The Attachment Style That Is Most Likely To Play Hard-To-Get & Who Is Attracted By It
If you've ever watched a romantic comedy or, honestly, dated at all, you're probably familiar with the concept of "playing hard-to-get," the idea that by acting uninterested in a partner, you can conversely gain their affection.
The counterintuitive nature of the strategy aside, it's definitely a common tactic—common enough that it was the topic of a recently published study in 1Personality and Individual Differences1. Researchers sought to find out the common characteristics of those who play hard-to-get and those who are caught up in the game.
Who is most likely to play hard-to-get?
Based on their research, the study concluded that hard-to-get habits are associated with certain attachment styles. Attachment theory holds that the way people behave in relationships (known as their attachment style) is formed during childhood based on their relationships with their earliest caregivers. Those who grow up with attentive caregivers tend to grow up to have a secure attachment style, whereas those who had more complicated relationships with their caregivers tend to grow up with an insecure attachment style, whether that's an avoidant attachment style or an anxious attachment style.
Researchers found that those who have a more avoidant attachment style are the most likely to play hard-to-get. This attachment style is characterized by a penchant for forming less secure relationships, motivated by a desire to keep a sense of independence. About 25% of adults have an avoidant attachment style, according to the foundational research in the area.
On the other side of the equation, those who are most likely to pursue people who played hard-to-get are those who demonstrated traits of attachment anxiety, which is rooted in a fear of abandonment and includes increased neediness. About 19% of adults have this attachment style.
"The nice thing is it's compatible. If you're secure about yourself and about others loving you, you're less likely to get involved in such game-playing," said Gillath, "and you're not playing hard-to-get or pursuing people that are playing hard-to-get. But if you're insecure, you're more likely to use these strategies, playing and pursuing, and it's serving a role for both sides."
It wasn't just attachment style that showed a correlation with these behaviors, either—the researchers also saw a trend related to gender: "Women, as we expected, are playing hard-to-get more, and men are pursuing them."
Why do people play hard-to-get?
"Hard-to-get behaviors seem to serve as strategies to self-protect and manage potential partners' behaviors," explained Omri Gillath, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, who co-wrote the paper.
They explain that the general behaviors and strategies we use to find a partner may have some basis in early childhood experiences. Depending on the person, the practice of playing hard-to-get isn't necessarily about the romance: It's more about survival. The researchers believe their study will shed light on how those with avoidant and anxious attachment styles attempt to protect themselves in relationships.
"Sometimes, it's not so much about the relationship but about helping people to stay in control," Gillath said. "Some people are behaving in such a way because they're terrified. They can't trust anyone—and they're doing whatever they can to protect themselves from getting hurt again."
Playing hard-to-get can show up in many of the dating trends that have seemed to expand and multiply: "If you think about things like 'breadcrumbing' or 'benching'—you're letting people think you're interested in them, then pulling away or keeping things as they are without moving the relationship forward," said Gillath, "You're not escalating or de-escalating the effort."
The bottom line.
According to the researchers, "playing hard-to-get" is a manifestation of psychological power dynamics—one that works but may not lead to long-term, successful relationships.
"We're not saying it's good or it's bad, but for some people these strategies are working," he said. "It helps people create relationships and get the partners they want. But who's doing it, and what are the outcomes? These people are usually insecure people—and their relationships are often ones that won't last long or will be dissatisfying."
As sexologist Gigi Engle tells mbg, the secret to successful dating may be the very opposite of playing hard-to-get: getting vulnerable.
"No one finds true and lasting happiness while trying to be the 'chill person,'" she writes. "If you're vulnerable, you're emotionally mature. That, my friends, is a selling point in relationships."
Eliza Sullivan is an SEO Editor at mindbodygreen, where she writes about food, recipes, and nutrition—among other things. She received a B.S. in journalism and B.A. in english literature with honors from Boston University, and she has previously written for Boston Magazine, TheTaste.ie, and SUITCASE magazine.