I’m pretty sure that we can all relate to the phenomena of “wanting” and “liking” when it comes to evaluating and relating to prospective partners (perhaps informed by a lifetime of trial-and-error attempts at meaningful connection). The differences between the two are, perhaps, well-defined on the surface, but the nuances that inhabit the real-world ‘relational space’ that lies between our attractions, preferences, and desires seems like it would guide the bulk of our filters, reactions, and responses. In an attempt to avoid becoming too esoteric from the start, the term “wanting” may be thought of as more motivation-oriented. “Liking” may be characterized as grounded primarily in affect or emotion (e.g., Dai, Dong, & Jia, 2014). When one factors in one of the most well-known dating strategies out there—the “hard-to-get” strategy—I imagine many of us would rather instantly come up with a handful of working hypotheses as to this strategy’s effectiveness. Two studies confirmed a few suspicions many of us likely hold ourselves about dating.
 Those that are perceived as more “easy-to-get” tended to be more likable and more desirable when there was not a psychological investment by that partner already in place. Alternatively,  the more “hard-to-get” prospective partners were viewed as less likable (surprise, surprise) but more desirable by partners who already had a psychological investment in them.
In my mind, these findings further confirm many of our real-world suspicions (perhaps even fears) when it comes to the dating scene. Personally, I don’t find the “hard-to-get” strategy particularly charming, but I nevertheless feel that little itch of motivation in the back of my mind, which invariably yells out, “engage, engage, go for it!” Accordingly, I cannot deny the potential implications of research findings like these. In some ways, those with a desire to enhance already established relational closeness and “take the next step” might profit from a hard(er)-to-get approach. While this hard-to-get strategy may be ever so desire provoking, I can’t help but think it can also engender annoyance, resentment, or—in a world of endless options—immediately foreclose the whole connection. Here, I am tempted to risk the analogy of that aging car you’ve likely kept a year or two beyond its usefulness. While one may have a great deal of “sunk costs” already invested in the car (in endless repairs and service costs), there eventually comes a fairly clear tipping point in which the scales tip sides and a rational choice point emerges. While speaking in financial metaphors may seem a bit detached, I’d venture to guess that most of us have at least one story from our personal histories in which the ‘preponderance of the circumstances’ tipped the scale to 51% and…well…a decision had to be made. Stay or leave? Fight or flight? Invest some more or cash out?
According to Jonason and Morgan (2012), playing hard-to-get, “is a mating tactic in which people give the impression that they are ostensibly uninterested to get others to desire them more” (pp. 458).
Keeping in mind that no relationship is “one way” or another, I can’t help but think that most of us fall into a certain middle-ground. In such a place, looking at the real world effects of “hard-to-get” or “easy-to-get” dating strategies quickly outstrips any real consensus as to their predictive powers. Just like in psychotherapy sessions with clients, there are various “extra-therapeutic” factors which are thought to guide therapy outcomes significantly (e.g., events going on in the client’s life, health-related concerns, the loss of a relative, winning the lottery, etc.). Translated to dating, one could easily argue that there are equally moderating “extras” which guide our experiences in profound ways. A factor which seems to stare us in the face each day—and, for many of us, from minute to minute—is the sheer availability of potential partners who may be “looking”, “seeing what’s out there”, or ready to engage “right now”. Very popular dating apps like Tinder and Grindr have made the prospect of going on a (de facto) “blind date” something that can, in many cases, be achieved in as little as a few minutes and a couple taps on a screen. How, then, can a meaningful psychological commitment between two partners be effected in ways that ever rise to the level of being worth further pursuit?
As a graduate student, I know from experience, that having a day or two of free time can pretty quickly grow into a group of “interested” prospects knocking at your door, eager to see if sparks will fly. Add in the fact that you work a full-time job and go to school, and the additional “costs” required to establish a solid investment in any one of these people appear understandably daunting. As a fairly Type A person who wants to be reasonably efficient and effective in all the things I do, any research that might guide the selection of the most effective dating strategies seems almost too appealing. Unfortunately, from what the research tells us on this question, we may not yet be ready to rely on any conclusions.
For those who are extremely busy (or those who are not the best at managing many things at once), it seems possible that the current dating climate may foster a type of avoidance response in many. In the past, it may have been common to be intimately involved with one person and pursue numerous dates with that person. Today, one can still go this route (assuming others are willing and available to take the same route), but one can also go on a date with one person, then go on a date with another person, and another, and another. Granted, I could see either scenario being “fulfilling” for certain people. For others, however, it could quickly lead to an ever-reductive (and exhausting) practice of searching for the “Perfect” someone (a practice that is much like trying to polish a diamond in total darkness).
If my intuition is correct, the current dating culture runs the fairly sharp risk of meaningful commitments to a single partner becoming much like trying to lock onto a moving target. Perhaps we can hone our skills to the point of being able to strike these quick-moving, more engagement-resistant, and oftentimes finicky targets. Perhaps not. Perhaps some of us won’t even want to try. For these folks, it likely seems terrifying (or, at best, depressing) that the fundamental notion that dating could be reduced to the phenomenon of simply “wanting”. For those of us who experience the greatest promise and stability through working toward balance, the task of integrating “liking” back into a dating culture currently so overwhelmed by short-term wanting may seem like a type of solution. In my mind, it seems that we can still have both. It could be that the advent of social technologies and online partner availability has only injected our traditional mate-seeking behaviors with a shot of adrenaline. This apparent referential index shift in the ways that we view the current cultural climate may prove hopeful in that a greater focus on the “extra” dating factors may be the key to catching the right moving target.
Blog written by Michael McRill
Student Intern, KU School of Social Welfare
Dai, X., Dong, P., & Jia, J.S. (2014). When does playing hard to get increase romantic attraction? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology: General, 143, 521-526.
Jonason, P., & Norman, P. (2012). Playing hard-to-get: Manipulating one’s perceived availability as a mate. European Journal of Personality, 27(5), 458-469.