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Jayson Jia: Does Playing “Hard to Get” Work?

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Jayson Jia: Does Playing “Hard to Get” Work?

In a Hong Kong speed-dating experiment, male undergrads have mixed reactions to women who play hard to get.
A boy and girls hiding behind trees
Illustration by Yuko Shimizu

The best-selling dating advice book The Rules counsels single women that to capture Mr. Right, they should appear busy, rarely return phone calls, and generally keep a man playing cat and mouse. Versions of the hard-to-get strategy have been recommended around the world since at least the days of Socrates, but how well does the ploy actually work?

Illustration of a man and woman on a date
Pulling off the hard-to-get strategy, in short, is tricky. | Getty Images

That’s the question a trio of researchers, including recent Stanford Graduate School of Business graduate Jayson Jia (PhD ‘13), set out to answer the scientific way, through a series of experiments. Their main finding: When the strategy works at all, it leads to seemingly paradoxical results, increasing wanting even as it decreases liking.

In one experiment, the researchers, who included Xianchi Dai of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Ping Dong of the University of Toronto, signed up unsuspecting male undergraduates at a Hong Kong university for what the students thought would be a speed-dating event. The scientists then had a confederate, an attractive female undergraduate, play either easy or hard to get with these participants.

The easy-to-get approach was straightforward: With men in that group, the young woman showed warmth and interest in her date by smiling and actively engaging the young man in conversation. But the hard-to-get approach couldn’t simply be the polar opposite of that because, as Jia explains, “If someone is too rude to you, you won’t bother talking to her anymore.” Instead, he says, playing hard to get involves a mix of “uncertainty and a mild negative signal” — the kind of uncertainty that past research had shown to increase interest. (For example, in another recent paper, Jia and his colleagues had demonstrated that people express a preference for potential over known achievement.) So instead of showing hostility, the actress playing coy merely responded to the men’s questions and wore a poker face.

In Hong Kong, where the research was conducted, people’s general attitudes toward playing hard to get are similar to those in the United States, Jia believes. Chinese culture tends to be “quite strategic socially,” he says, so people don’t automatically frown on game-playing in dating, and Hong Kong is more Westernized than, say, mainland China. The results of these experiments, therefore, would probably hold true in the U.S. and Europe.

To see the effect of their female ally’s behavior, the researchers surveyed the men after their dates about how much they liked the woman, how much they enjoyed the experience, and, if they wanted to talk with the woman again, how motivated they felt to do that. In other words, the scientists were trying to get at two separate issues: liking versus wanting.

It's perfectly possible to want an experience you don't particularly like.

Liking and wanting may seem to go hand in hand: It stands to reason that if you like something, you want it, and if you want it, that must be because you like it. But in recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered otherwise. Animal research, for example, shows that lab rats can be made to crave sugar without deriving pleasure from it, and nicotine addicts want to take a drag even if they don’t actually enjoy cigarettes any more than non-addicts do. This disjunction between liking and wanting isn’t merely an addict’s anomaly. In research conducted at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Baba Shiv, Uzma Khan, and the late Ab Litt found that being thwarted in pursuit of a prize makes students less fond of the prize even as the frustration increases the price they’re willing to pay to win it. All this odd behavior occurs because the brain, as University of Michigan neuroscientist Kent Berridge has found, uses separate reward pathways for pleasure (or liking) and for desire (or wanting). As a result, it’s perfectly possible to want an experience you don’t particularly like.

That’s pretty much what happened in the dating study. “Even though the men liked the person less if she was playing hard to get, they were more motivated to pursue her, like getting her phone number or getting a second date,” Jia explains. But he adds a big caveat: This occurred only if the man had expressed interest in the woman to begin with. In a clever twist, the researchers had duped some of the participants into thinking they were choosing the woman they’d go out with on their date from a set of photographs. (The choice was illusory because the researchers had rigged the options by including three less attractive photos that they knew the men wouldn’t pick; that way, everybody would be interacting with the same woman.) As the researchers had suspected, the hard-to-get strategy worked only on men who had first “chosen” the woman. Otherwise, the hard-to-get strategy backfired, with less liking and wanting than in the easy-to-get condition. And that makes intuitive sense, Jia says. If you’re interested in someone and she jilts you, you’d expect to like her less and want her more. “But if, for example, you’re in a bar and someone plays hard to get and you’re not interested, you wouldn’t expect any effect.”

Pulling off the hard-to-get strategy, in short, is tricky. For one thing, you must be careful with your sequencing: Whether in dating or hiring or in making any kind of sale, Jia says, “uncertainty can increase motivation, but there needs to be interest to start off with.” What’s more, even when playing hard-to-get works to heighten interest, there’s a cost to pay in decreased liking. As Jia puts it, “You risk winning the battle and losing the war.”

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