Playing “hard-to-get” can be an effective dating strategy, but only in the right circumstances, according to a scientific review of the accumulated evidence. The findings indicate that the strategy tends to work best “when uncertainty and difficulty optimally align.” The new paper was published in The Journal of Sex Research.
“Playing ‘hard-to-get’ is a dating strategy that involves intentionally being romantically elusive as a way to generate interest from a potential mate,” explained Lori Hazel, PhD candidate at Princeton University and the corresponding author of the new article.
“The individual who plays hard-to-get may communicate uncertainty about their romantic or sexual interest toward a potential partner, and they may make it difficult for the potential mate to work for their attention. Playing hard-to-get is commonly promoted as an effective mating tactic in popular culture.”
“Our goal was to scientifically test whether there is truly any value in using this strategy. My overall aim is to help people have healthy and successful romantic relationships as research consistently shows how important they are for both mental and physical well-being.”
The researchers identified 18 studies that investigated “playing hard-to-get,” or that examined the effects of romantic uncertainty or dating unavailability. They specifically sought research that measured relevant dating outcomes like romantic appeal and the willingness to have sex. Eight studies focused on the “playing hard-to-get” dating tactic, seven studies examined uncertainty in dating, and three studies examined dating difficulty.
A review of the research indicated that uncertainty about a potential partner’s interest can make them more attractive and desirable. Hard-to-get partners also tend to be perceived as more desirable, and people are often more willing to invest time and money in them.
However, people also prefer partners who reciprocate their attraction and are clear about their romantic intentions. Uncertainty can make people uncomfortable, and they may seek to reduce it during initial encounters. Thus, being uniformly “hard-to-get” might turn potential partners away.
In addition, Hazel and her colleagues found that being perceived as selective tended to boost attraction. That is, people prefered partners who were hard-to-get for others but easy-to-get for themselves. Those who were hard-to-get for everyone and those who were easy-to-get for everyone were less desirable.
“My work shows that playing hard-to-get may only be attractive to target partners if optimal levels of perceived uncertainty and difficulty are achieved,” Hazel told PsyPost. “In other words, individuals who are too easy-to-get or too hard-to-get are perceived as less attractive than individuals who are moderately difficult to attract and act moderately uncertain about their interest towards the target partner.”
The researchers also found that attachment styles influenced who played hard-to-get. Attachment styles can be a result of early childhood experiences with caregivers, but they can also develop in adulthood based on past relationship experiences.
Anxious attachment is characterized by a fear of abandonment, a need for constant reassurance, and a tendency to become overly dependent on a partner. Avoidant attachment, on the other hand, is characterized by a fear of intimacy and a desire for independence.
“We found that avoidant individuals and women are more likely to endorse playing hard-to-get, whereas anxious individuals and men are more likely to pursue hard-to-get others,” Hazel explained. “In contrast, securely attached individuals report less willingness to play hard-to-get. Avoidant individuals play hard-to-get to determine their potential partner’s interest and compatibility, manipulate their partners, and sustain social standings. Anxiously attached individuals pursue partners who play hard-to-get for challenge reasons.”
Despite the research conducted on the topic, Hazel noted there were still several areas in need of further exploration.
“Research on playing hard-to-get has its base in traditional gender roles and is limited by heteronormative samples,” she explained. “Specifically, traditional stereotypes about sex and gender present men as active and dominant, suggesting they would pursue, and women as passive and submissive, suggesting they would be pursued. Thus, it may be those cultural scripts that reinforce the perception of playing hard-to-get as being successful, rather than the strategy being actually attractive to others.”
“Further, these sex and gender stereotypes are based on traditional gender roles in heterosexual relationships. Whether the results of our review apply more broadly to non-heterosexual romantic and sexual relationships needs to be investigated in future research.”
Hazel also explained that the findings regarding playing hard-to-get shouldn’t be confused with another similar concept.
“Playing hard-to-get is different from token resistance, defined as the act of rejecting sexual advances with the intention of actually engaging in the activity that was initially rejected (i.e., saying ‘no’ when meaning ‘yes’),” the researchers said. “In contrast, playing hard-to-get involves creating uncertainty about when or whether one would return affection or say ‘yes,’ thus conveying ‘maybe’ rather than ‘no.’”
“It also involves making it difficult for pursuing partners to get yes’s, such as by acting busy and hard to get a hold of or by having high standards,” Hazel added. “Further, the traditional sexual script dictates that women are the ones who engage in token resistance. Although such heteronormative beliefs may also be attached to playing hard-to-get, we define it as a dating strategy used by all genders.”
The paper, “Playing Hard-to-Get: A New Look at an Old Strategy“, was authored by Laurie Houle, Erin Barker, and Emily Pronin.