face interactions. During the experiment, participants engaged in a conversation with another participant (who was in reality a study insider). The experimenter instructed participants and insiders to discuss their preferences in various life situations and presented a list of 10 questions (e.g., "To what extent do you prefer intimate recreation over mass entertainment?"; "To what extent do you like to cuddle with your partner while sleeping?"). The insider expressed a different preference from the participants to seven out of the 10 questions.

Participants in the hard-to-get group were told to try and resolve their disagreements. Using a fixed script, the insiders gradually allowed themselves "to be convinced" by the participants and eventually expressed agreement with the participant's position. That way, the researchers tried to make participants feel that they had invested efforts and that their efforts were eventually successful.

In the no-effort group, participants were instructed only to express their preferences and explain their point of view without trying to resolve the differences. That way participants didn't feel that the discussion involved exerting efforts to convince the insider. The team found that not only selectiveness but also efforts invested in the pursuit of a mate rendered potential partners more valuable and sexually desirable than those were little effort was exerted.

In study 3, interactions unfolded spontaneously and were coded for efforts undertaken by participants to see the insider again. Here the researchers examined whether being hard to get would increase not only prospective partners' sexual desirability but also the efforts devoted to seeing them in the future. To do so, participants conversed with the insider via Instant Messenger in a chat. At the end, participants were asked to leave one final message for the insider.

Next, the research team coded these messages for efforts made to interact again with the insider by counting in each message participants' expressions of romantic interest and desire for future interaction--for example, complimenting the insider, flirting with him/her, asking him/her for a date. The team found that interacting with prospective partners who were perceived as hard to get not only enhanced their mate value and desirability but was also translated into investment of concrete efforts to see them again.

Findings
  • A person who is perceived as hard to get is associated with a greater mate value

  • Study participants made greater efforts on/and found more sexually desirable those potential dates they perceived as hard to get

  • Study participants made greater efforts to see those again for whom they had made efforts in the first place

Says Reis, "We all want to date people with higher mate value. We're trying to make the best deal we can."

Of course, some may be reluctant to employ this scarcity strategy, worrying that it'll drive prospective partners away out of fear of being rejected.

Reis acknowledges the strategy doesn't work for everyone, all the time. "If playing hard to get makes you seem disinterested or arrogant," he says, "it will backfire."

So, how then do you reconcile these two approaches--playing hard to get on one hand and removing uncertainty on the other?

Show initial interest in potential partners so as not to alienate them, advises Birnbaum. Yet, don't reveal too much about yourself. People are "less likely to desire what they already have," she explains. Instead, build a connection with a potential partner gradually, thereby creating "a sense of anticipation and a desire to learn more about the other person."

Playing hard to get may work as long as potential partners feel that their efforts are likely to be successful--eventually.
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University of Rochester

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