What Happens When We Play Hard to Get?

It’s attractive when someone plays hard to get  (It's a turn-off, actually … I love the chase). 

It turns out that people slightly lean towards finding it to be a turn-off, although there is a substantial crowd that loves the chase.  Relationship psychology may help us understand the nuances in our reactions to reciprocity in attraction.

Reciprocity of attraction, a widely acknowledged phenomenon in relationship psychology literature, describes the tendency for people to like others who express liking for them.

At the start of relationships, reciprocal liking exhibits a curious feature. For one, our perceptions of whether there is reciprocal liking or not fluctuates. We may be convinced that they’re flirting with us when they remember a small detail we’d mentioned before, but doubt our entire assumption when they take hours to respond to a text message. According to researchers of close  relationships Paul Eastwick and Eli Finkel, a central part of the falling-in-love experience is the yearning for one’s affections to be reciprocated.

Does the uncertainty around reciprocity enhance our attraction because it increases our desires for reciprocity? Or would we actually be more attracted if we were certain that they liked us back from the get-go? 

Findings of research on (un)certainty in attraction reciprocation have some nuance to them. Two studies conducted by researchers at University of Dayton are especially thought-provoking:

In Study 1, 42 women were asked to evaluate the Facebook profiles of 12 men and identify four that they would like to meet the most. All participants were informed that the men fell under either of these three conditions:  1) liked them a lot 2) liked them an average amount, and 3) either liked them a lot or an average amount (uncertain condition).  The results suggested that the women were most likely to express an interest in going on a date with men that had also expressed a strong interest in them. 

In Study 2, the design of the experiment was slightly different. Instead of all participants being exposed to all three conditions, the participants were separated into three groups: They either only viewed profiles of men that liked them a lot, liked them an average amount, or the uncertain condition. 

Interestingly, the change in the experiment design also led to a change in results.  

Participants in the uncertain condition were more likely to express an interest in going on a date than participants in the other groups! Researchers looked further into the motivations behind why this might be the case. They found that the motivation behind pursuing uncertainty was not an increase in romantic attraction, but was either curiosity or the desire to get the target to like them. In fact, participants who viewed profiles of men that liked them a lot were more likely to identify romantic interest as their motivation for wanting to go on a date.

Long story short, it seems like playing hard to get may earn you dates… But if you want true romantic attraction, certainty from the get-go might be your best bet!