When Playing Hard to Get Works (and When It Doesn't)
When I was in college, my roommate and I kept a copy of a book called "Art of Seduction," by Robert Greene, in our dorm room that we regarded as gospel. While allowing certain nuances for different types of seducers and seduc-ees or "victims" (Greene's choice of word, not mine), the message of our sacred tome's 468 sugarfree-Redbull-splattered pages could be summarized as follows: Be aloof; be mysterious; don't show all your cards. The art of seduction, in other words, is about "playing hard to get"—that is, delivering, then withholding, affection and attention.
Robert Greene is hardly the first champion of the playing hard-to-get tactic, a strategy legendarily employed by Cleopatra to seduce mighty rulers like Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. It's been discussed, debated and written about in [in]famous books like Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider's "The Rules" (which dispenses such pearls of wisdom as: "Men love independent women because they leave them alone. They love chasing women who are busy. It gives them a thrill, as big as a touchdown or a home run.") or "Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man," by Steve Harvey (which reminds women, "If Ford and the government won't give a man benefits until he's been on the job and proven himself, why are you, ladies, passing out benefits to men before they've proven themselves worthy?"). Pop culture hammers these ideas home—To quote Vince Vaughn in the '90s buddy comedy "Swingers," "If you call too soon, you might scare off a beautiful baby who's ready to party."
'If something's just out of your reach, it's fun to try and get it.'
In the last decade or so, psychologists have weighed in on the issue. In one of my personal favorite studies, published in Psychological Science in 2010, researchers sought to test the effectiveness of the strategy by showing female college students the Facebook profiles of men who they were informed had looked at and ranked their own profiles. The researchers told subjects that these were profiles of men who ranked them high, men who ranked them as average or men who ranked them either high or average.
The results? The women reported liking, and thinking significantly more about, the mysterious men whose ranking was uncertain—even more than the men they knew for certain had ranked them high.
"The general assumption is that there is something about the challenge that increases attraction," wrote study author Erin Whitchurch. "If something's just out of your reach, it's fun to try and get it. Once you have it, the object or significant other might not feel as desirable anymore."
The reasoning behind this can be attributed to something known as the "scarcity principle," a theory popularized by psychologist Robert B. Cialdini in his book, "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion." The principle, in essence, says this: We want what we're afraid we can't have. When we think we might miss out, not be chosen or denied what we want—whether it's a one-day sale on a pair of shoes or potential mate—it makes us want what might be denied all the more.
Does playing hard to get work on everyone?
"Sexual excitement is a combination of attraction and obstacles," said Anya Laeta, a San Francisco–based somatic sex and intimacy coach. "'Playing hard to get' creates an obstacle to overcome, thus contributing to sexual tension and chemistry."
However, she noted that employing this type of dating strategy tends to appeal to a certain kind of person. "By playing hard to get, you might inadvertently attract people who are in it for the challenge more so than genuine interest in you, or appeal to partners who love emotional turmoil and drama."
At the same time, she added, "you might confuse or dissuade partners who could be a great fit otherwise."
Attachment style affects susceptibility
Recent research on the issue confirms Laeta's warnings. In a 2020 study published in ScienceDirect, Jeffrey Bowen of Johns Hopkins University and Omri Gillath of the University of Kansas discovered that playing hard to get is practiced and appeals to people with a certain attachment style.
Gillath explained in an interview, "Attachment style is the way people think, feel and behave in their close relationships. It's shaped by our interactions with our caregivers, and throughout our lives, affects how we behave in these [close] relationships."
According to Gillath, attachment styles fall into two primary categories: insecure and secure.
"If your caregivers were sensitive and supportive, you're likely to be secure," he said, "If your caregivers were more likely to be insensitive, not responsive, cold, rejecting, intrusive, then you're more likely to be insecure."
Insecure attachment styles can be either anxious or avoidant. Anxiously attached individuals tend to be overly preoccupied with the object of their affections and whether they love them back, while avoidantly attached people equate intimacy with a loss of independence and try to remain guarded. (If it is not immediately obvious, you can find out your own attachment style using this online test.)
In their research—perhaps somewhat predictably, Bowen and Gillath found that insecure individuals were more likely to play hard to get or pursue those who do so.
Avoidantly attached people—especially women—often play hard to get
"Avoidant people don't like intimacy or closeness," remarked Gillath. "So by keeping it as a game they can avoid the deep emotional outcomes."
He added, "For women, [playing hard to get] makes sense because women are the ones who have more to lose in a relationship," he said. "Men can invest like five minutes and minimal resources into their offspring, while women have to be pregnant for nine months and then breastfeed and so on, so they need to be more cautious on where they invest."
Anxiously attached people—especially men—often chase the hard-to-get.
"Anxious people always feel that they love more than their partner, that they always need more than they can get," commented Gillath. "They always think they're going to be rejected or abandoned, and are more likely to pursue."
When you look at it from the outside, he noted Gillath, it works out kind of nicely in terms of how gender roles and attachment styles compliment each other: "Women play hard to get more and men are more pursuing. Avoidant people tend to be playing hard-to-get, and anxious people tend to pursue them."
Securely attached people don't often play games
And what about secure attachment styles, who, according to Gillath, make up the majority of the population (around 55 to 65 percent)? "Secure people don't usually find the need to engage in these kinds of life and mating strategies," he said.
Securely attached people are comfortable giving and receiving love, "And they are more satisfied, usually, with their relationships... the relationships tend to be more long-lasting and full of trust and intimacy."
Is there a way to ethically play hard to get?
But what if you are a secure person who is romantically interested in an insecure-style person who is playing hard to get? Or an avoidant person trying to hook up with an anxious person, or vice versa? Can you—should you—play the game that suits their attachment style, and is there a way to do so ethically?
Gillath doesn't think so. "I would say that there is no replacement for respect, openness and communication in close relationships," he said. "People engage in these kinds of mating strategies to help them feel more protected and safe. So if you can find an alternative way to make them feel more secure and make them feel that you love them and you care for them, that is more likely to move them away from playing games and starting to be serious about the relationship."