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Does Playing Hard to Get Make You Fall in Love?

Scarcity: Do you want what you can't have in love?

Welcome back to The Attraction Doctor

Many people ask me about unrequited love. Everyone wants to know how to get that person who plays hard to get. They all want that lover just out of reach to get romantic, make a commitment, and return their feelings.

Getting that "hard to get" person is sometimes possible. But, before putting in that effort, you should ask yourself some questions. Why do you like the person? Why do you want them so badly? Do they have some value, some compatibility, some merit? Or have you simply been swept away, lusting after something you can't have?

If you don't believe in the power of scarcity and playing hard to get, then read on.

The Scarcity Principle

Robert Cialdini, one of the foremost experts on influence, found that people value and desire something more when it is rare or difficult to obtain. He called this the Scarcity Principle (Cialdini, 2009). Across numerous experiments, Cialdini and others have found that making something rare ("only 5 left"), time-limited ("one day sale"), or unique ("just for you"), increases its perceived attractiveness and value.

He explains that this Scarcity Principle works on the idea of Reactance. Essentially, it happens because none of us like to be told no, limited in any way, or have our freedom constrained. So, when we think we might miss out, not be chosen, or be denied what we want, we "react." That reactance makes us try all the harder and want what is denied us all the more.

Think of it like "reverse psychology" used on little children. When you tell Timmy he "can't eat his asparagus," he gobbles it up. Apparently, according to the research, grown-ups are no different.

Scarcity and Indecision in Dating and Relationships

Sure, you might say. Scarcity can work for a one-day sale at the mall or lima beans, but not love. Well, in fact, there is research to say that it does! If you are reading this and relating, it might even be the reason you're so motivated to fight a losing battle yourself...

One study that supports this assertion came from Whitchurch, Wilson, and Gilbert (2011). The authors had college women view Facebook profiles of four male students. They were told that the men had previously viewed their Facebook profiles as well. The authors then randomly told the women that the men had one of the following reactions to their profiles: 1) the man liked them a lot, 2) the man liked them an average amount, 3) the man was uncertain of his feelings.

Initially, women reported liking the men who "liked them a lot" a bit more than the ones who only "liked them an average amount." However, the women liked the "uncertain" men the most of all. They rated the uncertain men as the most attractive and even thought the most about them over time. Scarcity at work?

Another study supporting the scarcity effect on desire comes from Johnco, Wheeler, and Taylor (2010). These authors were interested in the bar phenomenon of "all the girls get prettier at closing time." In other words, the phenomenon that men and women both rate members of the opposite sex as more desirable the closer a bar gets to closing.

Historically, this phenomenon was attributed to alcohol consumption. It was reasoned that patrons simply got drunk, which negatively influenced their decision-making and impulsivity. However, Johnco and associates came up with a different answer. They measured both blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of participants and attractiveness ratings of opposite-sex individuals during the course of the night. BAC increases (i.e. getting drunk) did not account for the whole increase in the attractiveness of the opposite sex.

Given that, the authors reasoned that the effect was at least partially due to scarcity. As the night goes on, the time left to find a partner diminishes. Also, there are fewer people left to choose from. So, it becomes sort of like a one-day sale at the mall. The leftovers look mighty attractive as they become scarce.

What This Means for Your Love Life

Scarcity can have a big influence on your perception of the attractiveness and worth of someone else. So, if you are chasing someone, you might want to stop and ask yourself why. Do you have something tangible and real to base your attraction on? Or, is that "amazing connection" just an illusion you have created because they are making you chase them and react?

Also, if you find others are "bored" with you or devalue you, you might want to be a little harder to obtain yourself. Don't give in so easily. Make them work a bit for it. Make yourself scarce. You might be surprised by what it does to their perceptions!


Playing hard to get does indeed work. It also works on you! So, before you go chase someone down, ask whether they are really worth it—or it is just the scarcity talking. If it is the latter, then you might want to re-think chasing. Instead, make yourself scarce, too—and let them chase you for a while...

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© 2012 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


Cialdini, R.B. (2009). Influence: Science and Practice. Boston: Pearson.

Johnco, C., Wheeler, L., & Taylor, A. (2010). They do get prettier at closing time: A repeated measures study of the closing-time effect and alcohol. Social Influence, 5, 261-271.

Whitchurck, E.R., Wilson, T.D., & Gilbert, D.T. (2011). "He loves me, he loves me not...": Uncertainty can increase romantic attraction. Psychological Science, 22, 172-175.

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