Self-help books, relationship ‘experts’ and popular culture all seem to suggest that romantic interest can be sparked by playing hard to get; being distant – aloof even – giving the impression of disinterest even if the opposite is true. In fact, the idea of playing hard to get probably ranks as one of the most popular dating tips of all time, but does it actually work?
In the 1970s, Elaine Hatfield and her colleagues conducted a series of experiments to test whether playing hard to get works. In one of their studies, straight men who signed up to a computer dating service were told that the computer had found them a date. They were asked to give her a call from a phone in the office, ask her out, and report back their first impressions. In fact, the date was actually a confederate of the experimenters.
Half of the time, when the men called, the person on the other end would play hard to get – suggesting that she was very busy/had other dates, before finally accepting. The other half of the time, she would eagerly accept the invitation. If folk wisdom is right, then the woman should be perceived as more desirable in the hard-to-get condition, but that’s not what the researchers found. In fact, across five different studies, these psychologists found no evidence whatsoever that playing hard to get made someone seem more desirable.
Some scientists believe the principle of reciprocity is the single most important determinant of whether one person will like another
So why doesn’t playing hard to get work? The simple answer is that it contravenes what’s known as the norm of reciprocity. In its most basic form, this norm proposes that we like those who express a liking for us and dislike those who dislike us. This might sound like an incredibly simplistic idea, but some scientists believe the principle of reciprocity is the single most important determinant of whether one person will like another. But when we play hard to get, we give the impression that we dislike the other person, and that in turn sparks dislike, not attraction.
There’s another issue that complicates playing hard to get. There’s a big distinction between liking something and wanting something. Imagine you’re playing a game where, if you win, you get a prize. Sadly, on this occasion, you don’t win, but how do you think you’ll feel about the prize? Well, one study found that failure to win a prize made participants want it more, but their liking for the prize decreased in later tasks.
There is an analogy here. When someone plays hard to get, we may end up wanting that person more, but actually feel less liking for them. In other words, playing hard to get enhances the desire to pursue, while actually reducing our liking for the ‘player’. In fact, this is exactly what was found in two studies that were conducted in Hong Kong, with one caveat. Playing hard to get increased wanting for the ‘player’, but only when participants were psychologically motivated to see the ‘player’ again. If they weren’t motivated, then playing hard to get reduces both liking and wanting.
If playing hard to get doesn’t work, what does? Well, Elaine Hatfield and her colleagues might have the answer. While they believed that playing hard to get doesn’t work, they also suggested there were two different ways in which a person could be thought of as hard to get. Imagine that you would like to get with me (I’m married, so this scenario really is imaginary). First, we might ask how difficult it is for you personally to ‘get’ me. Separately, we could also ask how difficult it is for women (or men) in general to get me. For you, the distinction is important.
Hatfield and her colleagues proposed that people would be most attracted to targets who are selectively hard to get. In other words, you would be most attracted to me if I am easy to get for you personally, but hard to get for all other women (or men).
To test this idea, Hatfield and her colleagues conducted one last study. They again recruited straight men who’d signed up to a computer dating service as participants. This time, the men were shown profiles of five women who had been matched with the men by the computer (in actual fact, the profiles were all bogus). The experimenters explained that some women had attended a session in which they completed ‘data selection forms’, one for each of the five men they had been matched with. For each of the forms, the participant saw that one of the forms included ratings of himself, whereas the other forms included ratings of other (fictitious) men.
Of the profiles they saw, one woman was always hard to get, rating all five of her matches rather poorly. Another was always 'easy to get', rating all her matches as highly desirable. A third woman was selectively hard to get, rating the four other men as undesirable but the participant himself as very appealing. The men were asked to evaluate the desirability of the three women.
As the researchers had predicted, the men showed a preference for the selectively hard-to-get woman. For the men in the study, the woman who played selectively hard to get was perceived as just as popular and attractive as the uniformly hard-to-get woman, but also perceived as less cold. What’s more, she was perceived as being just as friendly, but also more popular, than the woman who always played easy to get.
Later studies uncovered another reason why we might like people who play selectively hard to get. In research with both women and men this time, it was found that being liked by someone playing selectively hard to get boosted participants’ self-esteem. It feels good to be liked by someone who is selective. So it's not about playing hard to get; it's about being selectively hard to get instead.