J. Krueger
Kelvan expectantly goes for treat offered by Dr. Heck.
Source: J. Krueger

Anyone who teases you loves you.  -Jewish proverb, unverified

One way to sabotage trust is to lure and leave. -Rob Bins, unpublished papers

There are some interesting experiences that have folk psychological explanations, but lack research to tell us what’s going really on. Take teasing. There is a good amount of research on aggressive teasing, which takes the form of harassment (e.g., Eisenberg et al., 2003) and which can be placed in the neighborhood of bullying or mobbing. Another kind of teasing takes the form of raising expectations without cause or follow-through (Reddy, 1991). Examples also come to mind from the romantic front. Typically gendered, the archetypal scene comprises Eve whose body language allows Adam to envisage intimate delights, only to then find out that Eve is not inclined after all. Whether or not Eve ever intended to share tender moments with Adam is for Adam to figure out. Whatever conclusion he reaches may be of significance for their days that lie ahead in the Land of Nod.

More generally, we may be thinking about this type of teasing as a frustrated (and frustrating) interaction between two agents or players, where one raises the expectation of a mutually rewarding interaction, only to then withdraw. My habit is to try to model interpersonal interactions as social games, that is, to consider a set of preferences and strategies, and to then figure out each party’s best (or most likely) move.

This approach is difficult in the teasing game. Lacking credible information about Eve’s preferences and psychological states, Adam’s default conclusion is that Eve, being self-interested and rational, enjoys withdrawal more than consumption. To be able to enjoy withdrawal, she must first make an offer of mutual consumption. The least charitable interpretation is that Eve’s primary motive is power, not intimacy. She does not derive enjoyment from withdrawal per se, but from knowing that Adam responded expectantly to her offer, and potentially even from knowing that Adam feels hurt. This is the darkest interpretation of social power. The delight is obtained only indirectly through the frustration of someone else’s hopes that the person herself has raised.

There is a more benign interpretation. Perhaps Eve does not care about Adam’s pleasure or displeasure at all. Instead, she is only sensitive to her own outcomes, but she is the victim of an approach-avoidance conflict. At the time of proposal, she is genuinely motivated by the prospect of a shared good time. As the date approaches, she feels fear or inhibition, for whatever reason but enough to disengage. Lacking communication, Adam will feel puzzled and teased. The Eves in this type of exchange do not explain themselves, be it out of malice or shame, otherwise the situation would not be a case of teasing.

Analogous situations can be observed in business and other non-romantic exchanges, where one party raises the idea of a mutually profitable venture, only to then fall silent. The raising of expectation is a good thing, assuming that at the time there is a sincere intent to pursue and achieve the goal. Yet, general biases of myopia and overconfidence favor the expression of expectations before proper scrutiny. In other words, raising the possibility of a mutually rewarding project creates an immediate gratification of being able to visualize future success and receiving the other party’s endorsement. The likelihood of success and the work necessary to achieve it are easily underestimated. A different way of putting this is that the rash announcement of the plan to the other party is a case of short-term consumption, where the future likelihood of failure is discounted.

Elsewhere, I have cautioned against the wholesale condemnation of short-term consumption, but here I prefer prudence. The reason is that the imprudent, or teasing, floating of joint venture plans undermines social trust. Raising the expectation of future joint profits while discounting the uncertainties of achieving them is not the same as outright lying, but the interpersonal effect is the same. Consider again what Adam concludes when contemplating Eve’s bedroom eyes and the non-materialization of the bedroom. Without an explanation from Eve, Adam feels teased and mislead. This is the worst outcome for Adam. A dashed expectation (in the great majority of cases I can imagine) leads to more negative affect than never having an expectation. More acutely, the interpersonal context, i.e., having this expectation raised and then dashed by another conscious and forward-looking individual is most damaging. It destroys trust and undermines future interaction. For the Eves of this world, this is hard to see, especially those that are socially powerful, that is, those able to look down on a line of willing Adams.

There is, to be sure, a truly benign form of teasing. Eve and Adam can tease each other in a way that reveals how well they understand each other and how deftly they can allude to each others’ foibles or idiosyncrasies without judging them. This, if done well, is a high art. It requires social intelligence and tact. It is also a great form of foreplay.

In the photo, featuring canine Kelvan lunging for a treat, we can recognize the power of a skillful tease to heighten excitement. This is good when ultimate consumption is allowed.


Eisenberg, M. E., Neumark-Sztainer, D., & Story, M. (2003). Associations of weight-based teasing and emotional well-being among adolescents. Archive of Pediatric Adolescence Medicine, 157, 733-738.

Riddle, V. (1991). Playing with others’ expectations: Teasing and mucking about in the first year. In A. Whiten (ed.), Natural theories of mind: Evolution, development and simulation of everyday mindreading (pp. 143-158). Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

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