Thursday, March 31, 2011

Breaking the rules: The psychology of playing hard to get

When I was in middle school, a family friend gave me a book called The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right. Though it was clearly geared towards women much older than myself who were looking for a husband, I couldn't put it down. I was fascinated by the long list of "don'ts" that seemed impossible to follow. At age 13 I had already violated most of them.

Here are some examples:
1. Don't talk to a man first.
2. Don't stare at men or talk too much.
3. Don't call him and rarely return his calls.
4. Don't ask him to dance.
5. Always end phone calls first.
6. Don't see him more than once or twice a week.
7. Don't take the lead.
8. Don't open up too fast.
9. Be honest but mysterious.
10. Don't tell him what to do.

Disturbed as I was by this list, I couldn't help but think that the Rules might be onto something. Based on my adolescent observations, pretending you didn't like someone (or genuinely not liking them) seemed, tragically, to be the best way to get someone's attention, whereas revealing a crush was a fatal mistake. 

Though the Rules seem like they would be more effective in middle school than in adult life, research suggests that playing hard to get is sometimes an effective strategy. Rewards that are variable and
unpredictable keep people coming back for more: a romantic interest who gives you attention intermittently and unreliably may motivate you to try harder to win their approval, perhaps because the approval feels more valuable and obtaining it makes you feel more special. Playing hard to get may also work because it interrupts the process of  habituation - just like we get used to the taste of a delicious meal or a salary increase, we get used to other people and the good feelings we associate with them, and the pleasure begins to fade. Some research even suggests that familiarity breeds contempt - the more information you have about someone, the less you like them. In other words, it's easier to idealize someone you barely know. Finally, evolutionary psychology suggests that being coy may be an evolved strategy for attracting a high-status mate because it demonstrates selectiveness. The popular pick-up artist manual The Game, for example, encourages men to criticize attractive women in order to signal their own high status.

Playing hard to get may have some immediate benefits, but research and intuition suggest that it is important to build relationships based on trust, open communication, and genuine connection. Playing games and following strict rules are unlikely to be effective in the long run - a good relationship is one where it's okay to be vulnerable, where you accept your partner for their foibles and feel comfortable being yourself. Here are some reasons why you should abandon the rules (even if you're still in middle school).

We want to be known. Self-verification theory suggests that we want to be known and understood by others. Yes, we want to be seen in a positive light, but there is also evidence that we want others to accurately see even our negative qualities. This feeling of being known gives us a greater sense of prediction and control and makes us feel more authentic. People who feel like they can be themselves with their partners are happier in their relationships and in general, whereas those who feel inauthentic may be at risk for mental health problems. Even if you successfully make yourself seem mysterious and desirable to a romantic interest, what ultimately matters is whether you feel loved and accepted for who you are, not just for who they think you are. 

Opening up builds closeness. Self-disclosure is an essential part of relationship formation. Research shows that people who share more intimate aspects of themselves are liked more and also become more fond of the people to whom they disclose. The development of closeness requires incremental stages of self-disclosure, a reciprocal process of going deeper than the "public self" you show to the rest of the world. Self-disclosure is a gradual process, of course, and sharing too soon or too often can backfire, especially if you are disclosing insecurities about the relationship itself. But holding back can be equally detrimental. 

Being yourself is a great filter. It saves you from wasting time on someone who isn't a good match for you, or someone who is merely attracted to your image or to an idealized version of you. And sometimes a bit of obviousness can help a shy person get up the courage to express their feelings. In other words, if you really like someone and feel a real connection, don't give up just because it initially seems like "he's just not that into you."

Biology (and society) is not destiny. The idea that men should be the pursuers and women the pursued reflects old-fashioned and inaccurate beliefs about gender roles that continue to pervade popular culture. Whenever you break the rules, you're helping to promote gender equality. You can think of it as a form of social activism.

In sum, while a little bit of playing hard to get might help attract someone's attention in the earlier stages of dating, research suggests that it's not a sustainable way to build a healthy relationship. 

Brunell, A., Kernis, M., Goldman, B., Heppner, W., Davis, P., Cascio, E., & Webster, G. (2010). Dispositional authenticity and romantic relationship functioning Personality and Individual Differences, 48 (8), 900-905 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.02.018

Collins, N., & Miller, L. (1994). Self-disclosure and liking: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 116 (3), 457-475 DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.116.3.457

Norton, M., Frost, J., & Ariely, D. (2007). Less is more: The lure of ambiguity, or why familiarity breeds contempt. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92 (1), 97-105 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.92.1.97

Tolman, D., Impett, E., Tracy, A., & Michael, A. (2006). LOOKING GOOD, SOUNDING GOOD: FEMININITY IDEOLOGY AND ADOLESCENT GIRLS' MENTAL HEALTH Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30 (1), 85-95 DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.2006.00265.x

1 comment:

  1. This one is really interesting! For me, I like people who are a mysterious type because I am challenge to go deeper just to be connected to them. I really learn something from your blog and will surely apply it to the near future. Thanks for sharing this one. Your post are all great.