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Does Relational Uncertainty Increase Attraction?

The surprising truth about playing hard to get.

When it comes to romance, we have all heard the cliché about the allure of playing “hard to get.” But is perceived disinterest really appealing? True, I have prosecuted plenty of stalkers chasing unrequited love. But notwithstanding such extreme cases of pathologic pursuit, most of the time, according to research, disinterest is a turn-off.

Relational Uncertainty: Extinguishing the Fire or Fanning the Flame?

Gurit E. Birnbaum et al. explored the impact of uncertainty on attraction in a study aptly entitled “Are You into Me?” (2018).[i] The study examined how individuals who, in an online interaction setting, were either vague or clear about their romantic intentions, impacted their desirability.

Contrary to what some people think, results showed that an individual´s perceived lack of interest decreased romantic appeal. Conversely, specific expressions of romantic interest increased certainty about a prospective partner's intentions, which increased their appeal.

Relational uncertainty, then, apparently decreases potential partner appeal when paired with perceived disinterest, while decreased relational uncertainty through expressions of interest increases partner appeal.

How does this dynamic work with established couples? The authors replicated their findings by examining them within established relationships, again finding partner regard to be associated with decreased uncertainty, which was linked with higher perceived partner desirability. They explained the results, noting, “inhibiting desire serves as a mechanism aimed at protecting the self from investing in a relationship whose future is uncertain.”

The authors note that their research provides guidance regarding the ongoing debate about whether uncertainty about a partner´s romantic interest increases or decreases his or her sexual desirability. Summarizing their findings, “sexual desire thrives on decreased uncertainty and... expressions of partners' romantic interest are a promising way to mitigate the negative implications of uncertainty and to maintain desire over the long run.”

Relational Uncertainty and Relational Change

Within relationships, change can be a good thing—particularly when it is attempted for the sake of one´s partner or the relationship. But should someone invest time and effort in making positive changes when they have no idea if their relationship has a future? Sure enough, research demonstrates that the impact of change is indeed mediated by relational uncertainty.

Valerie Young et al. (2013) examined how relational uncertainty and pursuing relational change impacted relationship quality—defined as including satisfaction, commitment, and closeness.[ii]In conducting their study, they employed concepts from the “investment model” as well as research on relational uncertainty and relationship maintenance.

They adopted a research-based definition of relational uncertainty as “an inability to predict a partner’s attitudes or behaviors,” recognizing that such feelings can occur within newly formed pairings as well as within established relationships.

Analyzing daily diary data from 165 romantically involved couples, the authors found that pursuing relational change improved relationship quality. They further found this association to be stronger on days where study participants reported experiencing a lesser amount of relational uncertainty, and weaker on days where they experienced a higher amount of relational uncertainty.

Daily Dose of Positivity

Young et al. note that their findings suggest that working to achieve relational change enhances the quality of relationships. They note that in light of previous research showing that relational maintenance behaviors were most effective when performed frequently, their findings show that daily attempts to change behavior to benefit a partner promote daily feelings about relational commitment, satisfaction, and closeness.

How did the authors define working to change a relationship? They give examples of what they define as “routine and strategic accommodation behaviors” which include everything from changes in daily schedule, communication, and intimacy, to methods of dealing with subjects such as childcare or finances. Not surprisingly, the authors note empirical support for what most couples have experienced anecdotally: making changes in daily behavior to benefit a relationship increases relationship quality.

In contrast, relational uncertainty was linked to decreased relationship quality. Although surprisingly, the authors found that working to achieve relational change benefited even these relationships—although not as much.

Positive Relational Changes Can Improve Any Relationship

Perhaps a partner's thoughtful behavior not only improves interaction quality in the short-term but also serves as comforting relational reinforcement that also decreases relational uncertainty.

Because uncertainty about a prospective partner's intentions is apparently more likely to stifle romantic interest than fan the flame, if you want to improve relational quality, avoid perpetuating the unknown. Instead, invest in activities that demonstrate commitment to your partner, and to your future. There is no downside to uplifting the importance of your relationship through consistent thoughtful, kind behavior, every day.


[i]Birnbaum, Gurit E., Yaniv Kanat-Maymon, Moran Mizrahi, Aya Barniv, Shir Nagar, Julia Govinden, and Harry T. Reis, “Are You into Me? Uncertainty and Sexual Desire in Online Encounters and Established Relationships.” Computers in Human Behavior 85, 2018, 372–384.

[ii]Young, Valerie, Melissa Curran, and Casey Totenhagen, “A Daily Diary Study: Working to Change the Relationship and Relational Uncertainty in Understanding Positive Relationship Quality.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 30, no. 1(February 2013): 132–48.