Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Can't Touch This

So, long-term relationships can be tough. You pass the honeymoon phase quicker than it came and suddenly you’re so comfortable with one another that it starts to get boring. Worse than this, you stop listening to each other – I mean really listening, being attentive. College relationships make this even harder, because you spend so much time together without realising. At university, you’ve got your own room, own life, and unrestrictive absentee parents. It makes the honeymoon phase escalate even quicker, and before you know it, your partner is making less effort and keeps forgetting to tell you they love you.

My friend has a partner who has slipped into this ‘routine relationship’ a few times now. He’s becoming a lazy partner – he’s stopped taking her out on romantic dates, stopped being attentive when she’s really excited about something, stopped instigating sex, and has even stopped checking her out. She wants to persuade him to start treating her like he used to. Her method of dealing with this is using techniques like repetition and flattery – whenever he pulls away, she messages him more, pushes for dates, tells him how amazing he is, how thankful she is to have him in his life, how much she loves him. She believes that if she persists enough, her flattery and familiarity will start to breed liking (rather than boredom) and he’ll come around.

This does not work. In fact, it probably makes it worse. Her partner convinces himself that if she loves him that much, there’s nothing he could possibly do wrong to lose her. His ego inflates.

A more effective method of dealing with this might be to exploit the sexual economics of scarcity. By making herself scarcer instead of more available, psychology demonstrates that she’ll start to become a more desirable catch. Her newfound rarity and unavailability will demonstrate her high value and urge her partner to get his act together. This pressure is further heightened by the fact that many university couples decide that it’s unlikely their relationship will last beyond university (with jobs, responsibilities, geography and, well, life getting in the way). Because of this, my friend’s partner can’t be sure they’ll still be together after graduation. This creates the perfect time bomb that makes the technique exert even more pressure on him. Now, not only is she rare and unavailable, there is also limited time to have her.

If he responds well to this behaviour, she should stop immediately and make herself available to him again – despite the age-old story, men do not desire women who are hard to attain, especially if they behave misanthropic or cold. However, if this still doesn’t work, she can take a further step by making sure he knows that other men can’t get her, but he can.

Walster, Walster, Piliavin and Schmidt (1973) demonstrate this by empirically studying the psychology of ‘playing hard to get’. Seventy-one male university students were each given 5 folders containing background information on 5 (fictitious) women. They were required to choose one for a date. The subject was told that the women had already examined his background information and evaluated him along with her own other 4 choices on a ‘date selection form’ included in each folder. The subject was given these forms, with ratings on a scale ranging from -10 (definitely do not want to date) to +10 (definitely want to date) for the subject, as well as for the other 4 anonymous dates.

The independent variable (elusiveness of the woman) was manipulated through these 5 forms:
-       One woman indicated that she was willing to date any of the men assigned to her, but was not enthusiastic about any of them either (‘uniformly hard-to-get’ condition). She rated all 5 of her date choices from +1 to +2.
-       One woman indicated that she was enthusiastic about dating all 5 of the men assigned to her (‘uniformly easy-to-get’ condition). She rated all 5 date choices from +7 to +9.
-       One woman appeared easy for the subject to get, but hard for anyone else to get (‘selectively hard-to-get’ condition). She indicated minimal enthusiasm for the other 4 date choices (rating from +2 to +3), and extreme enthusiasm for the subject (+8).
-       Two women did not provide forms (‘no information’ condition)



As you can see in the bar graph above, participants preferred women who were easy for them to get, but hard for others to get (the selective woman). The least desired woman was the one playing hard-to-get for everyone.

In the case of my friend, she is already with her partner – she is easy to get. However, making herself slightly less available both increases her value to him, and brings her closer to being ‘back on the market’. But, of course, she is not available to other men, and having been in a long-term committed relationship, her partner knows that other men will find it hard to get her. This combination is perfect in persuading him to rethink his behaviour in the relationship.


Walster, E., Walster, G.W., Piliavin, J., & Schmidt, L. (1973). 'Playing hard to get': Understanding an elusive phenomenon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 26, 113-121.


Riana Mahtani

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