Dating games: Playing hard-to-get more likely to turn off a romantic interest, study finds

ROCHESTER, N. Y. — The mystique of a possible romance can be good fun for singles on the prowl, but sometimes too much mystery can become too much of a turnoff. A recent study on dating finds that uncertainty about a potential partner’s interest level actually decreases their overall sexual appeal.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Rochester and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel, suggests that those who feel a greater certainty about a prospective romantic partner’s interest in them will put more effort into seeing them again or attempting to woo them. These individuals also rate the possible date as more sexually attractive than if they were less certain about their potential mate’s interest level.

“People may protect themselves from the possibility of a painful rejection by distancing themselves from potentially rejecting partners,” says study co-author Harry Reis, a professor in Arts, Sciences & Engineering at Rochester, in a media release.

Previous studies have suggested that uncertainty adds another romantic element and increases sexual desire, but Reis says his study shows the opposite is true. “People experience higher levels of sexual desire when they feel confident about a partner’s interest and acceptance,” he notes.

The findings are based on six studies. In one, 51 young women and 50 young men from a university in Israel, who identified themselves as single and heterosexual, were told they would be participating in an online chat with another participant in a different room. The participants had their pictures taken and told it would be shown to who they were chatting with. The actual recipient of the picture was part of the research team.

The scientists then showed the participants the same picture of someone of the opposite sex. At the end of the chat conversations, the scientists told the participants they could send one last message to their partner. They told some of the participants that their partner had also sent them a last message, and some that they had no messages. Afterward, they asked the participants to rate their partner’s sexual desirability and their interest in future interactions with them on a scale of one to five.

The results showed that those who believed they had a message waiting for them at the end of their conversation rated their ‘partner’ a 3.15 on average, compared to a 2.73 for those who didn’t think they had another message.

With that in mind, it seems the age-old strategy of playing hard-to-get may not be so wise after all.

Lead author Gurit Birnbaum, an associate professor of psychology at the IDC Herzliya, concludes that the findings show that sexual desire could “serve as a gut-feeling indicator of mate suitability that motivates people to pursue romantic relationships with a reliable and valuable partner.” On the other hand, “inhibiting desire may serve as a mechanism aimed at protecting the self from investing in a relationship in which the future is uncertain.”

The study was published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

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