The behavioural Economics Of Playing Hard To Get


It’s well known that feigning disinterest is one of the clearest ways to woo a lover, and showing too much interest is a clear way to drive them away. And it’s even better if you can be actually disinterested by habitually turning down advances or refusing to engage in any obvious pursuit.

The question is: why does this work?

In the movie the Tao of Steve it is explained with philosophy: “We desire that which retreats from us.” As we used to say in college, it’s all clearer in the original Greek: the ancient Greek word for desire literally meant “to reach out for.” You don’t reach out for what is already in your grasp.

Now Dan Areily, the author of the book Predictably Irrational, has set out to explain the phenomenon in terms of behaviour Economics. The key is that when we work hard for something, we convince ourselves that that thing must be worth working hard for.

From Areily’s blog:

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.”

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