The Case for Playing Hard to Get

When it comes to securing a mate, we want a challenge. 

Posted Sep 01, 2020

Pexels Cottobro / Creative Commons
Source: Pexels Cottobro / Creative Commons

At some point, we’ve all heard the same advice to attract a partner: Don’t be so accessible. Don’t make it so easy for them. Play it cool. Make them work for it. 

And, for good reason — when it comes to securing a mate, people prefer a challenge, according to a recent study from the University of Rochester. 

Consider the following scenario: You’ve just met two potential mates. No. 1 makes it clear from the get-go that they’re interested in you and only you. All their cards are out on the table. No. 2, however, is more of a mystery. Their intentions are unclear and you’re left guessing if they have feelings for you. Who are you likely to be more attracted to?

For many of us, No. 2 wins in a landslide, every time. For starters, it’s the same reason we’re drawn to mysteries — uncertainty is thrilling. The human mating dance thrives on curiosity, that exhilarating anticipation of waiting to see how the other person feels. 

And now, research supports another reason — those who don’t make their romantic intentions immediately obvious are viewed as more valuable and appealing than those who do. Or as lead researcher and fellow Psychology Today blogger Gurit Birnbaum puts it, “People who are too easy to attract may be perceived as more desperate.”

To test this theory, the research team conducted three separate experiments in which test subjects interacted with “insiders” (researchers who posed as participants) in a variety of social situations. 

In the first study, participants engaged with insiders, who on their online profile, made it apparent whether they were easy or hard to get. The results indicated that those with the hard-to-get profile were rated as more desirable partners than those who were more accessible.  

There were similar findings in the second study, which also measured sexual interest. This time, test participants had face-to-face interactions with both hard-to-get and easy-to-get insiders, in which each couple answered 10 lifestyle questions about themselves, such as: “To what extent do you prefer intimate recreation over mass entertainment” or “to what extent do you like to cuddle with your partner while sleeping?” 

As part of the experiment, insiders initially disagreed with the majority of the participants’ answers. Participants who were matched with hard-to-get insiders were tasked with trying to “resolve their disagreements.” Then, these insiders were eventually “convinced” by the participants to change their minds. 

Participants who were matched with easy-to-get insiders, however, were not made to resolve any disagreements — so convincing the other side was not required. 

The findings from the two groups indicated that participants were more interested in putting in the effort to change a potential mate’s mind than not. 

The insiders who had to be convinced of something were seen as more valuable and sexually attractive than those insiders where no such effort was required. 

And finally, the goal of the third study was to measure sexual attraction as well as desire to pursue a future relationship between participants and insiders based on freeform chat messages. Again, the hard-to-get insiders received higher values along with more flirtatious messages and date proposals, compared to the easy-to-get insiders.

The message is clear: Playing hard to get makes you more desirable.

But there is one caveat, according to the research. “If playing hard to get makes you seem disinterested or arrogant,” says researcher Harry Reis, “it will backfire.” Which is to say that instead of being totally unavailable, try to build a connection gradually and avoid revealing too much too soon. 

If you discern a romantic spark with someone, let them put in the effort to woo you — and in turn, make them feel like you’ll come around eventually. 

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