Who's Playing Hard-to-Get, Who’s Attracted to It, and Why

New research helps explain romantic game-playing.

Posted Jul 01, 2020

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Waiting for a call from a date
Source: Pixabay

In her book, The Single Woman, Mandy Hale discusses playing hard to get: “Sit your affections, your heart and your precious time out on the doorstep without so much as making him ring the doorbell first, and he’ll treat you like a doormat. Make him work a little to get next to you, and he won’t stop till you’re his.”

A quote by Prakhar Sahay has a similar basic idea: "Sometimes you gotta care less to see if they will care more," suggesting that playing hard-to-get is a way for people to identify high-quality partners. 

Playing “hard-to-get” is an age-old gambit for dating and mating, familiar to moviegoers, readers of literature, and any admirer who’s ever been “left on read.” However, relatively little research has been done on this relational phenomenon.

Our new research looks at the psychological underpinnings of making yourself seem more desirable by withholding obvious signs of romantic interest.

New dating trends, such as ‘breadcrumbing’ and ‘benching’ — in which one lets people think he or she is interested in them, and then pulls away or keeps things as they are without moving the relationship forward, are new manifestations of the old hard-to-get strategy. Playing hard-to-get means you’re not escalating or de-escalating the effort. For instance, you’re sitting there and playing with your phone — phubbing — not paying full attention to the other person and making them struggle to get your attention. It’s sending a double message: On the one hand, you’re saying you’re interested. But on the other hand, you’re saying, "You’ll have to work hard to actually get my full attention."

Together with my co-author, Jeffery Bowen of Johns Hopkins University, we examined whether hard-to-get behaviors can be predicted using gender and attachment style. Attachment style is the psychological term for people’s way of thinking, feeling, and behaving in close relationships. Attachment style, usually formed in childhood, falls into the primary categories of secure or insecure (people with an insecure attachment style are usually classified as anxious or avoidant).

We expected that people high on attachment avoidance, who tend to avoid closeness and intimacy, will be more likely to play hard-to-get, while people high on attachment anxiety, who tend to be concerned about being rejected or abandoned, will be more likely to pursue. Hard-to-get behaviors were expected to help insecure people achieve their mating goals.

Based on evolutionary theories, we also expected gender differences. Women, for example, are more likely to play hard-to-get, as a way to self-protect and manage potential partners’ behaviors. Men, in a complementing way, are more likely to pursue women. These tendencies are compatible, and potentially representative of an aspect of the sexual conflict between males and females.

Over four studies with more than 900 participants, we provided evidence to support these propositions. As expected, we found that gender and attachment style predict and shape hard-to-get behavior, particularly among insecurely attached individuals.

People higher on attachment avoidance and women (vs. men) reported playing hard-to-get more.

People higher on attachment anxiety and men (vs. women) reported more pursuing of hard-to-get others.

When we nudged (or primed) thoughts of attachment insecurity, we found primed avoidance led to a greater likelihood of playing hard-to-get among avoidant heterosexual men. Primed anxiety led to a greater reported likelihood of pursuing hard-to-get targets overall.

While many people might be using these strategies (playing and pursuing), their reasons for doing so might be different (control, self-protection, partner selection, etc.) 

Our studies shed light on who plays hard-to-get, who pursues the players, and why. Insecure people (high on avoidance, anxiety, or both) use hard-to-get strategies to manage their psychological vulnerabilities. For example, growing up with cold rejecting parents is likely to result in attachment avoidance. Avoidant people do not want to get too close to others, and playing hard to get can help them with that. People high on anxiety may have grown up with inconsistent parents. They learn that they need to keep pursuing loved ones to get the love and support they need. This reflects in their tendency to pursue hard-to-get others, even before they are their relationship partners. 

Insecure people are playing hard-to-get or chasing hard-to-get others (i.e., an aloof potential mate) as a way to obtain the kind of romantic or sexual relationships they want (e.g., low on intimacy).

This is not to say hard-to-get is good or bad, but for some people these strategies seem to be working, helping them to create relationships and get the partners they want. But what are the outcomes? The relationships of insecure people are often dissatisfying and don’t last long.

For other people, playing hard-to-get is less a romantic strategy and more of a survival instinct. Sometimes, it’s not so much about the relationship but about helping people to stay in control. Some people behave in such a way because they’re terrified. They can’t trust anyone — and they do whatever they can to protect themselves from getting hurt again. So, for them, it’s not "playing." This is not a game for them but a way to protect themselves and to verify people out there are serious and are going to be reliable mates.

Playing hard-to-get is one aspect of the psychological power dynamic that defines many human relationships, romantic or not.

Any relationship in which we have two sides involved is going to have some push and pull. There are relationships in which one side wants it more and the other side wants it less. The side that is less invested in these relationships has more power: If you really need my friendship and I have other friends, I’m going to have more power and control in our friendship and could potentially play hard-to-get. The person who’s more desperate is likely to have less control and less power, and likely to pursue more.

Before engaging in such behaviors, you need to ask yourself if you really want to get involved in game-playing when it comes to your relationship, and if these are the kinds of relationships you'd like to have eventually.

Facebook image: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock