The science behind why so many people play hard-to-get while dating

The dance of courting in a relationship can be exhausting. It’s a game everyone seems to play at some point in their lives, from text messages left on “read” to even being ignored in a public setting despite hours upon hours of countless talk going both ways. It’s a troubled dance that piggybacks the age-old saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and in turn, it’s one of the dynamics to playing hard-to-get at the start of any romantic interest.

But what are the real motivators behind playing hard-to-get? A new study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences dives into the psychological aspect of making yourself seem more desirable by playing hard-to-get.

“If you think about things like ‘breadcrumbing’ or ‘benching’ — you’re letting people think you’re interested in them, then pulling away or keeping things as they are without moving the relationship forward,” Omri Gillath, professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, said in a press release.

“You’re not escalating or de-escalating the effort. For instance, you’re sitting there and playing with your phone — phubbing — not paying full attention to the other person and making them struggle to get your attention. It’s sending a double message. On the one hand, you’re saying you’re interested. But on the other hand you’re saying, ‘You’ll have to work hard to actually get my full attention.'”

The team from the University of Kansas and Johns Hopkins University “looked to discover the associations among romantic aloofness, gender and “attachment style,” the psychological term for people’s way of thinking, feeling and behaving in close relationships,” per a press release.

When analyzing attachment style, researchers found that women and people with insecure attachment styles were the ones who played hard-to-get more often. These styles are molded through childhood and can craft someone’s attachment style as either secure or insecure.

The studies – four in total – had more than 900 participants, finding that gender and attachment style were good indicators for hard-to-get behavior. Here are some of the key findings:

• Attachment style predicts and shapes hard-to-get behavior, particularly among insecurely attached individuals.

• People higher on attachment avoidance and women (vs. men) reported playing hard-to-get more.

• People higher on attachment anxiety and men (vs. women) reported more pursuing of hard-to-get others.

• When researchers nudged (or primed) thoughts of attachment insecurity, they found primed avoidance led to a greater likelihood of playing hard-to-get among avoidant heterosexual men. Primed anxiety led to greater reported likelihood of pursuing hard-to-get targets overall.

• While many people might be using these strategies (playing and pursuing), their reasons for doing so might be different (control, self-protection, partner selection, etc.)

While playing hard-to-get can be tiring, it is a part of our society and perhaps there are reasons why it often happens.

“We’re not saying it’s good or it’s bad, but for some people, these strategies are working,” Gillath said. “It helps people create relationships and get partners they want. But who’s doing it and what are the outcomes? These people are usually insecure people — and their relationships are often ones that won’t last long or will be dissatisfying.”