How (and Why) to Play Hard to Get

Research into the best tactics, and how they could backfire.

Posted Jun 29, 2016

Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
Source: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

I have written several posts covering the research on playing hard to get. These explain how playing hard to get works on the social influence principles of scarcity and reactancewhen it is best to play hard to get; and the best times for men and women to be aloof or responsive. I have also explored research confirming that teasing someone in such ways increases desire, but decreases friendly feelings—along with the general benefits of making a partner work for your affections, too.

However, even with all of that research, some questions remain:

  • How exactly do people play hard to get, and what tactics do they use?
  • What are the reasons people play hard to get, and does it get them what they want?
  • Does playing hard to get work for all types of relationships?

I went back into the research for some answers.

Research on Tactics for Playing Hard to Get

In an in-depth article by Jonason and Li (2013), Playing Hard-to-Get: Manipulating One's Perceived Availability as a Mate, the authors report on a few studies evaluating various behaviors people employ for playing hard to get, their reasons for doing it, and the effect it has on potential mates. The authors theorize that daters play hard to get to increase the perceived demand and value of themselves as a mate, and to test the interest and commitment of potential partners.

In the first study, Jonason and Li (2013) asked an initial set of participants to list the behaviors that people use to play hard to get—while a second set of participants rated the frequency of such behaviors. Overall, the authors listed 58 behaviors that people employ when playing hard to get, including:

  • Acting confidently, limiting self-disclosure, and not expressing many emotions.
  • Talking to people other than the intended mate, flirting with them, or even dating other people.
  • Giving accidental physical contact, but offering limited physical affection and withholding sex.
  • Acting sarcastic but friendly; teasing, playing games, and taunting.
  • Making others work to get them and chase them.
  • Acting busy, staying busy, and prioritizing other things.
  • Flirting but then stopping; giving attention but then disappearing.
  • Acting not attracted, disinterested, and non-responsive.
  • Taking a long time to respond to calls and texts, or not responding at all.

The general tactics of playing hard to get were most typically described by the following five behaviors:

  • Having limited availability.
  • Sounding busy.
  • Being hard to get a hold of.
  • Seeking attention but then disregarding it.
  • Showing initial interest, and then letting it wane.

In the second study, Jonason and Li (2013) evaluated why men and women play hard to get, as well as the characteristics associated with each reason. Results of that study indicate that both men and women primarily play hard to get for two reasons:

  1. To increase demand for themselves and make someone want them more.
  2. To test a partner's level of interest and willingness to commit.

Both of these motivations for playing hard to get were more likely to be held by participants who already perceived that their mate value was high (i.e. they thought they were a good catch). They were also more likely to be used by those with narcissistic or manipulative personalities (some of whom also played hard to get to cover that they were actually dating other people, too).

The team's third study looked at the effect of playing hard to get on desirability as a date, sexual partner, and relationship partner. Participants were asked to rate their interest based on scenarios of potential partners who were described as either very easy to get (low availability); very hard to get (high availability); or in between (medium availability). The results showed that both men and women preferred very easy to get partners for short-term sex, but preferred partners who had medium availability for dates and relationships. This finding supports the results of other studies indicating that playing hard to get is actually about being selective and discriminating—with people most desiring someone as a relationship partner who is attainable to them, but not to anyone else (Walster, Walster, Piliavin, and Schmidt, 1973).

Should You Play Hard to Get?

Given these results, it appears that some of the behaviors and tactics associated with playing hard to get succeed in making someone more desirable as a date or relationship partner. They can also be a way to test a partner's level of interest and commitment. Nevertheless, for those interested in playing hard to get, it takes some finesse, the right timing, and the proper balance.

As other research notes, the approach of playing hard to get is a trade-off between desire and frustration—pulling the potential partner in and then pushing them away. That is why many of the tactics are teasing and "running hot and cold"—they provide some balance between the two extremes. As a result, you begin the process by building initial interest and getting attention, then switch gears by becoming aloof and letting others chase you. Playing hard to get requires that you first learn how to be attractive to others in different ways and know how to get their attention. Only then will being somewhat aloof increase the attractionbut it will not create it from scratch.

Many of the remaining behaviors associated with playing hard to get are ways of prolonging the chase—and these tactics assume that interest is already present. Strategies such as sounding busy, being hard to contact, taking a long time to respond, and being non-responsive are behaviors best used in a more established relationship. They are particularly helpful when you have been too nice and feel overlooked, when your partner is not grateful, or when you are trying to escape "the friend zone."

Remember: The objective is to be "moderately" hard to get and selective, not completely inaccessible and off-limits. This is especially true when you want to establish or maintain a longer-term relationship. Behaviors like encouraging and flirtatious touching, rewarding a partner's good behaviors, and building rapport through conversation are important to balance out aloof or teasing actions. After all, sometimes you have to let the other person "catch" you to reward their chasing.

The balancing act of being moderately hard to get holds true for most relationships, unless you are only interested in a short-term fling. According to the research, playing hard to get is not effective for a hook-up because partners seeking short-term sex are not interested in substantial investments of time or energy. If a fling is your goal you'll be better served by using bold pick-up lines, making short-term and sexual conversation, increasing the intimacy of your touching, kissing passionately, and quickly finding out your partner's motivations for having sex.

But if you want to gauge whether a partner cares about you for more than just a fling, play hard to get—a little—and see whether they care enough to invest more in you, too.

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References

  • 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.
  • Walster, E.,Walster,G. W., Piliavin, J.,& Schmidt, L. (1973). “Playing hard to get”: Understanding an elusive phenomenon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26, 113-121.

© 2016 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.