Does It Pay to Play Hard to Get?

A reader, “Unsure” asks Dan Ariely, the author of Predictably Irrational, for advice: she wants to jump into bed with a guy [George] that she really likes, but wonders whether she should I make him wait.

“After all, there must be some reason that all those books and magazines (not to mention my mother) champion the make-him-wait rule,” she said. “But does it really work?”

Ariely’s response raised my eyebrow.

…making the guy sweat a little (no, not like that) is in your best interest if you want to maximize the chances f a long term relationship. The reason lies in cognitive dissonance, which refers to what we do when our beliefs and actions misalign: Can’t change the cold, hard facts? Then change your beliefs!

The classic experiment here comes from psychologists Leon Festinger and James Carlsmith, who had participants perform a boring task and then paid them either $20 or $1 to convince someone else that the task had been great fun. Everyone then rated the task, with the result that the $1 participants rated the task more positively than did the $20 crew. While the $20 group could explain away the dissonance between their action (“I told someone the task was riveting”) and their belief (“It actually bored me to tears”) via money (“I was paid to promote the task”), the $1 individuals could not because they could not justify misleading others for such a small amount of money– so they changed their initial belief (“I must really like the task, to have promoted it”) and they ended up rating the task more positively.

To give you an example that is closer to our social life, look at fraternities: loyalty to frats increases with the amount of hazing, since pledges tell themselves, “I did a lot of embarrassing stuff for my frat – it must really matter to me.”

So, going back to your dilemma, Unsure, cognitive dissonance suggests that if you really want a guy, you have to create a dissonance for him, so that he will say, “Wow, if I put in all this effort for the woman – I must love her.”

This means that instead of putting out early, you have George pursue you. Instead of splitting the check, you let him pick up the entire tab. Instead of calling him up and suggesting dates, you leave the calling and planning up to him. In other words, make him work, and he will rationalize it by deciding he loves you.

Yeah, no. I’m not sure this reader wants to follow dating advice from someone who seems to believe in the fundamental rightness of both The Rules and the fallacy of sunk costs. And that frat/hazing analogy is all kinds of janky; I’d wager that greater loyalty from longer pledging periods has to do with the relationships you form with your fellow pledges (who also act as a buffer against dropping out midway through pledging) and more time being exposed to the rigorous indoctrination of the intake process. None of that is true in actual flesh-and-blood dating world. (Or maybe it is and I’ve just been really lucky.)

But what if “George” hates all those quaint little dating games? What if he’s a struggling grad student who would really cotton to a cool, understanding woman who offered to go dutch (or  GASP! — pay for the whole meal)?  Way too many variables, because, y’know, people are complicated, with different turn-ons and dealbreakers.* There are lots of practical arguments for waiting before getting it in (conversations about expectations and sexual health, etc.) but this isn’t one of them.

*In my experience, people tend to shoehorn the narratives of their failed relationship into neat little boxes that overemphasize deviation from their personal values (“he/she didn’t respect me because i slept with him/her too soon!”) while paying less attention to the practical shortcomings of those relationships (immaturity, incompatibility, external obligations, and so on).

23 thoughts on “Does It Pay to Play Hard to Get?

  1. Molly September 4, 2009 at 11:13 am Reply

    I totally agree with your aside–there isnt much of a mainstream vocabulary for healthy relationships, and while it is totally okay to talk openly about vapid sexuality, it is absolutely not okay to talk openly about emotional issues that impede true intimacy. I find most Rules-based discussions of intimacy really sexist because they assume that a man’s primary attraction to a woman is sexual and that there is nothing more compelling that could sustain a heterosexual relationship (because if you give him your precious gift, you are going to have to trick him into staying around) and because women are always kind of assumed to not be trustworthy with their sexuality–like if there isnt the penalty of judgment for giving it away, than women would just offer sex to anyone who asked. I also find Rules-based advice very heterosexist. I talk about it ad naseum, but homosexuality is still viewed with shaky partial-acceptance where I live, so I dont get exposed to mainstream discussions about LGBT relationships–are there similar rules for gay couples? for trans couples? Most of this advice seems to assume a man and a woman in the most stereotypical sense.

  2. dilettante September 4, 2009 at 4:35 pm Reply

    I’m siding with Dan on this one. Unsure says she wants to jump into bed with the guy- but we don’t know where said guy is on this front? Leaving aside moral/health issues; I have to say somewhere in the back of most mens minds is the idea that a “good girl woman that he can totally respect/introduce to his family friends as “the one” is not the same woman he had a jump off with. That’s not “the rules”- and none of this is relevant if dude doesn’t really have the same Hots for Unsure as she has for him.

    I’m not so quick to dismiss his fraternity and the boring task analogy /experiment either.
    Do Ivy league grads seek to work on Wall Street because of “the great American values” brought to bear in the spirit of 1776? or is it the paper? On the other hand what, if not, cognitive dissonance (beliefs vs actions mis match) explains many of those real Americans with income barely the poverty line spouting illusory, airy fairy words about the American ethos enshrined in the Constitution being the antithesis of a public option for health care,… none of it having a damn thing to do with the price of tea in China, or a mammogram in Memphis TN or the fact that the middle class is being squeezed out of existence; and it happened well before 20Jan.

    Anyhoo- back to the topic at hand– if a guy is really turned on he will wait a bit, and I would advise unsure to hold back if shes looking for a full relationship. If , on the other hand its just a hookup…no need to deny herself by worrying what he thinks of her; go for it.

    • G.D. September 4, 2009 at 5:27 pm Reply

      “have to say somewhere in the back of most mens minds is the idea that a “good girl woman that he can totally respect/introduce to his family friends as “the one” is not the same woman he had a jump off with. That’s not “the rules”- and none of this is relevant if dude doesn’t really have the same Hots for Unsure as she has for him.”

      That’s pretty retrograde — he had sex with her on the first date, too, but she’s the morally degenerate one. But you’re making a moral argument and Ariely is (pretending to be) making an economic one. And why is it not The Rules? He’s saying pretty clearly that if you manipulate someone in x way in the course of courtship, you’ll have a greater chance at a long-term relationship in the end — which is what the ladies who came up with The Rules believe.

      (I won’t pretend to understand any of the rest of what you typed. seriously, WTF?)

      • dilettante September 4, 2009 at 7:01 pm Reply

        That’s pretty retrograde
        Yes it is. I don’t think everyone is in the post sexist world you are. People are sophisticated enough to *not* use antiquated terms, but my contention is they still think that way. I hoped using the strikeout for good girl to show a conscious need to “correct” such un PC language was what what I was trying to convey.

        But you’re making a moral argument
        Not really. Unsure is “smitten” and seems to want more than a little bit of the guys time. I also stated we don’t know if he felt the same way. My concluding sentence was just that- based on his thoughts (he/George is the goal here) perceptions…if Georges perceptions of unsure are irrelevant I suggested …no need to deny herself by worrying what he thinks of her; go for it. Whatever ‘the rules’ are I don’t think thats one of them.

        (I won’t pretend to understand any of the rest of what you typed. seriously, WTF?)

        it was off topic, but I did read the link before commenting, and a key part of the advice was an explanation of Cognitive Dissonance, which I know you are familiar with but you seem to disregard in this context. My frustration with Town Hall America and its cognitive dissonance showed up.

        • G.D. September 4, 2009 at 8:28 pm Reply

          “post-sexist world”? whoa, whoa, whoa. what? You’re arguing a point I haven’t made. Don’t do this.

          People are sophisticated enough to *not* use antiquated terms, but my contention is they still think that way.

          So women should comport themselves in a way that reinforces the sexism/patriarchy?

          • dilettante September 5, 2009 at 9:36 am Reply

            You used the word retrograde in describing my view that women are stilljudged differently then men. I assumed you called it retro because it was sexist. That’s how I got to post sexist. But maybe you had a different reason for thinking it regressive that had nothing to do with male patriarchy at all?

            so women should comport themselves in a way that reinforces the sexism/patriarchy?
            I don’t think you believe its as black and white as that. Most people have an idea of what they will and will not tolerate in an individual they want a relationship with. That may be somewhat fluid depending on the wealth/looks or other aspects of desirability of the person in question.

            • MC September 7, 2009 at 12:24 pm Reply

              This is such an interesting discussion! I hope nobody minds if I step in…

              I always sleep with men whenever I feel like it—yes, usually very early in our dating! For 3 reasons:

              1) I think it is best to identify men who would hold this against me early before I really fall in love with them, so I can screen them out. Because in my experience, men who have the subconscious conflicts and simplistic assumptions of this sort about women are bad news in the long-term.

              Yeah, they may want to eventually marry you–but if they’re a jerk and you don’t get along, what good is that? I’ve found that men who live by these types of unexamined assumptions tend to be controlling and stuck in outdated gender roles. Not what I want!

              2) The second reason? For me, bad sexual chemistry is just a dealbreaker. Bad sex just doesn’t get better–and you might as well find out early.

              3) The third reason? Good relationships are few and far between–and meanwhile, you keep looking. But if I waited to have sex in every relationship until I was absolutely certain the relationship was good and would last for years to come, I’d almost never have sex. But I like sex! I’m if safe and sincere and an adult, I don’t see any reason why not to enjoy it.

  3. dilettante September 4, 2009 at 4:42 pm Reply

    What if he’s a struggling grad student who would really cotton to a cool, understanding young lady who offered to go dutch (or GASP! — pay for the whole meal)?

    Is George the struggling grad student, really going to *not* stick around for a person he;s genuinely attracted to because he can’t “get it” on the 1st date? Is sex the only way he can tell if a woman is into him or not? Do struggling grad students even date? Or is it more sex when the opportunity presents itself… Its my observation that men marry not the person they think is right, but when the time is right. with women- think they have the right guy,and the time/life stage etc is secondary.

    • G.D. September 4, 2009 at 5:20 pm Reply

      you’re conflating two very different things here. Ariely is saying that *making George pay the bill* is part of making him put in the work, which in turn will make him convince himself that he wants to be with her. That example isn’t about sex or him trying to get some ass on the first date.

      • dilettante September 4, 2009 at 7:12 pm Reply

        I didn’t mean to make my very 1st comment the length of war and peace- so I neglected to write I agree with Ariely, but not for all the same reasons. I do however think that people , men& women will sacrifice their time/ $ money and forgo sex if they meet up with a person they are really interested in. Barring the ability to read minds-I think the test of time/money is an indication of how one person feels about another. I don’t think men/women “fool” themselves into thinking Gee I waited- so it must be worth it, but rather- they waited/ spent it- because they wanted to.

        But you don’t buy his economic arguments. Just as you were put off/confused about my analogy on rich bankers being honest about wanting to get paid (as in the Festinger /Carlsmith) study he cited. Whereas I noted the much more economically insecure , but realAmericans claim to be fighting for some nebulous ideas about what America stands for. vs cold hard access to health care.

        its almost like you’re a guy or something.

  4. Kjen September 4, 2009 at 10:16 pm Reply

    Here’s the thing about the economic model the author used – its a just a theory. Meaning that in some real world situations it will apply, while not in others.

    I dislike advice books such as The Rules and Harvey’s Think Like A Man, Act Like A Lady, is how they try to present themselves as the ONLY way to snag ALL men.
    If the dude she’s tracking is of a more conservative persuasion and she’s pursuing a long term relationship she should probably go with the 9 month rule, while if he is more progressive she could narrow it down from 9 months to first date (sorry that’s my belief in ‘going out’ first before gettin’ busy while staying in 😉

  5. Gessa September 6, 2009 at 6:16 pm Reply

    I’m not a fan of blanket heterosexist dating advice.
    Never mind that the first line says “she should I make him wait”, I agree that Unsure should wait but for many different reasons. The first being that Unsure sounds unsure; maybe she could take some time? By far the biggest problem with Ariely’s advice is that Unsure asked whether she should wait to have sex with the guy and Ariely suggested acting less interested and putting more pressure on the guy to move the relationship forward.

    Ariely’s take on cognitive dissonance theory isn’t spun quite right and makes it sound like people are able to trick others into wanting a long term relationship with them. However, other psychological studies have consistently shown that people do value things and opportunities that they had to wait and work for more than things that are easily obtained. People tend to value things that they think others value (hence dating experts advising people to casually date multiple partners).

    G.D. is almost certainly right that a longer pledge process means more time to bond with Greek members and other pledges but that doesn’t dismiss the wait+work=value theory. Again, it is sad that Ariely decided to play into stereotypes about mainstream dating, but there are many reasons to wait and check up on the guy’s interest level if Unsure wants a real connection. If her grad student crush doesn’t have the time to wait, then she probably isn’t going to get what she’s hoping for.

    Yeah, people who aren’t interested in us aren’t going to be tricked by being forced to wait, but I want to believe that people who are interested are willing to wait.

    • G.D. September 6, 2009 at 8:40 pm Reply

      However, other psychological studies have consistently shown that people do value things and opportunities that they had to wait and work for more than things that are easily obtained. People tend to value things that they think others value (hence dating experts advising people to casually date multiple partners).

      Indeed. But saving up for ____ or getting into the college/grad program of your dreams isn’t the same as the courtship scenario aid out here. The way people express interest in other people — who are dynamic and complex and fickle and opaque — can manifest itself in many different ways.

      And more simply, what if ol’ dude just reads Unsure’s hands-off approach to making plans as evidence of her disinterest?

      (I also want to note here that I introduced the “grad student” hypothetical, not Unsure.)

      • Gessa September 6, 2009 at 11:58 pm Reply

        Sorry about the grad student thing. Hmm, that’s a really interesting theory about relationships not applying. I’ll search it on EBSCO and see what studies have been done regarding the value of dating partners.

        So not too many people are arguing over the usefulness of old-fashioned heteronormative dating advice that puts people into neat, little boxes. It has turned into a discussion on whether some non-gender specific rules often apply to dating: people want what they think they can’t have, moving a relationship too fast is being clingy and desperate, etc. I don’t think that dating is complete chaos or that interest/love is a mystery that can’t be analyzed. Maybe it just gives me hope that there is something I can do (besides having an extensive social network, staying in shape, being successful and ambitious, etc.) to increase my odds of keeping the right women (yeah, womEn) interested.

        • G.D. September 7, 2009 at 1:03 am Reply

          in which ways do you think the getting-to-know-you stages of dating is like Camp Lejeune?

          • Gessa September 7, 2009 at 11:30 am Reply

            Here’s your truncated lit review:
            The first big article is ‘Playing hard to get’: Understanding an elusive phenomenon. Walster, E., Walster, G. W., Piliavin, J., Schmidt, L. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 26(1), Apr, 1973. pp. 113-121. They found that the concept of “hard to get” is complex (surprise). According to their findings, men perceive women who are attainable for themselves, but difficult for other men to “obtain” as the most desirable.
            Here are some of their references that looked interesting:
            Byrne, D., & Lamberth, J. (1971). Cognitive and reinforcement theories as complementary approaches to the study of attraction. In B. I. Murstein (Ed.), Theories of attraction and love. New York: Springer.
            Lyons, J., Walster, E., & Walster, G. W. (1971). Playing hard-to-get: An elusive phenomenon. University of Wisconsin, Madison:(Mimeo).
            Walster, E., Walster, G. W., & Berscheid, E. (1971). The efficacy of playing hard-to-get. Journal of Experimental Education, 1971, 39, 73-77.
            Walster, E., Walster, G. W., & Lambert, P. (1971). Playing hard-to-get: A field study. University of Wisconsin, Madison:(Mimeo).
            Zimbardo, P.G. (1965). The effect of effort and improvisation on self-persuasion produced by role-playing. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 1, 103-120.

            Here are references for relevant studies and those that cited Walster et al. (1973):
            Friedman, B. (2002-2003). Cues to Commitment. Dissertation.
            Eastwick, P.W., Finkel, E. J. (2008). The attachment system in fledgling relationships as an activating role for attachment anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 95(3), pp. 628-647.
            Etcheverry, P.E., & Agnew, C.R. (2004) Subjective norms and the prediction of romantic relationship state and fate. Personal Relationships , 11 (2004), 409–428.
            Hill, S. E., Buss, D. M. (2008). The mere presence of opposite-sex others on judgments of sexual and romantic desirability: Opposite effects for men and women. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol 34(5), pp. 635-647.
            Matthews, K., Rosenfield, D., Stephan, W.G. (1979). Playing hard-to-get: A two-determinant model. Journal of Research in Personality, Vol 13(2). pp. 234-244.
            Rusbult, C. E. (1983). A longitudinal test of the investment model: The development (and deterioration) of satisfaction and commitment in heterosexual involvements. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 45(1), pp. 101-117.

            Of particular interest are the Hill and Buss (2008) and Eastwick and Finkel (2008) studies. This is too long already so I’ll skip the explanation. The take home point seems to be that letting someone know you ARE interested and aren’t a waste of time, but aren’t self-compromising or desperate is a good strategy… not the best ALL of the time, but a good strategy. Pretty interesting stuff; I’m tempted to find a social psychologist and do a study on perceived selectiveness of individuals with online profiles. With online profiles it is easy to see if the person you’ve been seeing is still actively searching for other partners.

  6. YB September 6, 2009 at 7:00 pm Reply

    Leaving aside “The Rules” and various gender biases controversies, the whole advise to this poor girl seems to be to manipulate both her partner AND herself:

    “So, going back to your dilemma, Unsure, cognitive dissonance suggests that if you really want a guy, you have to create a dissonance for him, so that he will say, “Wow, if I put in all this effort for the woman – I must love her.”

    “I must love her.” Because, you know, I worked for it, so now cognitive dissonance tells me I must love her. And she is supposed to accept someone who is duped into believing he loves her, as opposed to having some actual, sincere feeling? Shouldn’t she want a guy who will “love” her, you know, for real, not because of cognitive dissonance? That’s aside from the creepy idea that people who haven’t even had sex yet can ‘love” each other. Unless of course they are the wait-till-marriage folk, in which case I doubt she would be having this dilemma in the first place.

    My advise to her would be to talk to the guy about what they want/expect from the relationship and whether they should have sex or not. If he turns out to be one of those “you slept with me before manipulating me into some sort of cross-my-heart commitment -you WHORE!” then move on, hopefully to better men…

  7. Katherine September 6, 2009 at 8:29 pm Reply

    I dunno if the cognitive dissonance thing is applicable here, but those studies quoted are legitimate, including the frat hazing one.

    I agree that blanket dating advice is 100% stupid though. It’s better to do what you want; if a relationship isn’t going to work out in the long run then you want to find out as soon as possible. Pretending to be something other than yourself is only going to delay the inevitable (unless you are highly skilled at pretending to be someone else for the rest of your life).

    • G.D. September 6, 2009 at 8:33 pm Reply

      I’m not arguing about the validity of the cognitive dissonance studies, so much as I’m taking issue with how analogous those scenarios are to actual “real world” dating.

  8. Lola September 6, 2009 at 9:11 pm Reply

    I have a small rant about this. Not so long ago in high school I had a crush (Very serous, one too) on a boy. Confused little me went to my teacher (Very feminist might I add) Said to me THAT IF i wanted his attention I needed to play hard to get. Mind you she said to me in in Nature that women are being pursued and that men are the pursuer. this wasn’t about the sex, but getting his attention. Till this day I have mixed feelings about this, we want what we can’t have(both sexes) but is it healthy to play mind games and lead people on?

  9. petrichoric September 6, 2009 at 9:40 pm Reply

    I don’t think you’d be reading this dilemma in a blog if you were all European. When I moved to the US five years ago (yes, from Europe), I was utterly shocked at the very rigid and antiquated ways in which Americans conduct their dating and sex lives.

    Now, I’m not saying that all European men are great (of course they’re not – and in fact the worst boyfriend I ever had was from the very country I’m from), but I do think that they have a far more relaxed attitude towards sex than Americans do. I felt judged here for having sex “too soon” with a guy whereas that wasn’t so much the case in the various countries I’ve lived in in Europe (with the exception of France).

    As it happens I’m now married to an American man I had sex with on the first date, so they’re obviously not all bad, but if I wasn’t married to him, you can bet your bottom dollar that I’d be trying pretty hard to avoid sleeping with an American guy so quickly. Really, the judgement I got when I did just wasn’t worth it.

    Also, the older I got, the more I realized that I would rather wait before sleeping with someone to make sure that he wasn’t a complete asshole.

    I don’t know what my advice to this woman would be. On the one hand, I would urge her to act the way she wants to, and to hell with the opinion of others; however, I got burned so many times by having sex when I wanted and with whom I wanted.

    It’s sad to admit, but I don’t yet believe that women have achieved true sexual liberation.

    Petrichor
    http://petrichoric.wordpress.com

  10. Epoxytocin No. 87 September 7, 2009 at 8:56 am Reply

    I’m not sure this reader wants to follow dating advice from someone who seems to believe in the fundamental rightness of both The Rules and the fallacy of sunk costs.

    Mind your is’s and ought’s.

    Dan does not believe in “the fundamental rightness of … the fallacy of sunk costs” any more than you do. In fact, Dan is someone who has built his entire career as an author upon his writing about why such fallacies are, well, fallacies.

    Dan’s reasoning is guilty of the sunk cost fallacy, yes. But that’s because the reasoning of 99+% of the human race is guilty of the sunk cost fallacy.
    Trying to appeal to someone’s emotional instincts with pure logic is obviously ridiculous.

  11. Darcy September 7, 2009 at 6:18 pm Reply

    A guy friend and I just recently talked about how soon is too soon for sex. His opinion was that it’s a good idea to sleep with a guy soon (he did recognize that he is a guy saying this) because if he doesn’t respect you after sex, then it’s good to know up front. I don’t want to date a guy who thinks women who have sex on the third/fourth/fifth/second etc. whatever date are sluts.

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