Why You Should You Play Hard to Get When Dating: 5 Ways to Do It Right - Be  Your Own Brand of Sexy » Be Your Own Brand of Sexy

We’ve all heard the age-old advice: play hard to get. It’s a classic romantic trope, but is it actually an effective tactic in the game of love? Turns out, the answer is more nuanced than a simple yes or no, but the science might provide some clarity. 

We naturally tend to like people who like us back. However, research points to an interesting exception to this rule: a touch of uncertainty can actually make us like someone more.1In one study, female participants were informed that four men had viewed and rated their Facebook profile for attractiveness. They were told that the four men had rated them as the prettiest girl they’d ever seen, found them just so-so, or that their rating was unknown (but definitely somewhere in between meh and unfathomable beauty). When the participants were later surveyed, the secretive men won out. Not only were the girls way more attracted to these enigmatic profiles, they also thought about them the most afterwards. This seems counterintuitive. Why would we like a mysterious guy, who we’re not even sure likes us, over the golden retriever who’s already committed to us? Well, ask any romance novel, rom-com, or cringey YA drama. When someone’s interest in us is unclear, it sparks curiosity (and social media stalking). But even though this rumination can intuitively signal attraction, scholars would advise you proceed with caution: it might be the uncertainty, not their impressive qualities, that’s keeping you up at night. 

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Living rent-free in someone’s head is not the only reason why playing hard-to-get works. Brehm’s emotion intensity theory suggests that the difficulty of achieving a goal can actually increase motivation and desire for it.2 In dating, this manifests as someone being “too busy” to hang out but occasionally making time, or fluctuating between flirting and ignoring you. These obstacles can make us want to work harder to win their affection, and intensify our desire. Research has illustrated this phenomenon: participants were given a hypothetical scenario in which they had a fat crush on a coworker. Based on the coworker’s level of reciprocity (low, moderate, high, unknown), participants were asked to rate their attractiveness. Those in scenarios with unspecified or moderate reciprocation were the most whipped, while those in the low and high reciprocation conditions felt little to no butterflies.

Participants’ attraction to the coworker as a function of the level of reciprocated attraction.3

This leads us to an interesting bit of insight: while playing hard-to-get can actually turn up the heat, it requires a certain amount of precision to get the desired result. Think of it like playing a video game. Too easy, and you get bored. Too hard, and you rage quit. When it’s just enough of a challenge that winning feels attainable, that’s when you’re most motivated to play. The sweet spot lies in creating a moderate challenge, a hint of uncertainty that keeps them intrigued and invested in pursuing you. So, if this is your M.O., channel your inner Goldilocks and find the “just right” amount of push and pull.

But playing hard-to-get might also backfire on you. Researchers examined the impact of this tactic on two key factors: liking (the warm and fuzzy feelings) and wanting (the intense desire to pursue).4 This revealed a surprising truth: playing hard-to-get can increase wanting even when it decreases liking. And the effectiveness of the strategy hinges on one crucial factor: psychological commitment. It’s like stoking a fire: coyness might fan the flame, but only if there are embers of interest already glowing. In one experiment, participants imagined scenarios with a potential date who was either responsive (easy-to-get) or unresponsive (hard-to-get). Having pre-existing commitment (imagining the person was their crush) increased desire to pursue the hard-to-get person, despite finding them less likable overall. A subsequent real-life speed-dating experiment echoed these same findings. This suggests that playing hard-to-get can be a double-edged sword. Without prior interest, the strategy might not work. And even when it does, you may lose a few brownie points. 

Playing hard-to-get is certainly not a foolproof love potion; success depends on the situation and your unique approach. But understanding the psychology behind it can help you navigate the exciting, confusing, world of dating.

Remember—this strategy isn’t about playing games, it’s about authentically presenting yourself while maintaining a hint of intriguing independence.

  1. Whitchurch, E. R., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). “He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not . . . .” Psychological Science22(2), 172–175. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797610393745
  2. Reysen, S., & Katzarska-Miller, I. (2013). Playing Moderately Hard to Get: An Application of Brehm’s Emotion Intensity Theory. Interpersona: An International Journal on Personal Relationships7(2), 260–271. https://doi.org/10.5964/ijpr.v7i2.128
  3. Reysen, S., & Katzarska-Miller, I. (2013). Playing Moderately Hard to Get: An Application of Brehm’s Emotion Intensity Theory. Interpersona: An International Journal on Personal Relationships7(2), 260–271. https://doi.org/10.5964/ijpr.v7i2.128 ↩︎
  4. Dai, X., Dong, P., & Jia, J. S. (2014). When does playing hard to get increase romantic attraction? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General143(2), 521–526. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0032989

One Reply to “Science of the Chase: Unveiling the Psychology Behind Playing Hard-to-Get”

  1. Love this post! I thought the video game analogy you used was so clever and so true! If someone is too obvious, it can feel boring, but if they make you feel like they’re unattainable, that’s no fun either. I also really like the last sentence in purple and blue – it sums everything up super concisely. Also! Reysen and Katzarska-Miller’s finding that participants rated their coworker as more attractive when the coworker didn’t like them (the low group) than when the coworker did like them (the high group) is so interesting! It seems to go against the reciprocity principle and Whitchruch et al.’s finding that participants were more attracted to the men who liked them a lot than to the men who liked them an average amount.

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