Dating games: Playing ‘hard to get’ really does work, study confirms

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. — As Pat Benatar sings in her 1983 classic, love is a battlefield. Now, any good general will tell you every battle requires a sound strategy. Similarly, many people employ their own strategies and approaches when it comes to attracting and chatting up that special someone. One of the most frequently used dating tactics is “playing hard to get,” or purposely acting cold and even mean toward the person we’re interested in. But, does playing hard to get really work?

On the surface it makes no sense at all, but that’s human nature in a nutshell. While many of us probably have our own personal successes and failures with the hard-to-get approach, modern science is finally ready to weigh in on the debate. A new study from the University of Rochester concludes that yes, playing hard to get does in fact increase a potential mate’s perceived desirability.

Perhaps it’s the thrill of uncertainty that comes along with pursuing someone we’re not sure is interested in us.

“Playing hard to get makes it seem as if you are more in demand—we call that having higher mate value,” says Harry Reis, a professor of psychology and Dean’s Professor in Arts, Sciences & Engineering at Rochester, in a release.

“People who are too easy to attract may be perceived as more desperate,” adds co-author Gurit Birnbaum, a social psychologist and associate professor of psychology at the IDC Herzliya in Israel. “That makes them seem less valuable and appealing—than those who do not make their romantic interest apparent right away.”

Who doesn’t love a challenge?

Birnbaum and Reis have spent a number of years investigating the intricacies of human attraction and courtship. Over the course of their work, the duo had noticed that there’s been lots of conflicting findings regarding whether or not playing hard to get is an effective way to attract a mate. Moreover, even if it is a surefire way to find a Friday night date, why is it so universally effective?

So, to answer those questions they set up three inter-connected experiments. Participants were told they were talking to another person of the opposite sex, but in reality they were just talking to an “insider” (member of the research team). Across all three experiments, subjects were asked to describe how “hard to get” they felt the person they were talking to was, their perception of that person’s potential value as a mate (“I perceive the other participant as a valued mate”), and how much they desired to engage in sexual activities with that person.

The experiments produced a number of interesting conclusions. First of all, participants who spoke with more “selective” (hard to get) profiles rated that individual as more desirable and valued across the board than participants who spoke with less selective profiles. Participants also universally rated profiles as more valuable and sexually attractive if they had to put in more effort to gain that individual’s attention and affection.

Finally, participants who were assigned to the hard to get profiles tried much harder to convince the person they were speaking with to talk or see them again in the future.

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

Be careful about just how hard to get you play

Despite all of these findings, no one approach to dating is going to work 100% of the time for everyone. Going overboard while playing hard to get can cause the other person to see you as unapproachable or even unattractive.

“If playing hard to get makes you seem disinterested or arrogant,” Reis says, “it will backfire.”

With all this in mind, the study’s authors say perhaps the best approach is to be semi-hard to get; if you’re interested in someone be approachable, but don’t reveal too much too soon. Most people don’t mind flirting with someone who is playing hard to get, but at the same time no one wants to deal with a chilly attitude forever. There must be some hope of reciprocation and courtship in the future.

The study is published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

This article was first published June 9, 2020.