Five years ago I had the misfortune of beginning a relationship one week before Valentine’s day. Long hours and many glasses of wine were consumed trying to develop the perfect strategy to court this new woman, and this most saccharine of holidays was proving to be an obstacle. Should I be assertive and make plans with her for the night? Should I assume that we’d be together that evening? Should I assume the contrary? Would presents be involved? If so, of what sort? According to friends’ counsel, my decision would hinge on the message I wanted to communicate. That is, how interested did I want to appear to this woman? The answer to this type of question has long been debated. When trying to establish a relationship is it better to play hard to get or is it better to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve?
Psychologists have had little to say on this matter for quite some time. Some seminal data suggests that honesty is the best policy. If you like him, tell him. After all, it feels good to be liked by others, so to win his heart you should aim to be the source of such feelings. Shower the object of your desire with attention and gifts. Make it clear that you’re into him.
But pop culture tells us otherwise. In the words of Vince Vaughn, “If you call too soon you might scare off a beautiful baby who’s ready to party”. Indeed, one of the principle tenets of the burgeoning pick-up artist business is to mildly insult your prospective partner – “neg” her. Let her know that you could truly do without her.
Of course, Hollywood scripts and the subjective musings of sex-crazed twenty somethings do not a theory make. But new research into the science of decision making has begun to reveal why playing hard to get might be a viable relationship-building strategy after all. Turns out, across many domains, people are drawn to uncertainty. When we are unsure of an important outcome (like whether he will ever call) we, quite naturally, think about it. Did she lose my number? Maybe he’s just very busy this week. I probably shouldn’t have mentioned my credit card debt. And perhaps the more a potential positive outcome (a date) is on our mind, the more we come to value and desire that outcome. The longer we stare at that phone and wonder, the more desperately we want it to ring.
Erin Whitchurch, Tim Wilson and Dan Gilbert sought to test this possibility in a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science. They showed female college students the Facebook profiles of four men who they were told had previously looked at, and rated, their own profile. The women were then either told that these were pictures of men who liked them the most, men who rated them as average, or that they were either men who liked them most or rated them as average. Previous research suggests that the women should be most attracted to those men who they know like them. These men were a sure bet for positive reinforcement, and who doesn’t like that? However, the authors’ uncertainty hypothesis predicted that women should be most attracted to those whose feelings they weren’t so sure about.
Indeed, the results confirmed their hypothesis. The women liked these mystery men even more than the men who they knew liked them. Why? Over the course of the 15 minute study the women reported thinking significantly more about them. And when thoughts continuously pop into our heads people tend to construct explanations for why this occurs. If I can’t get this guy off my mind, I must really like him. So, the best strategy to pique the man or woman of your dreams might be to keep your feelings in the dark. Let them guess.
The catch is that this strategy only works if your target actually likes you. Indeed, the more people tend to think about the possibility of uncertain negative outcomes (what is the biopsy going to show?) the worse they come to feel about that outcome. So think of playing hard to get as a kind of relationship litmus test. If he likes you already, then being distant will only make his heart grow fonder. But if you don’t ever hear back, then you can be confident that it wasn’t meant to be.
I wasn’t privy to this cutting edge research five years ago as I pondered how to deal with the impending holiday. A few days of waffling back and forth and I ended up going out to a mediocre bistro with my parents. A road less traveled, surely, and certainly not a decision that screams “I’m interested”. But my mom gave me pink-hearted socks, so not all was lost. And I ended up marrying the girl.
Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters co-editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe, where he edits the Sunday Ideas section. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com