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Study: Playing Hard to Get Often Works

In a new study, researchers from the University of Rochester and the Israeli-based Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya found that playing hard to get, a mating strategy that is likely to instill some uncertainty, may actually increase a potential mate’s desirability.

The study appears in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

Dr. Gurit Birnbaum, a social psychologist and associate professor of psychology at the IDC Herzliya, and Dr. Harry Reis, a professor of psychology and Dean’s Professor in Arts, Sciences & Engineering at the University of Rochester, led the study. They found that immediately reciprocating another person’s interest may not be the smartest strategy for attracting mates.

“People who are too easy to attract may be perceived as more desperate,” says Birnbaum. “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. Naturally, some are reluctant to employ this strategy, worrying that it’ll backfire and drive prospective partners away out of fear of being rejected.

Indeed, previous research 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. The belief in mutual attraction also can lead a person into 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 the current study, researchers 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. Participants were asked to reflect on three areas. First, rating the extent to which they felt the insider was hard to get, then their perceptions of the insider’s mate value (e.g., “I perceive the other participant as a valued mate”). And finally, 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 (as 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 were 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.

The study found:

  • 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 Reis, “We all want to date people with higher mate value. We’re trying to make the best deal we can.”

Source: University of Rochester

Study: Playing Hard to Get Often Works

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2020). Study: Playing Hard to Get Often Works. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/06/15/study-playing-hard-to-get-often-works/157215.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 15 Jun 2020 (Originally: 15 Jun 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 15 Jun 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.