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Why the Hard-to-Get Are So Very Hard to Get

New research shows what drives the hard-to-get to pretend they don't care.

Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
Source: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

For many people, there’s no one as attractive as the person who always seems just out of reach. Even though the person you’re currently with never holds back on affection or concern, there may have been at least one romantic partner in your past who captivated you with his or her apparent disinterest in you.

It may be that the hard-to-get trigger your inner competitive drive, causing you to feel you have to go all out to win them over. It’s also possible that the air of mystery they project stimulates your own need to figure out them out, just as you want to solve a complex puzzle. The hard-to-get may also seem to fit the economic laws of supply and demand: Just as the latest electronic gadget is that much more valuable when only limited quantities hit the market, the affection of a person who’s hard-to-get becomes that much more highly prized.

In a newly published dissertation, Adelphi University’s Kirby Weinberg put the hard-to-get to the test in order to learn what leads to their emotionally withholding tendencies. Starting with the definition of the hard-to-get as using “a mating strategy in which people feign disinterest to get others to desire them more," Weinberg concluded from the existing published literature that this is a strategy that actually works well, but only in the short term. The personality traits that drive this version of the dating game are not all that desirable in long-term partners. Such individuals can be cold, manipulative, narcissistically entitled, less likable, and actually not that interested in truly intimate relationships. Playing hard-to-get, she notes, is also associated with lacking the ability to be authentic with others, and even with oneself. Digging deeper, the hard-to-get may also be insecurely attached (feeling afraid to get close or preferring to remain distant), driven by a desire to punish others, and unwilling to show their true selves.

Weinberg, whose work was conducted from within a psychodynamic framework, believes that the hard-to-get are playing at the classic defensive strategy of pushing others aside to cover up the fact that they feel deeply flawed. As she notes, “If playing hard-to-get is an expression of inauthenticity and inauthenticity is associated with negative traits, then playing hard-to-get might not be such a good thing." High in the quality of rejection sensitivity, or extreme touchiness about being rebuffed, the hard-to-get protect themselves from their “anxiety about desertion, humiliation, and betrayal," perhaps related to the constant fear of rejection by withholding parents. They may also be high in the type of narcissism that leads them to seek personal gains and avoid emotional intimacy in relationships. Weinberg states, “Perhaps the false front that playing hard to get calls for is what is most appealing to pathological narcissists and is what drives them to utilize the strategy."

To test these proposals, Weinberg used a technique known as “mindset priming,” in which she subtly planted in her participants beliefs about authenticity in relationships, which were designed to appeal differentially to people prone to playing the hard-to-get game. Participants read one of two paragraphs that summarized a fictitious research study supporting either authenticity or inauthenticity as better for relationships. The prime for authenticity contained information stating that people in the best romantic relationships felt free to be themselves. The inauthenticity prime fabricated a research finding showing that people who are romantically most satisfied “hide their neediness and dependency." The theory was that people high in narcissism, the insecurely attached, and those high in rejection sensitivity (fear of being rebuffed) would be more likely to advocate playing hard-to-get in the inauthenticity prime condition. Their better-adjusted opposites would be more susceptible to the authentic mind set, and therefore be less likely to favor playing hard-to-get.

The measure of playing-hard-to-get as a desirable dating strategy included 14 statements that participants were to rate on a 1 to 6-point scale of agreement to disagreement. Sample statements were “When I meet a new romantic interest, I’ll show him/her my initial attraction but then pull away shortly after.” Other indicators included sounding busy, being unreachable, and only having limited time available for the other person. The study's findings supported Weinberg's hypotheses that the psychologically healthy would be less likely to agree that playing hard to get is desirable, even after they read the inauthentic primes. Conversely, those high on the traits signifying less healthy psychological qualities were indeed led to agree with statements endorsing the value of playing hard-to-get after reading the inauthentic primes.

The participants in Weinberg's study were undergraduate students, whom one could argue might be particularly sensitive to priming manipulations due to their relative romantic inexperience. Additionally, Weinberg proposed that the manipulation would tap into a more situational variant of this romantic strategy, because it influenced what participants thought about in the here-and-now of the experimental setting. Thus, a person who has a trait-based desire to be authentic may be temporarily swayed by a message containing information about the advantage to good relationships of playing the game. Reading a relationship advice article in a magazine may make you think, if only for the time being, that maybe it’s time to be a little less unavailable. However, for people who are securely attached, low in narcissism, and less sensitive to rejection, this will only be a passing thought, rather than a conversion to the inauthentic side of relationships.

Weinberg, who completed this work as part of the training for a degree in a clinical psychology program, was particularly interested in the therapeutic implications of her findings. As perhaps the first study to investigate the psychological factors that predispose people to play hard-to-get, the author states that “what contributes to attracting partners, or being popular, may not be the same as what contributes to having stable long-term relationships, which psychotherapists try to help their patients achieve." In other words, take what you read about limiting your availability to a potential partner with a very large grain of salt. Not only will you be on a more solid road to the true qualities that foster intimacy, but you will also be more likely to attract a partner who also values authenticity.

To sum up, of the many strategies that can foster relationship success, playing hard-to-get is not a desirable one. For people who use this strategy against you, in turn, modeling authenticity may help them ease their defenses enough for both of you to show your true selves.


Weinberg, K. L. (2018). The interaction between state authenticity and personality in predicting playing hard-to-get. Dissertation Abstracts International, 78,