Is It Worth Playing Hard to Get?

Love is more than just a game for two

Posted Sep 19, 2008

"The love game is never called off on account of darkness." Tom Masson

The comparison underlying emotional significance encompasses the mental construction of an alternative situation. The more available the alternative, namely, the closer the imagined alternative is to reality, the more intense the emotion. Therefore, the fate of someone who dies in an airplane crash after switching flights evokes a stronger reaction than that of a fellow traveler who was booked on the flight all along. A crucial element in emotions is, indeed, the imagined condition of "it could have been otherwise."

An illuminating example in this regard comes from research on singles bars: as closing time approached, men and women viewed the opposite sex as increasingly attractive. The looming alternative-the likelihood of going home alone-increased the value of those still available. The notion of the availability of alternatives may explain many seemingly puzzling situations such as people who remain in unfulfilling marriages or jobs. Although their satisfaction is low, these people perceive other available alternatives to be even worse.

There is much evidence indicating the tendency of people to react more strongly to those events for which it is easy to imagine a different outcome occurring. Considering the importance that the availability of the alternative thus attains, "almost situations" or "near misses" come to have intense emotional effects. The American Basketball star, Magic Johnson, who has been infected with the AIDS virus, explains that it is particularly hard for him to accept the disease since "I could have easily avoided being infected at all. All I had to do was wear condoms."

Availability of an alternative is determined by how likely it is to occur. The closer a certain alternative is, the more other possibilities are eliminated; it becomes more real and hence more emotionally significant. The notion of the availability of an alternative is connected with that of abnormality: an abnormal event is one that has highly available alternatives. Many of the ideas discussed here inspired by the seminal work of the Noble laureate Daniel Kahneman and his long-time collaborate, the late Amos Tversky.

The issue of availability is quite evident in romantic relationships as well. The more available the person, the more intense is usually sexual desire. Indeed, accepting a person's sexual invitations is the most effective way for someone to attract a prospective partner into a casual liaison. There are many signals that women, for example, use to convey their interest to men. Such signals include darting glances, head tossing, lip-licking, hair-flicking, as well as coy smiles, and dancing alone. Signals like these can indicate availability and have a strong seductive effect. This effect is due to the general correlation between the availability of an alternative and emotional intensity. There is also evidence suggesting that perceived opportunity is a significant factor in extramarital sexual affairs. This is in accordance with a more general tendency of ours: we tend to be drawn to those who show signs of friendliness and cooperation (see The Subtlety of Emotions).

An opposite effect of the availability impact is expressed in the tactic of playing hard to get. If a person seems unattainable, love and sexual desire may be stronger. As someone suggested, "By keeping men off, you keep them on." This has become known as the Romeo and Juliet effect: if real impediments exist, such as a family feud or marriage to another person, our love or sexual desire are likely to intensify. Indeed, "playing hard to get" is a most effective strategy for attracting a partner. It should be noted, however, that when the required effort is too immense and the probability of its success is low, people may give up the idea and may not invest extra effort. In accordance with the tactic of "playing hard to get", Hollywood films portray genuine love as a culmination of a difficult journey; love in this sense must be "earned" and "proved," often by enduring the pain of separation (see In the Name of Love).

Is it worth then to play hard to get or easy to get? And in what circumstances are each of these seemingly contradictory tactics-"playing hard to get" and "playing easy to get"-more effective? The first tactic is most effective when used in the context of long-term love or the marital context in which a person wishes to be sure of their partner's fidelity. Long-term romantic love may have significant and enduring benefits for us and hence we are ready to invest a lot of effort, and other resources, in order to attain it. Playing hard to get ensures that the other person is ready to make a commitment to an enduring relationship. The tactic of "playing easy to get" is most effective when used by someone in the context of casual sex, where availability is the most important commodity. In this context, people are not ready to make significant investments since the benefits are smaller and more temporary; hence, playing hard to get here will not be effective at all.

Both tactics are less effective when used by men. The more overt the sexual advances by men, the less attractive women find them-probably because women do not want men to consider them as highly promiscuous. Playing hard to get is also less effective in men, as they are the ones who are socially expected to initiate the relationship.

Romantic love is often described as a game, but love is more than just a game for two. Love is a very profound and complex experience involving serious, yet enjoyable games that two can play and both win. But at the end of the day, we must realize the serious nature of this enjoyable bond between two people, and act accordingly. Acting seriously should not mean the abolishment of games in love, but rather making them more important.