One of the most elusive dating tactics since the beginning of time has to be “playing hard to get”.
Although Socrates had famously advised courtesan Theodote to boost her attraction by withholding her affections until men are “hungry” with desire, playing hard to get remains a strategy many yearn to master in a romantic relationship — as seen today by the prevalence of advice-on-dating columns or the Internet.
However, research have yielded little support for the efficacy, or inefficacy, of this tactic, and those who had the chance to execute it in real life might realise it often led to ambivalent results.
Previous studies that downplay the efficacy of playing hard to get are based on a golden rule of interpersonal attraction that we like those who like us. On the other hand, other studies challenging this argue that uncertainty elicited by playing hard to get would enhance engagement and motivation.
So, what is the psychology behind playing hard to get, and what contributes to its success or failure? The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School conducted a study to reconcile existing divergent findings while also verifying a time-honoured folk theory.
The researchers — CUHK Business School Department of Marketing Associate Professor Xianchi Dai with PhD students Ping Dong and Jayson S. Jia — collaborated to find out when playing hard to get did increase romantic attraction.
They conducted two experiments: a mental simulation and a speed-dating study. The results were published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
“This study took into account two factors that were overlooked in previous studies, namely the difference between liking and wanting, and the role of commitment,” Dai said.
“After all, the liking and wanting responses of our brain’s reward circuitry are said to be governed by separate pathways, and have independent and distinct effects on decision-making.
“Also, commitment is, in a way, synonym for passion, which is what helps motivate and drive us to reach certain goals.”
The First Experiment
The first experiment was a scenario-based stimulation among 101 single male participants on “hard to get” versus “easy to get” and psychological commitment bases.
They had to read a description of a lunch experience with a potential dating partner, who was described as acting either responsively (easy to get) or unresponsively (hard to get).
Those under the no-commitment condition had to imagine that their lunch partner was randomly assigned, while those under the commitment condition imagined the partner as someone they had a crush on.
All participants were asked to evaluate the dating partner on affective (Were your feelings about the person positive or negative?) and motivational (How motivated were you to build a romantic relationship with the person?) dimensions. To evaluate their motivational level, they had to answer a second question: “How much will you be willing to spend on a gift for her?”
In this mental dating-scenario simulation, the affective evaluation showed that an “easy-to-get” strategy worked better than a “hard-to-get” one under both non-commitment and commitment conditions.
However, the motivational evaluation showed a different pattern. Under the no-commitment condition, the participants’ motivation to pursue a romantic relationship was lower under the “hard-to-get” condition than the “easy-to-get” one. But, it was the other way round for those under the commitment condition.
“The findings from the first experiment confirmed that the level of commitment does play a role in the distinction between affective and motivational evaluations. The second experiment that followed serves to validate the propositions in a real-life situation,” Dai said.
The Second Experiment
In the second experiment, a speed-date was held. A few days before the event, 61 male university students were given information on their dating partners.
Those under the commitment condition were allowed to choose their dating partner out of four profiles via email. Three out of the four profiles were purposely made less attractive. The students all chose to meet the most attractive partner. To boost their commitment, they were asked to explain the reasons for their choice and to email the female they were to date by introducing themselves ahead of the meeting.
For those under the no-commitment condition, they were told that a dating partner would be assigned to them. All participants had to fill in a pre-meeting questionnaire to report their commitment and expectations.
The female partner was trained and told to behave either in a responsive or unresponsive manner. After a one-on-one, five-minute conversation, the participants filled in a post-meeting questionnaire designed to reflect their affective and motivational evaluations of their experiences.
Questions like, “Were your feelings about your speed-dating partner positive or negative?”, determined their affective evaluation, while questions like, “Do you want to meet your speed-dating partner again?” and “How motivated are you to make a good impression if there is a second meeting?” determined their motivational evaluation.
Again, regardless of commitment level, partners under the “easy-to-get” condition received more positive evaluations than those under the “hard-to-get” condition in terms of affective evaluation.
However, playing hard to get worked better in evoking positive motivation when a participant had a commitment towards his partner. It was the opposite when a participant had no commitment.
Both experiments consistently proved that playing hard to get could induce stronger motivational responses from those who are psychologically committed to their partner. When there is no psychological commitment, however, playing hard to get yields weaker motivational responses.
Also, playing easy to get always induces more positive affective evaluations, regardless of the degree of prior psychological commitment.
Dai concluded that the implications of the findings are multifold.
“From a practical perspective, it offers useful tips on how to identify whether we should use the ‘hard to get’ strategy for specific situations.
No more guesswork or coin tossing — we can now make better decisions as there is science behind the effectiveness of the strategy.”
The findings also go beyond the domain of romantic attraction to help us understand the interplay between liking and wanting, and the role of commitment.
“It is interesting to have a glimpse of the tension between the emotion and motivation systems in determining preferences, as we can see that people may not choose to like a person even if motivation is sufficient,” Dai said.
“This provides us with deeper insight into the nature of motivation in goal pursuits, especially in the face of failure or negative feedback. By making reward acquisition more challenging (akin to playing hard to get), one’s desire to obtain tempting rewards can be enhanced.”