What Really Happens When People Play Hard to Get

How and why being "hard to get" may affect your desirability.

Posted Jun 06, 2020

Kate Greenaway/Wikimedia Commons
Does playing hard to get really work?
Source: Kate Greenaway/Wikimedia Commons

Reciprocation of attraction—people’s tendency to like those who like them—may encourage the initiation of relationships with targets of interest1. Immediately reciprocating another person’s expression of liking, however, may not be the most effective strategy for attracting mates. Indeed, people who are too easy to attract may be perceived as more desperate and thus as less valuable and appealing than those who do not make their romantic interest apparent right away.

And yet, within the dating realm, there is little consensus on whether playing hard to get works2.  In an attempt to entice prospective romantic partners, some people may attempt to induce these potential partners to chase them, as they believe that this will heighten their seeming desirability. Other people, however, are reluctant to deploy this strategy because they worry that it may backfire, driving prospective partners away out of fears of rejection.

In our recent research3, we investigated whether perceiving a prospective romantic partner as hard-to-get instigated sexual desire for this partner and whether viewing this person as a more valued mate explained this effect. Specifically, in three studies, participants interacted with another research participant of the other sex, who was in reality a confederate (a member of the research team). Then, participants rated the extent to which they felt the confederate was hard to get, their perceptions of the confederate’s mate value (e.g., “I perceive the other participant as a valued mate”), and their desire to engage in various sexual activities with the confederate. 

In Study 1, participants who agreed to take part in a study of online interactions between prospective partners created an online profile by uploading their picture and reporting where they live, what they study, their hobbies, and their selectivity in choosing mates. In doing so, participants were asked to choose one of two options that best represented their selectivity in choosing mates: selective or less selective. Then, participants read the other participant's profile. All participants read the same profile, which presented the same information requested from the participants (the confederate's residential city, major study, hobbies, and selectivity). 

Half of the participants viewed a profile that indicated that the confederate was selective in choosing mates and half of them viewed a profile of a less selective confederate. Participants then interacted with the confederate over Instant Messenger. We found that participants who interacted with potential partners whose online profile indicated that they were selective in choosing mates (and thus more difficult to attract) perceived them to be more valued and thus more desirable as partners, compared to participants who interacted with less selective partners (and thus easier to attract).

In Study 2, we explored another factor that can render individuals hard to get—the efforts invested in pursuing them—and whether such efforts would inspire heightened sexual interest. For this purpose, participants were manipulated to exert (or not) real efforts to attract the confederate during face-to-face interactions. In particular, participants were informed that they would be engaging in a face-to-face conversation with another participant (a confederate). The experimenter instructed participants and confederates to discuss their preferences in various life domains and presented a list of 10 questions (e.g., “To what extent do you prefer intimate recreation over mass entertainment?”; “To what extent do you like to cuddle with your partner while sleeping?”). The confederate expressed a different preference than that of the participants to 7 out of the 10 questions.

Participants in the hard-to-get condition were told to try and resolve their disagreements. Using a fixed script, the confederates gradually let themselves be convinced by the participants and eventually expressed agreement with the participant’s position. In this way, we sought to make participants feel that they had invested efforts in convincing the confederate and that their efforts were eventually successful.

In the no-effort condition, participants were only instructed to express their preferences and explain their point of view without trying to resolve the differences, such that participants did not feel that the discussion involved exerting efforts to convince the confederate. The findings replicated and extended those of Study 1, showing that not only selectiveness but also efforts invested in mate pursuit yield similar results, rendering potential partners perceived as more valued and sexually desirable.

In Study 3, we investigated whether the predicted effect of being hard to get would generalize to online interactions that unfolded relatively spontaneously. In addition, we examined whether being hard to get would increase not only prospective partners’ sexual desirability but also the efforts devoted to seeing them in the future. To do so, participants conversed with the confederate using Instant Messenger in a "get to know each other" chat. At the end of the chat, we asked participants to leave one final message for the confederate.

We coded these messages for efforts made to interact again with the confederate by counting in each message participants' expressions of romantic interest and desire for future interaction—for example, complimenting the confederate, flirting with him/her, asking him/her for a date. We found that interacting with prospective partners who were perceived as hard to get not only enhanced these partners’ mate value and desirability, but was also translated into investment of concrete efforts to see them in the future. 

Overall, our research demonstrates how and why being hard to get may set the ground for a successful mate pursuit, affecting interpersonal perceptions in a way that can facilitate relationship initiation. Using tactics that make prospective partners hard to get (e.g., exhibiting selectivity in choosing mates) enhances their sexual desirability because it serves as a marker of mate value. Specifically, being hard to get signals that potential partners are worth pursuing because they have other mating alternatives and therefore can afford to limit their availability. 

You may watch Prof. Gurit Birnbaum's TEDx talk on why humans make sex so complicated here.

This post also appeared here.

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1. Berscheid, E., & Reis, H. T. (1998). Attraction and close relationships. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (4th ed., Vol. 2, pp. 193–281). New York: McGraw-Hill.

2. Jonason, P. K., & Li, N. P. (2013). Playing hard-to-get: Manipulating one's perceived availability as a mate. European Journal of Personality, 27, 458-469.

3. Birnbaum, G. E., Zholtack, K., & Reis, H. T. (in press). No pain, no gain: Perceived partner mate value mediates the desire-inducing effect of being hard-to-get during online and face-to-face encounters. Journal of Social and Personal RelationshipsResearch Gate