Playing hard to get; a scientific appraisal

Courtship is a period in any budding relationship that’s fraught with all sorts of emotions. From first-date nerves to goose-bump inducing looks, it’s a bit of a rollercoaster. Anyone who’s been single will also know that playing hard to get is often part and parcel of getting to know someone; measured rejection and aloofness are integral to the dating game. But does it actually work? We hit the books to find out what’s what.

The Scarcity Principle

To understand the underlying dynamics of playing hard to get, it’s worthwhile turning to the work of American psychologist Robert Cialdini. Based at Arizona State University, Cialdini is regarded as one of the leading figures in the field of social influence and is regularly invited to give keynote speeches at some of the US’ biggest corporations.

Originally published in 1984, Cialdini’s magnum opus – Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion – is replete with clever vignettes that can be readily applied to the notion of playing hard to get. One of the most salient theories Cialdini develops is what he coins the ‘Scarcity Principle’.

By way of analogy Cialdini explains the phenomenon whereby people come to desire something more when it’s made harder, or scarce, for them to obtain. Some of the more straightforward examples Cialdini summons cover things like limited offers, ‘for one time only’ sales and ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunities. In essence, the rarer an object or experience is, the more desirable it becomes.

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Interestingly (and more pertinent to the topic at hand), the US professor employs William Shakespeare’s ubiquitous tale of Romeo and Juliet to bolster his Scarcity Principle. Cialdini asserts that because the warring Capulet and Montague families hamper Romeo and Juliet from courting one and other, it actually encourages them to desire each other even more. As we all know, their ill-fated passion meets a tragic and fatal end.

Thespian anecdotes aside, Cialdini reasons that, although much less extreme, there are parallels to be drawn between the young lover’s tale and the act of playing hard to get. Albeit self-imposed, being coy with a prospective partner generally increases their fancy for being with you. And this is by no means conjecture; there’s been a glut of studies that attest to the seductive power of playing hard to get…

Experimenting with playing hard to get

Over the last decade a substantial number of psychologists, behavioural scientists and sociologists have tried to get the bottom of why so many of us have either instigated or experienced a bout of playing hard to get. Suffice it to say, the results have been pretty conclusive; as a dating tactic, it works.

One particular study that attracted considerable media attention when it was published five years ago was conducted by researchers at both the University of Virginia and Harvard. Tasked with peeling back the mystique of playing hard to get, Daniel Gilbert, Erin Whitchurch and Timothy Wilson set about discovering whether uncertainty had a positive impact on romantic attraction.

In simple terms, it did. The trio assembled a wonderfully uncomplicated test that involved 47 college women viewing the Facebook profiles of four male students. They were also told that the men had already seen their profiles as well.

At random, the researchers then told each of the participants that the men had one of the following reactions to their profile; they either liked them a lot, liked them just an average amount, or they were unclear about how they felt. What wasn’t explained to them was that the four Facebook profiles were bogus.

As expected, Gilbert and co. found that the girls were more attracted towards the men who liked them a lot when compared to the men who liked them only an average amount. However, they discovered that the participants in the uncertain condition we’re the most smitten – even more so than those who knew the men were already keen on them.

Another study that’s worthy of note was carried out two years after the aforementioned stateside initiative. In 2013, the University of Western Sydney’s Peter Jonason and Norman Li from the Singapore Management University released their seminal paper on the more manipulative elements imbued in playing hard to get.

Comprised of four separate tests designed to garner the most common tactics used when someone plays hard to get, the duo went on to make some bold assertions after collecting their results. “It seems to us that playing hard-to-get might be one way that people—women in particular—can test their prospective mate’s commitment and to manipulate their prospective mates to obtain what— or whom—they want.”

One of their experiments surveyed 500 US university students and revealed that the two most commonly used strategies were ‘acting confident’ and ‘talking to others’. Furthermore, tactics were gendered too; women were more likely to not call a partner back or purposefully stay busy whereas men were disposed to acting rudely or not fulfilling promises.

Jonason and Li’s other notable revelation came from surveying an additional 300 American college-goers. They found that the two main reasons for playing hard to get were to amplify demand (to make a partner want someone – the Scarcity principle in full-swing) and to gauge how dedicated to forming a relationship a lover is.

What’s more, they also established that women preferred a man who was moderately hard to get, whilst men favoured women who are much harder land – the old adage of ‘preferring the chase’ certainly rings true here!

Can playing hard to get backfire?

Before you conclude that playing hard to get is a sure fire way to make anyone crazy about you, let’s take a quick look at one final study. The same year Jonason and Li reported, Xianchi Dai, Jayson Jia and Ping Dong conducted an intriguing study with 61 male participants from a Hong Kong university.

Part of their experiment involved their participants spending five minutes talking to a woman in a speed-date scenario. Importantly, some of the participants we’re asked to select and contact a woman before the date occurred (based on attraction), the others were randomly assigned a partner. Also, the women were trained to be able to behave in both a responsive and uninterested manner.

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The investigation unearthed a fascinating quirk; the guys who had originally reached out to their date were spurned on when she batted them off. On the contrary, the participants that were randomly assigned a date were put off by their date if she played hard to get, favouring an partner who was immediately inquisitive This allowed the research team to deduce that “when no psychological commitment exists, playing hard to get yields weaker motivational responses”.

To round things off then, if you’re trying to snare a mate for the long-haul, playing hard to get is a proven method to up the ante. If you’re not sure about your love interest’s feelings, it’s probably best not to dangle the carrot and be too distant prematurely; otherwise you might end up empty handed!


  1. Cialdini, R. B (1984) Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York: Morrow
  2. Whitchurch, E.R, Wilson, T.D, & Gilbert, D.T (2011) “He loves me, he loves me not…” Uncertainty can increase romantic attraction. Psychological Science 22(2): 172-175
  3. Jonason, P.K & Li, N.P (2013) Playing Hard-to-Get: Manipulating One’s Perceived Availability as a Mate. European Journal of Personality 27(5): 458-469
  4. Dai, X, Dong, P, & Jia, J. (2014). When does playing hard to get increase romantic attraction? Journal of Experimental Psychology. 143(2): 521-526

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