In the paper Playing Hard-to-Get: Manipulating One’s Perceived Availability as a Mate, researchers Jonason and Li looked at dating from a Supply-side Economics perspective. This dictates that scarcity in the supply of a good increases its price. Playing Hard-to-Get (HTG) is an attempt to create the impression of limited availability in hopes of driving up one’s perceived value. Put another way, it’s a strategy for getting a higher quality mate to “bid” on you. Darwin observed this practice in mating and referred to it as “coyness.”
Keep in mind that HTG tactics seek to convey “apparent limited availability.” That’s not the same thing as actual limited availability, which does not require fakery or manipulation. However, perception dictates actions and decisions, so creating an impression of limited availability may increase one’s value in the dating market, at least temporarily.
How does HTG work?
Being at least somewhat unavailable signals high value to others in a number of ways:
- You’re less likely to defect – or end any relationship that develops.
- You’re less likely to cheat.
- You’re less likely to have an STD.
- You’re less likely to have violent or mentally unstable exes.
- You’re likely to have a better social reputation.
According to the research, women play HTG because it discourages men who use a “hit and run” short-term mating strategy. They’re far less likely to stick around waiting for benefits associated with relationships, so HTG becomes an effective filtering device for women. It increases her value to the men she is interested in and increases their investment in her and commitment to her.
At the same time, women are suspicious of men who are highly available – or always on the market. They view these men as likely to defect from any relationship and to simultaneously pursue other partners. In other words, women seeking commitment are naturally turned off by players.
Men frequently do the opposite – they “filter in” highly available women for casual sex opportunities.
Do men and women play HTG the same way?
In one study, researchers identified 58 tactics used by singles playing HTG. Here are the most common tactics in order of frequency:
- Act confident
- Talk to others
- Withhold sex
- Act sarcastic but friendly
- Superficial conversation
- Make others work to get them
- Give accidental physical contact
- Be unpredictable
- Keep conversation short
- Make others chase
- Show attention to others
- Act busier than you really are
- Look at you but then turn away
- Act like you are not attracted
- Take time to respond
- Limit self-disclosure
- Prioritize other things
- Offer limited physical affection
- Sound busy
- Be responsive but slightly distant
- Act like you do not care
- Delay responding to calls
- Stay busy
- Give some attention then disappear
- Delay responding to text messages
- Do not call the next day
- Have limited availability
- Be non-responsive to pick-up attempts
- Act uninterested
- Play games
- Flirt with others in plain sight
- Act non-committal
- Remain at a distance
- Appear unreachable
- Be hard to get a hold of
- Do not express many emotions
- Show initial interest then it wanes
- Ignore efforts to get her or his attention
- Do not call
- Let the machine get the message
- Flirt but then stop suddenly
- Seek attention but then disregard it
- Offer limited witty conversation
- Offer brief responses to questions
- Do not talk a lot
- Act like you do not want to talk
- Date others
- Feign disinterest
- Turn down first few dates
- Do not give phone number
- String others along
- Avoid contact
- Say all the right things but do not call
- Cancel plans at the last minute
- Be rude or snooty
- Treat others like s@#t
Overall, results showed that men played HTG slightly less often than women did. But there were significant sex differences in which tactics were used:
“Women tended ‘not to call’, ‘not talk a lot’, and ‘stay busy’ more than men did.
Men used only three tactics more than women did: ‘acting snooty or rude’, ‘saying all the right things but not calling’, and ‘treating others like s#@t’.”
The male tactics are more aggressive and manipulative, perhaps because women hold the power of selection:
“Because a woman risks more in her sexual relationships than men do (i.e., pregnancy costs), she should want a mate who has higher value and is unlikely to leave her saddled with an offspring. Being a good investment as a mate may be advertised through limited availability.
This may also be why popular press books teaching men the ‘pick-up arts’ advocate that they cultivate a hard-to-get persona so that women will chase them (Louis & Copeland, 2007).”
Why do people play HTG?
Two important reasons emerged as the reason many people play HTG:
- Increase demand in the dating marketplace.
- Test commitment of interested suitors.
Researchers found that those with higher self-perceived mate value were more likely to use HTG to attract a likewise valuable mate. They report that “Only people with high mate value to begin with can afford to limit their availability because they have more options.” The two reasons listed above were paramount to those subjects.
But personality differences play an important role as well. Narcissistic and Machiavellian subjects also reported playing hard to get to “manage the process while dating others.”
In other words, the first group cultivates an aura of limited availability as part of the selection process and to discourage low value mates. Those with narcissistic and/or manipulative tendencies use the tactics to increase personal gain by manipulating others.
The research also found that sociosexuality is unrelated to the use of HTG strategy. People of unrestricted sociosexuality tend not to play HTG because it may limit casual sex opportunities, and they’re not interested in the long game.
“People interested in casual sex do not often sustain lasting relationships. (Jonason et al, 2009)“
What is the sweet spot between availability and unavailability?
One study of 270 subjects found that very unavailable people are less attractive, both for short- and long-term mating. Most of us are not interested in wasting time chasing down someone already in a relationship or otherwise disinterested. For dating and relationships, subjects clearly preferred someone with “medium availability.” For casual sex, high availability was strongly preferred:
For committed romantic relationships, women preferred men with medium availability, while men preferred women with lower availability.
Do people invest more in HTG mates?
In this fourth and final study, 425 subjects signaled their willingness to spend money at a restaurant for low, medium and high availability dates. Again, we see that those with lower availability are perceived as having higher value in real monetary terms:
While the patterns are similar for men and women, men are willing to spend more than women are.
“Overall, men spent less money on more available prospective mates, suggesting that they allocate their resources to mates who have less availability and ostensibly more value in the market.
Interestingly, women were willing to spend the least amount of money on the medium-availability mate. This might be because this is the kind of mate she ideally wants. He is one who is limited in availability, denoting his value, but he is not a wasted effort like the highly unavailable prospective mate. By spending less money on this mate, she may be allowing him the opportunity to prove his interest in her and, therefore, encourage the formation of a mutually satisfactory pair bond.”
The Bottom Line
People who are perceived as moderately unavailable do enjoy higher value in the dating market. But the devil is in the details – among those seeking casual sexual encounters the perception of higher value must be established quickly and is unlikely to be tested.
For the remaining 80% of the population, dating is one area where “fake it till you make it” is very difficult to pull off. “Apparent limited availability” will be either reinforced or refuted as two people get to know one another. It doesn’t take long to determine whether someone is truly selective or playing games.
If you have the self-respect to be truly selective, you will be moderately unavailable by definition. Your value in the dating market is therefore directly related to your self-perceived value. The most effective approach is to work on being your absolute best as a person rather than a romantic prospect.
In this way you will be hard-to-get, and playing hard-to-get will be unnecessary. You will be confident, and will not have to worry about acting confident.