It all depends on what you're looking for.
Suppose you’re a single woman attracted to a cute and charming guy you keep running into. You really want him to return your affections, and your short conversations so far feel like flirting. He could be interested—so what do you do? Do you put your cards on the table, or engage in strategic withholding?
Your relationship-savvy friends might tell you that love is a bit of a game: You and your crush are in a flirtatious back-and-forth that could end in nothing, or something sweet. It all depends on your next moves, so don’t squander the opportunity, they might say—and your best chance, they believe, is to play hard to get.
But is it playing hard to get really the wisest move? Does it really work?
Until now, most research has suggested that the playing-hard-to-get strategy doesn’t help (e.g.., Walster, Walster, Piliavin, & Schmidt, 1973). A hallmark principle of social interaction is that liking is reciprocal: We like the people who like us. If someone is playing hard to get, then they’re not giving the signals of liking that could spark a return in those emotions. Essentially, playing hard to get generates less positive evaluations than more open alternative strategies.
Despite this evidence, you still feel like you see your friends use this tactic with men and that it always seems to work. Guys seem incredibly motivated to win their attention.
Recent research offers a fascinating new explanation of how playing hard to get actually works (Dai, Dong, & Jia, 2014). They based their investigation on the assumption that romantic interest can be divided into liking (i.e., positive evaluations) and wanting (i.e., motivated desire). Previous research, noted above, suggests that playing hard to get might lower liking—but what’s its effect on wanting?
It turns out, if you want someone to want you, playing hard to get is a good option. This finding was observed in two studies The first presented participants with vignettes depicting women who played hard-to-get or easier-to-get in a social encounter. The second used a speed-dating scenario in which men were asked to meet a research assistant who was trained to behave in a responsive or unresponsive manner, consistent with playing easy- or hard-to-get. In both studies, single men in Hong Kong were the participants. They finished the study by answering questions about their liking of, and their motivation to begin a romantic relationship with, either the target in the vignette or the confederate in the speed-dating exercise. In each study, the researchers also manipulated psychological commitment, predicting that an initial degree of investment may be a necessary foreground for playing hard-to-get to work.
The results were clear: Playing hard to get induces wanting, but not liking when an initial degree of interest was already in place (Dai et al., 2014). Depending on your goal, then, playing hard to get could be a useful tactic—for example, if you’re looking for a short-term fling or if you desire a lot of attention but not relational security.
The alternative—being straightforward and consistent in your positivity, responsiveness, and openness—is a much more effective method for increasing someone’s positive feelings for you.
Liking still breeds liking, but playing hard to get breeds desire: You always want what you (think you) can’t have.
Dai, X., Dong, P., & Jia, J. S. (2014). When does playing hard to get increase romantic attraction?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143, 521-526.