When Playing Hard To Get Backfires

“So, I thought I would text him back tomorrow night,” explained Lizzie, a 31-year-old single banker. She had just finished telling me about a promising blind date she had on Saturday night with Alan, a thirty-three-year-old sports agent. It was 4pm on Monday afternoon.   

Alan had texted her on Sunday morning: “It was great to meet you!”

Lizzie’s response: “You too! Thanks!”

Alan: “Have a great week. Let’s get together again soon.”

Lizzie: Crickets.

I asked her why she hadn’t responded to Alan’s last text yet. She explained matter-of-factly, “It was a statement, not an invitation. Anyway, isn’t it better to play it cool? I don’t want to sound over-eager. Everyone knows that the best way to get the guy is to play hard to get. 

As a psychiatrist, I meet many extraordinary women—smart, interesting, funny, and kind—who seem to “have it all” with one exception. Their love lives are at a standstill. On the rare occasions, they actually meet a nice guy through a friend or a dating website, it never goes anywhere. Of course, it is easy to blame Tinder and hookup culture for keeping them single. With the abundance of options available, men have less motivation to get serious with one woman. That said, there may be something else interfering with their ability to find a successful relationship and it may not have anything to do with the modern dating landscape. 

Wanting what you can’t have is human nature. Psychologist Robert Cialdini calls it the Scarcity Principle. It explains why companies “create” shortages to boost interest and sales. It explains the success of limited editions and 24-hour sales. If something is unavailable or scarce—think Kanye’s Yeezys—it becomes more appealing.

Conventional wisdom holds that this strategy applies to romance and the rules of attraction. The authors of the best-selling book The Rules: Time-tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right advise:

“Be easy to be with but hard to get.” Their advice reflects the underlying belief that being unattainable enhances a man’s interest. If you really want to get the guy, be unavailable, don’t return his calls, give him the cold shoulder and say no if he asks you out on a last-minute date, they coach the reader. 

Fein and Schneider have updated The Rules over the years with The Rules for Online Dating and Not Your Mother’s Rules and the principle of playing hard to get remains front and center. A playful rap on their website perfectly captures their philosophy:

If you’re looking for love and you wanna new life,
You want to feel good and you want to be a wife,
Play it smart and don’t call,
This is how you do it,
you get a plan,
Don’t see him too much,
or move in too fast,
You have to play it right,
if you want it to last.
You want a ring on your finger and a long white dress?

Just do the rules and see him less.

 Over the years, the Rules philosophy seeped into our collective consciousness and became “common knowledge.” Lizzie’s comment sums it up: “Everyone knows that the best way to get the guy is to play hard to get.” Many of the women I meet today have never read or even heard of these books but have absorbed the message. They play hard to get—not because it is a dating philosophy—but because they have accepted it as fact. 

The problem is that this approach to dating doesn’t work. Playing hard to get flies in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary. Study after study shows that men don’t like to be given the cold shoulder.

Being nice is far more effective, say the authors of one study. They found that women who were friendly and warm were deemed to be more attractive by potential mates than women who played it cool. 

That said, there may be value in playing hard to get, but not in the way you might think. Research suggests that men like women who are hard to get for other men but who are friendly towards them. Psychologists call this “selective desire.” In a study exploring selective desire in action, single men overwhelmingly preferred women who specifically showed interest in them and who expressed zero interest in the other men. The men were less attracted to women who indiscriminately liked all the men or who didn’t like any of them—i.e. the ones who seemed hard to get. Men in the study described the women who selectively liked them to be easygoing, popular and warm.  Most importantly, these men appreciated being “chosen” by these picky ladies who recognized their fine qualities. Oscar Wilde was clearly onto something when he said, “Never love anyone who treats you like you are ordinary.”    

Does playing hard to get ever work? A team led by Jayson Jia of Stanford conducted a series of experiments to explore this question. A group of male undergraduates signed up for what they thought was a speed dating event. Some of the men were assigned a speed dating partner, others were asked to choose from a set of photographs of four different women (the choice was rigged—the men always chose the same woman because the researchers deliberately included three less attractive options.) This way, all the men interacted with the same woman, an attractive undergraduate who was in on the experiment. 

With half of the men, she was told to act interested and to express warmth by smiling and actively engaging them in conversation. She was friendly, she asked questions and she looked for things they had in common. With the rest of the men, the same woman played hard to get, sending a message of “uncertainty and a mild negative signal.” She was told to act disinterested, to passively respond to questions and never ask any, and to minimize facial expressions.  

The men were surveyed after the “date” about how much they liked the woman if they would like to see her again and how likely they would be to pursue her. Playing hard to get backfired with one important exception: the men were more motivated to pursue the woman who played hard to get but, and this is a big but, only if they had chosen her from the set of photographs in the first place. This makes sense intuitively—if a man is not invested or interested to begin with, why would he bother pursuing a woman who plays hard to get? 

In the cases where the men were motivated to pursue the hard-to-get woman, it is worth noting that even though they “wanted” her more, they actually “liked” her less. Let me explain. Although wanting and liking appear to be close cousins—i.e. if you like something you want it and if you want something you like it, research in neuroscience and psychology suggests that they are distinct entities. Consider cigarette smokers—many crave cigarettes even though they don’t enjoy smoking. The disconnection between liking and wanting can perhaps be explained by neuroscientist Kent Berridge’s findings that the brain uses separate reward pathways for pleasure (liking) versus desire (wanting).

In summary, if a man already likes you, playing hard to get may heighten his interest in you but it could also make him like you less. As Jia puts it, “You risk winning the battle and losing the war.”

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman