'Playing hard to get' really works
Listen to this article
We tend to like people who like us—a basic human trait that psychologists have termed “reciprocity of attraction.” This principle generally works well to start relationships because it reduces the likelihood of rejection. Yet, making the chase harder also has its upsides. Which one then is the better strategy for finding a partner?
A team of researchers examined the effects of playing hard to get, a mating strategy that is likely to instill a certain degree of uncertainty. In a new study, published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, they show that making the chase harder increased a potential mate’s desirability.
The researchers discovered that immediately reciprocating another person’s interest may not be the smartest strategy for attracting mates.
What the researchers say: “People who are too easy to attract may be perceived as more desperate,” said the lead author. “That makes them seem less valuable and appealing—than those who do not make their romantic interest apparent right away.”
While playing hard to get is a common strategy used to attract mates, past research has been unclear about whether, and if so, why this strategy works—which this study sought to clear up. Of course, some are reluctant to employ this strategy, worrying that it’ll backfire and drive prospective partners away out of fear of being rejected.
Indeed, in previous research the team has shown that those who feel greater certainty that a prospective romantic partner reciprocates their interest will put more effort into seeing that person again, while rating the possible date as more sexually attractive than they would if they were less certain about the prospective date’s romantic intentions.
However, in their latest undertaking the team tested tactics across three interrelated studies, which gave the impression that potential partners were hard to get, signaling their “mate value” by being, for example, selective in their partner choices. Participants interacted with what they believed to be another research participant of the opposite-sex, but who was in reality an insider—a member of the research team. Next, participants rated the extent to which they felt the insider was hard to get, their perceptions of the insider’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 insider.
In study 1, participants interacted with study insiders whose online profile indicated that they were either hard to get or easy to attract. The researchers discovered that participants who interacted with the more selective profile perceived the insider as more valued and therefore more desirable as a partner, compared to participants who interacted with less selective insiders (who seemed easier to attract).
In study 2, the researchers looked at the efforts invested in pursuing a potential partner and whether such efforts would inspire heightened sexual interest. Here participants were led to exert (or not) real efforts to attract the insider during face-to-face interactions. During the experiment, participants engaged in a conversation with another participant (who was in reality a study insider). The experimenter instructed participants and insiders to discuss their preferences in various life situations 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 insider expressed a different preference from the participants to seven out of the 10 questions.
Participants in the hard-to-get group were told to try and resolve their disagreements. Using a fixed script, the insiders gradually allowed themselves “to be convinced” by the participants and eventually expressed agreement with the participant’s position. That way, the researchers tried to make participants feel that they had invested efforts and that their efforts were eventually successful.
In the no-effort group, participants were instructed only to express their preferences and explain their point of view without trying to resolve the differences. That way participants didn’t feel that the discussion involved exerting efforts to convince the insider. The team found that not only selectiveness but also efforts invested in the pursuit of a mate rendered potential partners more valuable and sexually desirable than those where little effort was exerted.
In study 3, interactions unfolded spontaneously and were coded for efforts undertaken by participants to see the insider again. Here the researchers 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 insider via Instant Messenger in a chat. At the end, participants were asked to leave one final message for the insider.
Next, the research team coded these messages for efforts made to interact again with the insider by counting in each message participants’ expressions of romantic interest and desire for future interaction—for example, complimenting the insider, flirting with him/her, asking him/her for a date. The team found that interacting with prospective partners who were perceived as hard to get not only enhanced their mate value and desirability but was also translated into investment of concrete efforts to see them again.
- A person who is perceived as hard to get is associated with a greater mate value
- Study participants made greater efforts on/and found more sexually desirable those potential dates they perceived as hard to get
- Study participants made greater efforts to see those again for whom they had made efforts in the first place
Said the lead researcher: “We all want to date people with higher mate value. We’re trying to make the best deal we can.”
Of course, some may be reluctant to employ this scarcity strategy, worrying that it’ll drive prospective partners away out of fear of being rejected.
He acknowledges the strategy doesn’t work for everyone, all the time. “If playing hard to get makes you seem disinterested or arrogant,” he says, “it will backfire.”
So, what? The study backs up a lot of what I have been saying to professional service clients for quite a while: too much emphasis on your being “client centered” (doing whatever it takes for the client) is not always—or even mostly—the best policy.
Our own studies have shown that clients are more attracted to their providers if those providers are aware of their own boundaries. This is true of fees as well as other matters. Too much flexibility can make clients feel that the lawyer or the consultant is not strong enough to go to bat for them, and will not have their back.
Again, with clients that are prone to call their providers at all hours or make unreasonable work demands, it is better to lay down firm boundaries as to when you will answer the phone or when you will work over weekends.
In truth, to the human neurogenetic system, romantic relationships are just like all other relationships, including those with clients. We are looking for support and protection, for love and belonging. These take different forms in the work context to the dating context, but the drivers are the same. A client is looking for a relationship that is attractive, maybe one that they have to try a bit harder for. Maybe one that they have to pay more to attract.
Join the discussion
More from this issue of TR
'Playing hard to get' really works
To the human neurogenetic system, romantic relationships are just like all other relationships, including those with clients.
A satisfying romantic relationship may improve breast cancer survivors' health
Seeking relational support when you’re stressed is one of the more beneficial things that you can do—even if you’re not ill.
You might be interested inBack to Today's Research
Faking emotions at work does more harm than good
The adage “Fake it until you make it” –the idea that someone can fake a positive attitude to elicit real-life benefits—often backfires when used with co-workers, according to a new study.
Some friends make you feel more supported than others
It’s good to have friends and family to back you up when you need it—but your sense of being supported is even greater if they belong, in a sense, to the same tribe.
Join our tribe
Subscribe to Dr. Bob Murray’s Today’s Research, a free weekly roundup of the latest research in a wide range of scientific disciplines. Explore leadership, strategy, culture, business and social trends, and executive health.