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Maybe you're the type who tends to take off first thing in the morning after a one-night stand, or who lies about your busy schedule in the week ahead, but doesn't indulge your prospective partner with the details. When dating, single people often deploy tactics like these to avoid coming off as clingy or desperate. Playing hard to get, the theory goes, makes you seem far more attractive.
"You're trying to pull them in when you sleep with them, laugh with them, do things with them, but you're being overly casual about it," says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and author of Why We Love. It might make you feel sly, but does that carefree attitude actually work to anyone's benefit?
For decades, psychologists have been studying if and why playing hard to get can make people attracted to you, and several studies may help explain the psychology behind why we sometimes desire people who make us work harder for their attention.
There are many ways to do this, but people playing hard to get most often act confident, talk to others, and withhold sex, according to research published in the European Journal of Personality—all of which "may reflect...greater perceived mate-value." The distance you put between yourself and potential partners, in other words, can make you seem more attractive. "It implies quality," says Gary Lewandowski, a professor of psychology whose research focuses on relationships. "If you're able to be picky, that must mean you have some options, and if you have so many choices, you must be a viable partner."
Withholding information about yourself—or at least, your feelings—can be similarly alluring, according to a recent study in Psychological Science. In the study, researchers asked women to look at the profiles of (fictional) men who had also (supposedly) looked at many women's profiles, including theirs. Each woman was told she was looking at men who either liked her a lot, thought she was average, or whose feelings about her were unknown. While it wasn't surprising that women were more drawn to men who found them attractive, they were most attracted to the men whose feelings were unknown. "If I don't know if you like me or not, I have to really dwell on it and think about you a lot more," Lewandowski says. "There's a lot more mental energy going into processing the possibilities."
That kind of uncertainty can command our attention for days, even weeks—but the effect is limited. Eventually, it'll get old. "A certain amount of mystery can be appealing in the beginning of a relationship," Fisher says. "People really like mystery, for a while—but after a while, they get sick of it."
That doesn't necessarily mean you should deploy the hard-to-get strategy when you're looking for a short-term fling. In fact, the EPJ study found that both men and women looking for casual sex actually preferred someone with high availability—an easy catch. But for dating or serious relationships, they preferred someone less available, someone harder to get.
Part of the reason, again, is that if you're busy, hard to reach, or socializing with other people, it might mean you possess prime partner qualities. "You're not going to be clingy or overly needy, a lot of those negative qualities people don't like in relationship partners," Lewandowski explains. "It's basically saying you have other things going on, and it shows you have a certain level of independence that might be refreshing."
Plus, we like things we put effort into. That's supported by what's known as the gain-loss theory, first established in a 1965 study by psychologists Elliot Aronson and Darwyn Linder. The theory states that you'll be more attracted to someone who initially didn't like you but whose affection you won, compared to someone who liked you right off the bat.
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Researchers in Hong Kong tested a similar idea: They rounded up a bunch of men and divided them into two groups: In the "committed" group, the men were able to choose a woman to go on a date with, and in the "uncommitted" group, the men were randomly paired with a woman. On half of the dates, the woman was enthusiastic, and on the others, she was disinterested. Afterwards, the men answered questions about the date.
The men liked the woman more when she was enthusiastic—no shocker there. But when she was disinterested, the men who chose to go on the date—which signaled that they were more invested—were more likely to want to go on a second date with her, their research found. In other words, the committed men liked the hard-to-get woman less, but they wanted her more. "When we put more effort into trying to get someone to be attracted to us, once we get over that challenge, there's a big reward."
But unfortunately, all that potential for reward may be lost depending on a factor you can't control: neurotransmitter activity in your target's brain. People whose brains are saturated with serotonin tend to be avoidant, traditional, and conventional, Fisher says, and they won't be interested in your game. The hard-to-get strategy may work best on people whose brains are doused in dopamine, a marker for exploratory behavior: unpredictability, playfulness, and high energy levels. "We're born with certain propensities," she explains. "These things are pretty well programmed in the womb."
You can't exactly scan a potential mate's brain or hand them a survey to find out which camp they fall into. You're best off using this strategy to get someone's attention—not to keep it. "Playing hard to get can only really work at the beginning of a relationship," Fisher says. "But given the fact that we tend to fall in love with people who we know are interested in us, it's a very dangerous thing to do in the long run."
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