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Should Men or Women Play Hard to Get?

The research reveals who should be open and who can be aloof.

Welcome back to The Attraction Doctor

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In previous articles, I have shared that playing hard to get can indeed work to build attraction. The tactic works through the influence principle of scarcity. Put simply, it makes an individual seem more rare, more difficult to obtain, and more valuable as a mate. (See here.)

Nevertheless, playing hard to get does not always work. Used at the wrong time, or in the wrong way, it can even backfire. Specifically, while being aloof and scarce can make you more attractive, doing so too early or too often can make you less likeable as a partner. (See here.)

Given all this confusion, I went searching for more specific research on when and how to play hard to get. What I found was that successful strategies for playing hard to get differed for men and women, especially during an early encounter with a stranger.

As it turns out, men seem to like women who are friendly and responsive at a first meeting—while women may actually prefer a man to be a bit more aloof at the start.

Research on Preference for Responsive Partners

In my sifting through the research, I came across work by Birnbaum, Ein-Dor, Reis, and Segal (2014). Their article, "Why Do Men Prefer Nice Women?" detailed three experiments outlining the effects of a potential partner's responsiveness at a first meeting on judgment of their attractiveness.

Each experiment measured the process a bit differently:

  • Experiment One asked male and female participants to interact face-to-face, in opposite sex pairs of strangers. One participant was randomly given the task of discussing a recent negative experience, while the other was told to simply listen and respond. After the meeting, the participant instructed to discuss their negative experience was asked to rate their partner on overall responsiveness, masculinity/femininity, and sexual attractiveness.
  • Experiment Two required participants to interact through online messaging, rather than face-to-face. In this scenario all participants were asked to share a negative experience with an opposite-sex stranger online. This time, however, the stranger was really a research assistant who replied with either nice and caring responses ("You must have gone through a very difficult time") or somewhat aloof and non-caring replies ("It doesn't sound so bad to me"). Here again, though, the participant instructed to discuss their negative experience was then asked to rate their partner on overall responsiveness, masculinity/femininity, and sexual attractiveness.
  • Experiment Three repeated the second experiment, adding questions evaluating the actual sexual arousal of the disclosing participant as well as their opinion of the long-term relationship appeal of their interaction partner.

Overall, the results of these experiments noted very different responses from male and female participants. Men tended to see a woman who was initially nice, kind, and responsive as more feminine. As a result, they were more aroused by her, and saw her as more attractive as both a sexual and a romantic partner. Women, in contrast, evidenced no such reaction: An aloof, disinterested, and unresponsive man was just as appealing to them.

When to Play Hard to Get

Given the above results, the benefits of being aloof or responsive may differ for men and women at times. Specifically, men appear to like to know where they stand with a woman at an initial meeting. They prefer her to be open, warm, responsive, and clearly interested. Later in the relationship, the woman may be able to play hard to get and have him chase her. Nevertheless, her initial responsiveness makes him find her more feminine, sexually attractive—and appealing as a long-term relationship partner, too. Therefore, women can often benefit initially by sending a stranger open (or flirty) signals of interest (here), having a positive personality (here), and making pleasant conversation (here).

Women, however, appear to be more skeptical of an initially nice and responsive male stranger. A man who is thoughtful and eager too early in a relationship may make women more cautious than attracted. As Burnbaum and associates (2014) explain, "In this context, women may be suspicious of a responsive stranger’s intentions, attributing his responsiveness to possible ulterior motives (e.g., manipulation to obtain sexual favors, a self-presentation strategy) rather than communal tendencies" (p. 5). Therefore, men may benefit from appearing a bit aloof and stand-offish at first—giving the woman time to get comfortable with him and increasing the perception of his value as a mate.

Thus, men may be better off by first displaying their positive qualities and getting noticed through interacting with friends (here); breaking the ice in casual ways (here); and using laid-back and relaxed body language to start an interaction (here).


Playing hard to get and being responsive can both create attraction. The trick is to know where and when to act each way. This timing, in turn, may be different for men and women. For initial interactions with a stranger, women can appear more feminine and attractive by being responsive, nice, and interested. Men, however, might do better to stay relaxed, laid-back, and ease into the interaction. Eventually, however, they can meet in the middle, balancing sexy scarcity with likeable responsiveness, for a satisfying exchange.

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Until next time...happy dating and relating! — Dr. Jeremy Nicholson

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Birnbaum, G. E., Ein-Dor, T., Reis, H. T., & Segal, N. (2014). Why do men prefer nice women? Gender typicality mediates the effect of responsiveness on perceived attractiveness in initial acquaintanceships. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40, 1341-1353.

© 2015 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.