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The Psychology Behind Playing Hard-to-Get: Is It Effective?

The tactic of playing hard to get with a romantic partner is hardly new. Modern studies have analyzed the psychology behind this behavior, and its potential pros and cons.

By Brittany Edelmann
Jul 18, 2023 6:00 PM
Playing hard to get
(Credit: Shutterstock/Roman Samborskyi)


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When meeting potential partners, some of us are more aloof or act uninterested.

Charles Darwin noted this idea of playing hard-to-get in regards to mating back in 1871, which some have interpreted as coyness. This term, as defined by the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, refers to “the fact of being shy or of pretending to be shy and innocent, especially about love or sex, and sometimes in order to make people more interested in you.”

Sound familiar? Research has actually documented this behavior or idea in humans many centuries prior to Darwin.

Whether or not it has ancient evolutionary roots, modern-day social scientists have analyzed the notion of playing hard-to-get and how this phenomenon impacts human relationships. That includes asking whether or not it is truly beneficial.

Read More: 7 Things You May Not Know About Charles Darwin

Does Playing Hard To Get Work?

Some research, such as a 2020 study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, reveal if you show less interest and you're more selective, this could lead a potential suitor to desire you more and subsequently put in more effort to win you over.

The authors of the study explain one probable reason this tactic can be successful: “The uncertainty about one’s romantic interest it arouses may lead to increased mental preoccupation with this person.”

In other words, you're simply thinking about the person more. It’s comparable to pondering whether your favorite fast-food restaurant is still open late at night, then suddenly you crave their spicy chicken sandwich even more.

The Psychology of Playing Hard to Get

Still, researchers of another study looking into this strategy explain how there are different pathways in the brain’s reward circuitry for the “liking and wanting response.” So, there's a difference between wanting something and finding the motivation to obtain it, versus liking it.

The actor Aziz Ansari, in his book Modern Romance, explains an idea from social psychology known as the scarcity principle. It might help explain why we want something more when we can’t have it.

“Basically, we see something as more desirable when it is less available,” Ansari writes. “When you are texting someone less frequently, you are, in effect, creating a scarcity of you and making yourself more attractive.”

Though Ansari is no scientist, similar ideas have been demonstrated in dynamic psychology studies.

Wanting What You Can't Have

Lack of predictability — or responsiveness and availability — has been shown to increase the amount of time and money a pursuer is willing to spend on someone, too.

Participants in one 2013 study in the European Journal of Personality were willing to spend more on someone with “low availability,” around $50, compared to about $39 for someone who was very available. Similarly, participants in the experiment were also willing to spend more time with the “low availability mates.”

Alexandra Solomon, a licensed clinical psychologist and author and host of the Reimagining Love podcast, says some people often enjoy this challenge of obtaining someone who isn’t overtly available. Though, Solomon emphasizes this isn’t necessarily healthy.

Read More: Evolution Could Explain Why Having a Girlfriend Makes Men More Attractive

Does Playing Hard To Get Work With Online Dating?

So, not being so available or making your interest known right away seems to have benefits. Yet some studies also suggest playing hard-to-get isn’t the best route when it comes to gaining one’s interest and subsequent effort.

For example, researchers of a 2018 study published in the Computers in Human Behavior found participants who showed more interest via online interactions and messages received more effort in return. (Essentially, who wants to be rejected, and waste their energy, right?)

People’s tendency to like those who like them, the researchers wrote, has long been theorized and demonstrated to promote relationship initiation.

Attachment Styles and Dating

Researcher Omri Gillath helps provide a potential explanation as to what kind of person plays hard-to-get, who pursues these so-called players, and why.

In a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Gillath and co-author Jeffrey Bowen explain how there are different attachment styles, such as anxious and avoidant.

As you may assume, individuals high on attachment avoidance typically avoid intimacy. Not only do those with an avoidant attachment style play hard-to-get more than anxious-attachment individuals, but for these individuals “playing hard-to-get is less a romantic strategy and more of a survival instinct," Gillath writes in Psychology Today.

Interestingly, attachment anxiety individuals, or individuals who tend to need more reassurance, also tend to pursue people who are hard-to-get. There are various speculative reasons why this might be the case, each of them wrapped around unique factors and circumstantial patterns.

Read More: What Your Attachment Style Says About Your Relationship

Finding the One

The reality is that personal attachment styles and life experiences may play a role in how you specifically act in the dating world and why.

It’s also important to note most studies have limitations and recreating real-life dating scenarios can be challenging.

While some people enjoy the chase or challenge that can come with dating, finding someone who is open about being ready for partnership, Solomon says, can be important. Of course, if that’s what you want, too.

So far, research suggests you shouldn’t act too aloof, but a moderate amount of uncertainty and mystery might not be bad. And if you’re the one doing the chasing, make sure you aren’t out of breath running in circles to catch someone who may actually be uninterested.

Ultimately, preserving your own mental health and well-being in the process is key to making healthy decisions in your romantic partnerships.

Read More: Do Relationships Affect Our Physical Health?

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