The Grapevine

Playing Hard To Get? Study Suggests It Makes You Less Desirable

Remember the French skunk Pepé Le Pew from Looney Tunes? The running gag with the character was his pursuit of ‎Penelope Pussycat, completely misinterpreting her rejection as her playing hard to get.

While Pew could not be any more enamored by uncertainty, the same may not hold true for the rest of us. It appears to actually decrease one's sexual appeal, according to psychologists from Israeli-based IDC Herzliya and the University of Rochester in New York.

The study titled "Are you into me? Uncertainty and sexual desire in online encounters and established relationships" was recently published in Computers in Human Behavior.

Even if you don't actively realize it, there is some reasoning involved when employing this tactic. "Showing that you have other options suggests you are confident and have high mate value," said Dr. Mairi Macleod, an evolutionary biologist specializing in the science of attraction. While it may make one seem attractive, it usually only works on a short-term basis.

Playing hard to get could also be "a mechanism aimed at protecting the self from investing in a relationship in which the future is uncertain," said lead author Gurit Birnbaum, a professor of psychology at the IDC Herzliya. In other words, some of us may simply hide our desire because we don't want to be emotionally vulnerable and risk feeling hurt.

For the new study, 51 women and 50 men from a university in central Israel were recruited. All of them were single, aged 19 to 31 years, and identified as heterosexual. Each person was led to believe they would be participating in an online chat with another participant when it was actually an inside on the other end, working with scientists.

While each participant provided a photo of themselves, all of them were shown the exact same picture of the potential "partner" of the opposite sex. At the end of the chat, the scientists allowed the participants to send one last message to their chat partner. While some participants were told that a message was waiting for them, others were told that there was no message.

Using a 5-point scale, the study revealed that people who received a message rated their chat partner as more sexually attractive than those who did not receive one and were left feeling more uncertain about their prospects. 

"People experience higher levels of sexual desire when they feel confident about a partner’s interest and acceptance," said co-author Harry Reis, a professor of psychology from Rochester. The researchers also performed five other studies to understand how uncertainty affects adults, detailed in the paper.

Now, it is true that the phenomenon has always been a topic of hot debate — we have the romantic comedies and relationship experts vouching for its effectiveness. At the other end, we have the skeptics who call it one of the worst aspects of modern dating along with the likes of ghosting.

But the latter group has not won the argument just yet, according to Reis. "Well, they don’t put the final dagger in the heart of this idea, but our findings do indicate that this idea is on life support," he said, noting that the uncertainty idea was "never supported by solid science — but folk wisdom at best."

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