Dear Irrational (Does it Pay to Play Hard to Get?)

August 25, 2009 BY danariely

Dear Irrational,

I recently met a great guy – let’s call him George – and now I can’t stop thinking about him. Though we’ve only been on a couple dinner dates, he’s officially won me over.

Now here’s my problem: Smitten as I am, I’m ready to hop into bed with George this very minute, but I’m not sure that’s the best idea. After all, there must be some reason that all those books and magazines (not to mention my mother) champion the make-him-wait rule. But does it really work? I’ve never followed it in the past, but then, I can’t say I have the best dating track record either.

What do you think? Should I play hard to get, or no? Help!




Dear Unsure,

Your mother is right: making the guy sweat a little (no, not like that) is in your best interest if you want to maximize the chances f a long term relationship. 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.”

This means that instead of putting out early, you have George pursue you. Instead of splitting the check, you let him pick up the entire tab. Instead of calling him up and suggesting dates, you leave the calling and planning up to him. In other words, make him work, and he will rationalize it by deciding he loves you.

Good luck.

Irrationally yours,


p.s please don’t tell George about my advice, and who gave it to you