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When Should You Play Hard to Get?

Research has uncovered situations when being aloof fuels desire.

Key points

  • If a dating prospect is already interested, posing a challenge by playing hard to get can turn up their desire.
  • When a dating prospect is uncertain and not yet invested, it helps to be more direct and engaging to increase liking and build commitment.
  • One can build a dating prospect's interest by doing things like improving one's physical and psychological attractiveness.

Sometimes dating and relationship advice can conflict. For example, some advice suggests that people should "play hard to get" in order to increase attraction and desire. Other advice suggests we should be more direct and straightforward, improving trust and liking.

So, which do you choose?

I began to address this very topic in a previous post, where I reviewed research that showed playing hard to get does indeed work. In general, being on the receiving end of someone else's aloof and uncertain signals does increase desire. But does that mean you should play hard to get?

Not necessarily. Recent research has brought a bit more clarity to the question, finding that sometimes playing hard to get is a good way to build desire. On other occasions, it may backfire.

What We Know

Researchers Dai, Dong, and Jia (2014) investigated the question, "When does playing hard to get increase romantic attraction?" They theorized that such an aloof strategy may have unique effects on different emotions. Specifically, they suggested that playing hard to get might increase feelings of "wanting" in others (a desire to pursue the aloof person) but at the same time decrease "liking" (positive feelings about the person).

The team hypothesized that playing hard to get might only work under certain circumstances—specifically, that such a strategy would only work when partners were already committed and emotionally invested in the relationship. In other words, if the person was not already interested to some degree, playing hard to get would not motivate them to chase.

To test these hypotheses, Dai and associates (2014) performed two experiments: Male students from a Hong Kong University were asked to read a hypothetical date story or meet a real woman in a speed-date situation. Women they read about in the story or met on the date either behaved in a positive, interested manner ("easy to get"), or were passive and aloof (hard to get). In addition, for the speed-date experiment, male participants either had some initial interest and had chosen the woman (commitment) or were randomly assigned the date (no commitment).

Results from these experiments offered some insights into how playing hard to get works. Specifically:

  1. Easy-to-get and hard-to-get strategies had opposite effects on emotions. Individuals who acted engaged and interested on the date (easy to get) were seen as more positive and likable. Individuals who were detached and non-engaging (hard to get), however, sparked more interest and desire. Thus, the strategy that made the person more likable was not the same as the strategy that got them picked for a date or relationship.
  2. Playing hard to get only works when someone is already (at least a little) interested. Participants who were already committed to the interaction (those who had chosen the date) found the hard-to-get date more desirable. In contrast, participants who were not committed (paired at random) found the easy-to-get date more desirable. Playing hard to get magnified the desire and interest that was already present—but it was not able to create it from nothing.

What It Means for You

As the research indicates, playing hard to get is a useful strategy… under the right conditions. Put simply, playing hard to get works when your potential partner is already interested and when they think you are "likable" and nice but are not yet passionate about you. In that situation, being a little bit of a challenge may increase their perception of your value as a lover and motivate them to chase you more. When people are denied what they want (even a little), they tend to want it all the more!

If the partner is not committed or invested in you, however, playing hard to get can backfire. In those instances, you are simply asking them to work harder for something they don't (yet) want. Therefore, it is better to be more agreeable, pleasant, and straightforward—increasing liking. That may give you time to build their commitment and interest in other ways, such as:

Playing hard to get is an effective strategy for some dating and relationship situations. If a partner is already interested and likes you, posing a challenge can turn up their desire. If they are uncertain and not a little invested, however, it might be best to be more direct and engaging. That will allow you time to build their interest and commitment in other ways first. (Then you can play a little harder to get down the road.)

© 2014 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


Dai, X., Dong, P., & Jia, J. S. (2014). When does playing hard to get increase romantic attraction? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 521-526.

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