We’ve all been in this situation: We go on a great first date, head home, and immediately start planning the next rendezvous. We glance at our phone every 30 seconds in hopes of a  text, or a call from our date, and grow impatient by their radio silence. Self-doubt creeps in, and we ask: “What’s wrong with me?” We finally hear from our love interest three days later, and get the coveted second date for Saturday. Once again, we're in a mind game. Is playing hard-to-get in our DNA? 

In retrospect, if we were genuinely interested in our date, why didn’t we text first? Or, why did they wait 72 hours to contact us? We’re all playing the dating game.

Waiting three days to reply to someone after a successful date prevents people from looking too eager or desperate, but the technique, thanks to dating apps and other modern conveniences, is becoming obsolete.

In reality, it takes only seconds or minutes to text or call someone, even for the busiest professional. So, why do we play mind games, even when we’re romantically attracted to the person? We’re socially conditioned to think frustration breeds desire, and our own biology helps reinforce this belief. We probably all do it, to some degree, but the question still remains whether we should.

“Hard To Get” Phenomenon In The Media

Playing “hard to get,” is a phenomenon seen in many modern-day cultures. We desire a person who is difficult to attract more than a person who can be effortlessly seduced. The media prescribes a gendered role for this game by declaring the man as the pursuer, and the woman as the pursued.

For example, in the romcom, “John Tucker Must Die,” the new girl Kate is enlisted by John Tucker’s group of ex-girlfriends to get revenge for playing mind games while dating all of them at once. Kate gets a makeover, and suddenly John notices her, and tries to win her attention, but she continuously dismisses his countless efforts. John’s ego is insulted because there is no girl he can’t charm, and he becomes determined to get Kate.

“Women are conditioned to think that men, as primordial animals, want a chase,” Dr. Anjhula Bais, an international psychologist, specializing in trauma, told Medical Daily.

She added: “Part of the mind game arsenal for a woman is to make herself scarce so the man has to ‘chase’ her.”

Similarly, in the movie Clueless, the protagonist Cher falls for “the new guy” Christian, and begins to subtly draw his attention through playful mind games. In class, she purposely drops her pen on the floor while seated, prompting Christian to pick it up, giving him a good vantage point of her legs.

Throughout the movie, she boosts her desirability by sending herself flowers and candy to make sure she looks popular. Cher becomes the object of desire because she is marketing herself to be a scarce commodity. Christian is immediately intrigued by Cher’s popularity, and zest for playing the “femme fatale.”

However, Cher’s fruitless efforts fall short once she realizes Christian is gay. He finds the idea of Cher’s popularity, not romance, alluring, and tries to get closer to her as a friend.

A study published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found women who play hard to get are desirable, but only if they’re popular. Men explained a woman can only afford to be “choosy” if she has a lot of friends. These men equate popularity with attraction and a good personality, along with other desirable traits. This theme is reflected in both John Tucker Must Die and Clueless, where both female protagonists were popular, and purposely made themselves temporarily unavailable to their interest.

Jonathan Bennett, dating and relationship coach in Columbus, Ohio, says both men and women play similar mind games, but there are some differences.

“I see 'playing hard to get' and 'the silent treatment' as a typically female tactic, while men’s mind games center around making a woman jealous of his alleged attention from other women,” he told Medical Daily.

Sending a text. Photo courtesy of Pexels, Public Domain

In the movie That Awkward Moment, three friends live their love lives defined by rules. For example, protagonist Jason remains firm on never seeing any given girl from their "roster” twice in one week, even if he likes them. Here, Jason is trying to convince someone he’s not into them while being into them, because it’s all about “playing the game.”

So, is wanting what we can’t have a mating strategy we’ve adopted?

The Evolution Of Mind Games: Is It In Our DNA?

Evolutionary theorists have often focused on competition when it comes to mate selection. Dating is often referred to as a game in which we compete to get the attention of a potential, or current lover. Reality television shows based on dating competition such as “The Bachelorette” help us grasp the idea that mate competition, or intersexual selection, is an evolutionary process.

When it comes to sexual selection, where mate choice exists, one sex is competitive with the same sex, while the other sex is choosy, or selective, when it comes to picking individuals with whom to mate.

Previous research has found women play mind games to gauge a level of commitment from their suitor. It’s a mating tactic that gives people the impression that they are ostensibly uninterested to get others to desire them more. However, Robert Weiss, Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health, believes this is used by women who want to eliminate the “players” from men who are worthy of a relationship.

“Men will typically play mind games when they are trying to get sex; women will typically play mind games when they are trying to get a more serious relationship,” he told Medical Daily.

Playing hard to get is a mind game to test the strengths and weaknesses of partners. Bennett believes we are biologically programmed to play them because they test the evolutionary fitness of potential partners and their readiness for a long-term relationship.

He proposes the question: “If a person can’t overcome basic obstacles like a mind game, how will he or she fare as a long-term partner or a parent, for example?”

Evolutionarily speaking, mind games may seem like a primal instinct to boost our chances of mating with the best potential partner for reproduction.

Couple hugging each other. Photo courtesy of Pexels, Public Domain

Bennett tends to see mind games as "relationship tests stemming from evolution.”

“In a way, passing the tests from mind games shows a person’s readiness and fitness” for the long haul, he said.

This may reflect a biological urge with the brain influencing how receptive we are to those who play hard to get.

The Neuroscience Of Mind Games: Wanting What You Can’t Have

Being told “no” actually fuels our desire. This fixation also applies to dating where we’re more likely to be drawn to someone who appears unavailable. Since it’s in our nature to be competitive, this obsession manifests as a conquest we must hunt to get.

Lynn Gilliard, author of “ Let Him Chase You,” believes this is why “some people are only interested if they think the person is unattainable, which is why some women gravitate toward married men and some men are even more persistent when they learn a woman is already taken."

In a 2009 study in the Journal of Social Experimental Psychology, researchers presented women with a photo of their potential dream man. Half of the women were told the man was single, while the other half were told he was in a relationship. The photographs were the same across all participants. A total of 59 percent were interested in pursuing the single guy, but that rose to 90 percent when they were under the impression he was already in a committed relationship.

The brain’s reward system is stimulated, and feel-good hormones, such as dopamine, are activated due to the thrill of the chase, according to Bais.

“It's a temporary high. You have to keep playing the game (harder and harder) to mimic the high,” she said.

Our brain responds strongly to the unpredictability of the unattainable. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience used brain scans to observe the reactions of participants being given water or juice. Researchers noted participants showed the strongest reactions when they didn’t anticipate that they’d be receiving the juice or water; it didn’t matter whether they liked the water better than the juice. The fact that the reward was unexpected led to activation in the the nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain that is active when people are experiencing pleasurable events.

In a dating context, the brain experiences a similar sensation from the uncertainty of whether someone likes us or not. We tend to enjoy challenges, as long as they’re not impossible, and dating is no different. Specifically, women have been found to be attracted to men when they’re uncertain if these men liked them in return. Researchers believe the reason for this increased attraction is that women may spend more time thinking about these men, and we grow attracted to what we think about.

Mind games, like playing hard to get, seem to work in certain situations, but experts warn they may not always be fool-proof.

Mind Games: Do They Really Work?

Playing hard to get is usually successful when it’s with someone who shows genuine interest. Some men and women fail at playing hard to get because they overestimate how much the other person is interested, according to Gilliard. A 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology echoes Gilliard’s belief: if a partner is already interested and likes you, posing a challenge can boost their desire. However, if we are uncertain of our love interest, and they only seem a little invested, a more direct and engaging approach should be applied.

Mind games have a variable rate of success, according to Bais.

“[I]n life as in relationships, there is no one size fits all,” she said.

Online dating apps can also make it harder to “play the game” because other potential matches could be a swipe away. Whitney Winscott, Founder and CEO of Bracket Dating, a dating app expected to be released in May, believes modern technology can easily lead mind games to backfire.

“If this were 1990 a girl might have waited by her phone for days to hear back from her potential new mate and then beam with excitement when she got the call. Now if she is holding her phone waiting for you to text, or gets frustrated with your apparent lack of interest, another date is only a swipe away. If you live in a metropolitan area you can probably find a date any night of the week,” she told Medical Daily.

Whether we meet on or offline, many interactions on the first few dates are nothing more than games.

“Picking up the check is a mind game for both sides. If he picks up the check he might be perceived as a gentleman or alternatively a chauvinist,” Winscott said. If she picks up the check she may seek equality, or is potentially a bra burner. “What does splitting the check equally tell you about the other person?”

Mind games have become a common dating or mating ritual we engage in subconsciously. These behaviors become part of flirting, and are learned by watching our friends and family, TV, movies, and by reading books.

However, April Masini, relationship expert and author, reminds us not all mind games are bad.

“It’s actually positive if you’re busy and have an interesting life and aren’t sitting around watching paint dry. If someone asks you out and you’ve got things going on, it’s not so much that you’re playing hard to get as it is you’re letting them get to know you as the person you are — interesting, engaged in life and not desperate for a date!” she said.

Should You Play Mind Games?

The truth is, we can’t reveal all our secrets and our feelings right away, though some of us are more aware of our true motivations than others.

When we have compatible, and mutually understandable, histories, Masini believes our behavior doesn’t feel like a game to others. But, when it’s foreign, it’ll feel like a mind game.

There is an undeniable allure behind attaining something we’ve worked so hard for, whether it’s in our career or dating. We feel successful we won, and beat the competition. The feelings associated with winning are what drive us to seek what’s first out of reach.

"Nobody wants the party favor that everyone gets to go home with as much as they want the first prize that’s strived for,” said Masini.

When it comes to dating, we bring our psychological, social, and emotional backgrounds to the table. There’s a reason why we act the way we do. Our past experiences shape our behavior and personality.

Some of us may over-analyze and alter our mannerisms to get what we want. This is known as “adapting;” an evolutionary trait that has ensured our survival.

"Analyzing situations and changing behavior to finesse a desired outcome is powerful — and may be considered a mind game, or just smart relationship behavior,” said Masini.