Playing hard-to-get means motivating another person’s pursuit while expressing only occasional interest in the person, thereby making oneself seem more desirable.
Playing hard-to-get is not just a tactic people used in the past. It is still prevalent, except that it has taken new forms. For instance, the users of OkCupid, Tinder, and other dating apps may be familiar with a behavior called “breadcrumbing.” Like Hansel leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, people who engage in this behavior drop hints of romantic interest (e.g., flirtatious texts) at random times. They do not seem to want to develop the relationship at all but only to keep the other person interested.
So, who plays hard-to-get, and who is attracted to these behaviors?
In a paper published in the August 2020 issue of Personality and Individual Differences, Jeffrey Bowen of Johns Hopkins University and Omri Gillath of the University of Kansas suggest that playing hard-to-get and pursuing those who play hard-to-get are related to one’s attachment style.
Before reviewing the paper, let us consider, in more detail, common reasons people play hard-to-get.
Reasons for playing hard-to-get
Rarity and limited availability often suggest value. For instance, you are more likely to buy a pair of shoes if they are on sale “Today only!” The same idea may be applicable to mate value: A person who is being pursued by multiple suitors is more valued than one with no suitors.
But if this is true, why are women seemingly more likely to play hard-to-get than men? Don’t men who play hard-to-get also increase their mate value?
One possibility is that women use this strategy for reasons other than increasing their value as mates. For example, a woman may play hard-to-get as a way to test a suitor and learn more about his personality and behavior.
Last, cultural and societal norms also influence this behavior—these norms may urge women, not men, to play hard-to-get.
Four investigations of playing hard-to-get
The paper by Bowen and Gillath reports the results of four studies. They used samples of individuals from a Midwestern college and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The participants’ ages ranged from 18 to 60s, though the average person in the sample was in his or her mid-20s.
The first study was concerned mainly with the relationship between gender, playing hard-to-get, and attachment style.
Reasons for playing hard-to-get were assessed by a newly developed scale; common factor analysis extracted five factors: Other-focus (testing and getting to know one’s partner), self-focus (feeling special and in control), game playing (enjoying the game and delaying commitment), self-protection (avoiding rejection and preventing intimacy), and social standing (behaving in socially acceptable ways and protecting one’s reputation).
The second investigation focused on reasons related to the pursuit of those playing hard-to-get. These reasons were also measured using a new scale; common factor analysis extracted three factors: challenge (the enjoyment of the pursuit), self-esteem (e.g., increase in self-esteem when competing against other suitors), and mate quality (desire to attract a partner with high mate value).
To explore the causal influence of attachment styles on playing hard-to-get, the last two investigations included manipulations related to hypothetical dates, as described below.
Specifically, participants were shown attachment primes, being asked to recall and write about a relationship related to either attachment security, anxiety, or avoidance:
The security prime concerned the achievement of closeness and minimal fear of abandonment. The anxiety prime involved fear of abandonment and failure to achieve relationship closeness. And the avoidance prime concerned a relationship with major trust problems and with one partner wanting more intimacy than the other.
Subsequently, participants were shown pictures of targets (attractive faces) and imagined a hypothetical date with them. In one experiment, participants were asked the likelihood of playing hard-to-get if they knew the target was interested in them; in another, they were instead asked the likelihood of engaging in the pursuit if the target was playing hard-to-get.
Findings: Attachment style and playing hard-to-get
Analysis of results showed women were more willing than men to play hard-to-get. Men, in comparison, were more interested in pursuing someone who played hard-to-get.
Avoidant individuals (women in particular) were more likely to play hard-to-get. They reportedly did so for a variety of reasons: To manipulate, determine compatibility, maintain social standing, and protect themselves from feeling vulnerable. Playing hard-to-get appeared less common in secure people.
And those with attachment anxiety, particularly men, were more likely to pursue potential partners who play hard-to-get.
Avoidance primes resulted in an increased likelihood of playing hard-to-get in avoidant men, while anxiety primes increased the probability of pursuing people who play hard-to-get.
The data also indicated that playing hard-to-get is not simply about eliciting romantic pursuits. Specifically, playing hard-to-get communicates, indirectly, the type of relationship the individual would like to pursue. And it regulates the risks (e.g., rejection) for the pursuer and the player.
Furthermore, the authors note attachment needs and sexual behaviors may be linked in several ways: People might use playing hard-to-get strategies to satisfy attachment-related needs, such as feeling more secure by playing hard-to-get; attachment needs could be “operating alongside (or overriding) mating goals to facilitate relationship initiation/maintenance,” or attachment styles could moderate “which strategies are used to satisfy mating goals.”
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