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Does playing hard to get REALLY work? Tracey Cox asks two single women to put the theory to the test

Which is the best strategy for finding a partner? Playing hard to get or letting people know you’re interested?

Both have scientific evidence to back them up.

The ‘reciprocity of attraction’ says we like people who like us.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the primitive appeal of ‘the chase’.

Playing hard to get relies on the philosophy that if something comes too easy, it’s less appealing. The harder we have to work for it, the more we appreciate it.

‘The Rules’, a much-hyped dating book published in the late 90s, encouraged women to play as hard as they possibly could.

It’s since been branded both anti-men and anti-feminist – rules like ‘Don’t talk to a man first’ and ‘Don’t go Dutch on a date’ don’t really wash in 2020 – but it’s basic premise might just be spot on.

New US research of 900 people shows those who play hard to get are seen as more appealing and sexually desirable and people make more effort to see them again.

The study (published in the Personality and Individual Differences journal) found making the chase harder did indeed increase a potential mate’s desirability.

Researchers found women were more inclined to play the ‘run hot and cold’ game, perhaps for evolutionary reasons: if a mate is prepared to put in the effort to win us over, he’ll be more likely to stick around and provide for offspring.

But being a little elusive can work for any gender and people of any sexual orientation.

Playing hard to get works best to reel someone in, rather than as a long-term strategy.

No-one’s going to hanker after someone who never, ever lets them get close. The secret is to leave them guessing (they think they’ve got you, but have they?), but not leave them feeling utterly paranoid and insecure.

The strategy also doesn’t work if you simply come across as arrogant and disinterested.

Once the relationship is established, being authentic and allowing yourself to be vulnerable is crucial to making it meaningful and satisfying.

At the start of relationships, however, there is absolutely a case for making science work for you.

In these over-sharing, phone-clutching, constantly available times, it’s worth looking at the implications of this research and putting it to the test.

Which is exactly what I did with two single women.

*Zara is a 27-year-old woman who works in the media. She’s great looking, articulate, social and popular. She has no problem attracting men on dating apps but still hasn’t found someone to have a serious relationship with.

Zara is what I call an ‘instant replier’. Someone contacts her – a work mate, a friend, a potential partner – and she responds immediately. She sees it as efficient and polite. Her work colleagues and friends would agree but responding within seconds to someone who shows interest on a dating app – assuming you want more than to ‘Netflix and chill’ – isn’t doing her any favours at all.

I give her two rules.

The next time someone shows some interest, she has to wait at least half a day or a day before responding.

And she can only answer one or two texts out of three, not every single one.

Immediately reciprocating another person’s interest may not be the smartest strategy. People who are way too easy to attract, are often seen as less valuable, less appealing.

The second rule is based on a ploy called ‘intermittent reinforcement’.

Some psychologists consider intermittent reinforcement the most powerful motivator on the planet.

It’s what keeps gamblers hooked.

If they never, ever win anything at all, even the most foolish give up. But, if after losing lots of money, you finally get a windfall, you keep playing. Just when you were about to give up and stop spending money, you continue. Maybe you really do have a chance of winning that jackpot!

If every time someone contacts Zara, she contacts them straight back, it’s pleasant for the person but it won’t get their heart racing. She’s a sure thing.

If she never answers, they give up.

But if she answers every second or third text, the excitement level is sustained.

‘I think of myself as efficient not over-eager, but I can see how it might come across that way.

‘I found it very difficult to stick to the rules – especially when one guy I have been hoping would contact me, finally did. He asked what I was doing on the weekend and I had nothing on and would love to have seen him.

‘He texted at 10am on Saturday. I responded at 3pm and said, sorry, would love to have met up but have plans all weekend.

Instead of adding ‘How about next weekend?’, I left it up to him to suggest it.

‘He texted back within 20 minutes of me sending the reply, suggesting we meet up during the week instead.

‘I ignored it, as instructed. He texted again in an hour to ask if I’d got the text. That was two texts I’d ignored so I texted him back within an hour of the second one to say I was out and about but had got the text and would look at my diary later.

‘He texted back immediately to say great. I waited a full day before texting him back with a suggested time. He responded pretty much immediately.

‘I felt powerful and very much in the position of being the one who is being chased,

which makes a big change. I’m usually the person making the contact and suggesting meeting up and sitting on top of my phone to answer immediately.

‘I’ll definitely keep playing hard to get if it gets these results.’

I counselled *Olivia, 30, a beauty therapist, a year ago. She was having problems finding a lasting relationship, even though she had plenty of first dates with attractive men.

All the dates had two common factors: they were ‘marathon’ dates (Olivia figured the longer she kept the date going, the more chance she had of the person liking her) and, in my opinion, she told too much, too soon.

A first date is meant to give a hint of what the person might be like – it’s meant to pique your interest. At the end of a first meeting with Olivia, her dates pretty much knew her entire life history.

My new rules for Olivia’s future first dates were simple. Show interest but don’t reveal too much about herself. Ask him lots of questions rather than launch into intimate details of her own life.

Secondly, stop the date after three or four hours, regardless of how well it’s going.

We’ve all been on a Friday night date that finishes on Sunday and sometimes that’s exactly what should happen.

But there’s a difference between a date that naturally continues and one where one of you is very obviously keeping it going, when the other person wants to leave.

Making people stay longer than they want to, makes you look desperate.

So does spilling all your deepest, darkest secrets too quickly.

The slower you build the connection, the more interested the person becomes.

What’s the point of a second date, if you know every single thing about the person after the first one?

Let the person get to know you gradually and you create a sense of anticipation. People like mystery: make people wait to find out what really makes you tick, don’t hand yourself over on a platter.

‘I like to be liked and I bond with people very easily.

‘Most people respond well to me being very friendly. But it wasn’t working with men. I’d had a few dates tell me I was ‘trying too hard’ on the date. I asked a few other guys to be straight up with why they didn’t want another date. One said I gave too much information and two others said they really didn’t need to know my sister had died young or that my parents split when I was 15.

‘I tell people these things because both those events were what made me who I am today. I want to love, live life to the full and not miss a moment.

‘What Tracey was asking me to do was behave like someone else. I didn’t like her advice but I did promise to follow it.

‘The first date I had after that, I stuck to asking lots of questions but obviously asked too many because the guy said ‘It feels like you’re interviewing me’. He didn’t seem interested anyway and when he said he wanted an early night, I didn’t suggest ‘just one more drink’ like I normally do.

‘The next date I went on, went better. I pulled back on firing questions at him and just let myself be naturally curious.

‘When he asked me about myself, I kept things light. Talked about work, my dog, friends – no heavy stuff. After three hours was up, I said I had to go because I had a big day the next day. He was the one who said, ‘Come on, one more’ but I resisted.

‘By the time I’d got home, he’d already texted me to say he didn’t want me to leave and wanted to see me again.

‘My dates often ended with me waking up beside the guy, having been up most of the night talking about myself, desperately trying to get him to like me and stay with me.

‘I felt far less vulnerable by revealing less and leaving early.

‘Since then, I’ve stuck to both rules. I’ve had four first dates since then and all but one guy asked for a second and a third.

‘I’ve been dating a guy for four months and he still doesn’t know every single thing about my life but now I think that’s a good thing. It’s going really well.’

*The names have been changed.  


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