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Should You Play Hard to Get?

Refuting conventional wisdom about playing hard to get

Your heart goes out to Jessica Simpson. Not only is her relationship struggling, she is also forced to endure the inevitable barrage of magazine articles scolding her for her missteps: If only you didn't screw up, Jessica, your man wouldn't be thinking of leaving you.

One such article, which appeared in last month's issue of In Touch magazine, was written by Sherrie Schneider. Schneider is a co-author of the best-selling book series on "The Rules" a woman must follow to reel in a good man. In the In Touch article, we learn that Jessica's relationship with Dallas Cowboy's quarterback Tony Romo is cratering because she failed to play hard to get. She called him too frequently and wasn't sufficiently preoccupied with non-Tony activities.Jessica Simpson

This explanation for the deterioration of Simpsomo (or is it Tonica?) is intuitively appealing. You read it in the magazine and almost slap your own forehead in bewilderment at her stupidity. How could she have attended all of those games in a pink Cowboys jersey decked out with Tony's uniform number? Shame on her for being so eager!

There's only one problem with this Monday-morning quarterbacking of Jessica's tactics: She actually played it just right. For almost 40 years now, social scientists have tested whether women who play hard to get light men's fire. In 1973, Elaine Hatfield (formerly Walster) and her colleagues published six experiments designed to test the hypothesis that men desire hard-to-get women more than easy-to-get women. In one study, for example, women who initially declined a date with a man before eventually accepting it were no more or less desirable to the man than women who eagerly accepted the date right away. The first five experiments failed to yield any support for the hard-to-get hypothesis.

After these five experiments failed, Hatfield finally recognized that there are two distinct ways in which a man can think of a woman as hard to get: (1) how hard it is for me to get her and (2) how hard it is for other men to get her. In her sixth and final study, Hatfield discovered the truth: Men are most attracted to women who are hard for other men to get - but easy for themselves to get!

We and our co-authors recently used speed-dating procedures to extend these findings. Results from our 2007 study suggest that a speed-dating Jessica Simpson would have had the best chance of landing Mr. Romo if she both (1) desired him more than the other women at the event desired him, and (2) disliked the other men at the event. People can tell lickety-split whether you have a special attraction for them, and this special attraction seems to inspire their attraction in return.

Of course, it's never good to be desperate, either. The key is to be selectively hard to get. If you're interested in somebody, make sure he knows you like him, but do so in a way that doesn't suggest that you'd take just anybody. It's okay to be eager, as long as you do it with dignity.

(This post was co-authored by fellow attractionologist Paul Eastwick.)