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The Role of Reciprocity in Attraction

Is it better to show how much you like someone or play hard to get?

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One simple fact when it comes to attraction is that we like those who like us. Knowing that they likes us or think highly of us is one powerful reasons why we are attracted to someone.

In a classic study (Backman & Secord, 1959), participants interacted with someone they believed to be another participant (a “confederate”). Afterward, participants “overheard” the confederate talking to the researchers. The confederate either said nice things about them or was critical of them. The participants who heard nice things liked the confederate more than those who heard critical things. This was the case even though the confederate had acted the same in every interaction. Not too shocking. If we hear someone say nice things about us, we like them more. But this is an important point when trying to understand attraction. Why? Because it shows that our perceptions of someone and feelings towards them aren’t just due to the way they actually behave with us, they’re also shaped by how we think they feel about us.

And it’s beneficial to like people who like us for a number of reasons: Those people are more likely to want to see us again, to treat us well, and to provide help when we need it. They also affirm our belief that we are likable.

Importantly, while we like people who like us, this is most apparent when the liking feels unique—being liked by someone who likes everyone is not nearly as attractive. In a speed-dating study (Eastwick et al., 2007), while being uniquely liked by another person was beneficial, people who liked everyone they met were not as well-liked by others. Getting a positive comment on Facebook by someone you are interested in might feel good and make you like them more, until you realize they are a serial commenter and have posted comments on 20 profiles in the past 30 minutes.

What about playing hard to get? If we like people who like us, then playing hard to get should be a bad mating strategy; yet, it is one of the most classic pieces of dating advice. Is there any evidence it works? Some researchers have found that people are attracted to those who play hard to get. Why is this? It appears to be due at least in part to the enjoyable and exciting nature of uncertain positive events and the fact that we spend more time thinking about uncertain positive events more than certain ones (it means we’re slower to habituate to them).

In one study (Whitchurch, Wilson, & Gilbert, 2011), female students rated male profiles. They were then told those males had rated their profile as well and either liked them best, liked them an average amount, or they were told that the male either liked them best or an average amount, but the experimenter wasn’t sure which since they hadn’t received all the information. The female participants preferred the males who like them best to those who liked them an average amount, in line with the idea of reciprocity being important. But even more than either of those, they liked the “uncertain” males who might or might not like them best. In another set of studies, researchers found that playing hard to get with someone who likes you makes them want you more but like you less (Dai, Dong, & Jia, 2014).

What about unrequited love? The importance of reciprocity seems to suggest that we shouldn’t waste our time on unrequited love, yet large numbers of people report having had this experience. Why do people waste their time on people who don’t signal they like them back? One reason is because they believe the person will eventually come to realize the error of their ways and their love will be returned.

Facebook image: Mark Nazh/Shutterstock


Backman, C. W., & Secord, P. F. (1959). The effect of perceived liking on interpersonal attraction. Human Relations, 12(4), 379-384.

Dai, X., Dong, P., & Jia, J. S. (2014). When does playing hard to get increase romantic attraction? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2), 521–526.

Eastwick, P. W., Finkel, E. J., Mochon, D., & Ariely, D. (2007). Selective Versus Unselective Romantic Desire: Not All Reciprocity Is Created Equal. Psychological Science, 18(4), 317–319.

Whitchurch, E. R., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2011). “He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not . . . ”: Uncertainty Can Increase Romantic Attraction. Psychological Science, 22(2), 172–175.