Right before summer break between my junior and senior year of college, I started seeing a guy.
We hung out for a few weeks, on the last of which I said something about how great it would be to keep dating next semester.
“We’ll see,” he replied.
My mistake here was obvious — I’d made my interest in him too explicit. Everyone knows you’re supposed to hide your romantic feelings, to avoid coming off as too strong and turning the other person off. (In case you were wondering, we did not keep dating the following semester.)
I wish — truly, I do — that I could now present you with scientific research that provides evidence to the contrary, that suggests the guy mentioned above was an aberration, and that most people like it when you make your interest clear.
Alas, I cannot. In fact, while researching a story on surprising reasons why people fall in love, I came across two studies that suggest an air of mystery is highly appealing, at least when you first meet someone.
In one 2014 study, researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the University of Toronto, and Stanford University recruited 61 single guys at a Hong Kong university to participate in a speed-dating experiment.
Some of the guys were told they had been assigned a woman to date. Other guys were presented with a group of profiles of different women, designed so that one was clearly the most attractive and would always be chosen.
Unbeknownst to the guys, the woman in both conditions was really an experimental confederate.
Half the time, she was told to act interested in the guys, by finding things they had in common, asking them questions, and smiling. The rest of the time, the woman was told to act disinterested, by only passively responding to their questions, not asking any of her own, and displaying an unresponsive facial expression.
After the date, the researchers asked all the guys to indicate how much they liked their partner and how much they would want to meet her again.
Results showed that the guys were more interested in meeting the woman again when she’d played hard-to-get by acting disinterested — but only if they’d chosen her as their partner, instead of being assigned to her. The researchers say that’s because the men who’d chosen the woman felt “committed” to her.
The weirdest part of the study? Even though the men wanted the hard-to-get women more, they liked her less.
For the second study, which was published in 2010, researchers at the University of Virginia and Harvard University recruited 47 female undergrads, and told them that their Facebook profiles would be viewed by students at other universities. Each woman got to see the Facebook profiles of four men who had viewed her profile.
One group of women was told that they were seeing the profiles of the guys who’d liked them best; one group was told they were seeing the profiles of the guys who’d rated them average; and one group saw some profiles, but the researchers didn’t reveal whether the men had rated them highest or average.
In reality, these men’s profiles had been designed by the researchers, and no one had really seen the women’s Facebook profiles.
Sure enough, the women liked the men more when they thought the men had rated them highest, compared to when they thought the men had rated them average. But here’s the kicker: The women liked the men most when they
didn’t know what rating the men had given them.
The women even reported thinking about the men more when they didn’t know whether the men liked them.
Taken together, these findings suggest that some uncertainty about whether someone likes you can be enticing — at least for college-age heterosexuals. That could be somewhat disempowering, suggesting that when you want a person to like you, you should sit back and pretend you’re not interested.
Another way to frame it, as suggested by social and personality psychologist Jeremy Nicholson on Psychology Today, is that it helps to pose a “challenge” to increase someone’s desire.
All this to say: Dating can take a lot of effort. It’s frustrating, and exhausting, and often unrewarding. But pretty much everyone goes through it before they enter a serious relationship — so at least know you’re not alone in your exasperation.
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