Playing hard to get: Should you do it? Does it help you when dating? Turns out science can shed some light on how playing hard to get could actually benefit you. In a recent study published in Psychological Science, women were more attracted when they were uncertain if a guy liked them a lot than when they were sure a guy really liked them.
In psychology, we have learned about the reciprocity principle: we tend to like someone if they like us. But what if we don't know if someone really likes us or not? How does uncertainty affect how we feel about someone else? And, why would we be more attracted to someone who we weren't even sure was really interested in us?
Researchers Erin R. Whitchurch and Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University recruited 47 female undergraduates. The participants were told that male students from two other universities had looked at the Facebook profile of several college women, including their own profile. The women were then shown the profiles of four men. One group was told that they were looking at men who had liked their profile the most, the second group was told that they were viewing the men who had given them an average rating, and the last group (the uncertain condition) was told that they were viewing men who liked them either the most or had given them average ratings.
The results indicated that participants were more attracted to men who liked them a lot than men who liked them an average amount—consistent with the reciprocity principle. However, participants were more attracted to men when they were unsure if the men liked them best than men who they knew liked them the most.
Playing Hard To Get
So does that mean that playing hard to get is always the way to go?
Not necessarily. The jury is still out from social psychology. Prior research has found that men were most attracted to women who expressed interest in them but not other guys. The men were less attracted to women who were viewed as "hard to get," meaning they just didn't want to date anyone. The men were also less attracted to women who were considered "easy to get," meaning they were open to dating several men.
However, what is interesting about this study is the uncertainty of attraction to that person in particular. The women were kept guessing if the men liked them the best or not. Often we have heard from friends that when dating someone, it is best not to be too enthusiastic in the beginning and reveal all of your feelings. Turns out, there might be something to that.
Frequency of Thought
But why would keeping someone guessing about your feelings make that person more attracted to you? The answer might have something to do with salience. Salience is a fancy word for how frequently you think about something.
Salient information (you frequently think about it) strongly influences our evaluations of our emotions and feelings. Thus, one hypothesis is that uncertainty about one's interest in you keeps you guessing about if they like you a lot or not. Because you keep wondering about the other's interest in you, you end up thinking about that person more than if you knew, off the bat, that they liked you a lot. The authors explain that we might often interpret frequent thoughts of the other person as an indication that we like them. For instance, we might suppose, "I must be really interested in that person if I can't get 'em out of my head."
The present study supports the hypothesis that uncertainty causes people to think more about the person. The researchers found that the women in the uncertain condition reported thinking about the men the most, followed by participants in the average-liking group, and then the participants in the liked-best group.
It makes sense that if something is uncertain we think about it more. Uncertainty interests us, not only because we can't stop thinking about the possible outcomes, but also because we cannot adapt to it.
Let's explore what this means. Prior studies have shown that uncertainty about a positive event often can produce more positive feelings than if the positive event was certain. When the positive event is certain, we experience strong positive feelings, but then we adapt to it. However, when the event is uncertain we spend more time thinking about if the event will occur, trying to interpret it and understand it. The result is that we are unable to adapt to the event because the outcome is undetermined. This could be another reason why uncertainty makes us more interested in something or someone.
We must keep in mind that this study looked only at female participants, that the participants did not meet the men in person, and that this was at the start of a relationship. Thus, we are uncertain if women keeping men guessing about their interest increases attraction or if keeping one's partner guessing as the relationship develops would be advised. My personal hunch is that keeping one's partner guessing about one's interest during a growing relationship probably isn't the best strategy for building a close connection.
But, guys—at least you know that when starting to date someone, not showing all of your feelings at the very beginning, and creating a bit of uncertainty about how much you like the girl, will make her think more about you thus increasing her interest in you.
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E. R. Whitchurch, T. D. Wilson, D. T. Gilbert. "He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not ... ": Uncertainty Can Increase Romantic Attraction. Psychological Science, 2010; 22 (2): 172 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610393745.