Does Playing Hard to Get Work?

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“Easy things nobody wants, but what is forbidden is tempting.” ~ Ovid

Back in the 60s and 70s, before the sexual revolution had really taken hold, the standard dating advice for women was play hard to get. In some quarters it still is.

Like the Roman poet Ovid 2,000 years earlier, social scientists in the 1960s accepted the cultural lore that women could increase their desirability by being coy. When interviewed, men seemed to agree: they said that hard to get women were probably more popular, beautiful and had better personalities.

Unfortunately every time psychologists used an experiment to test the idea that playing hard to get is a good dating strategy, their results didn’t make any sense. At least not until 1973 when Elaine Walster and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin finally hit upon a method that teased out the subtleties (Walster et al., 1973).

Here’s what they did.

Easy for you to get

Single young men were given a folder containing details of five fictitious single women with quite similar descriptions. They were told the computer had matched them and that three of the women had already seen and rated their own details and those of four other rival suitors.

This was all a ruse, however, to set up a series of experimental conditions related to how hard to get each of the women appeared to be. Each woman fell into one of the following categories:

  • Easy to get: had apparently given high ratings to all five men, including the participant.
  • Selectively hard to get: liked the participant but not the other four men.
  • Always hard to get: didn’t like any of the men, including the participant.
  • No information: there was no information provided about two of the women.

Each man saw the women’s ratings, including of themselves, then chose one to date.  One woman was far and away more popular than the others, and it had nothing to do with the small variations in their descriptions:

  • Easy to get: 5
  • Selectively hard to get: 42
  • Always hard to get: 6
  • No information: 11 and 7 for the two women for which no information was provided.

The woman who was apparently selectively hard to get, i.e. easy for you but hard for everyone else was the runaway winner for the men. Not only that but men thought the selectively hard to get woman would have all the advantages of the easy to get woman with none of the drawbacks of the hard to get woman. They thought she would be popular, warm and easygoing, but not demanding and difficult.

Forbidden fruit

We have to be careful what conclusions we draw from this experiment: crucially it didn’t involve anyone meeting face to face, or address what happens when men play hard to get, plus it only looked at heterosexual matches. But a subsequent study on speed-dating has also found that showing selective interest is the best strategy (Eastwick et al., 2007).

Despite these drawbacks, once you’ve heard the results it’s difficult to imagine how it could have turned out any other way—after all, everyone wants to feel special.

So this experiment suggests that playing hard to get only works in the sense that it signals selectivity. But for the person you are after, you should be easy to get because otherwise they’ll assume you’re hard work.

In the light of this experiment we can remix Ovid’s quote to:

“Easy things are tempting, but only if they are forbidden to others.”

There’s a maxim to live by.

About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 8 March 2010

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