When you first start dating someone, at least one of your friends will tell you to "play it cool." It's a piece of advice that's almost as old as dating itself, and it's based on the idea that if you act like you're not really eager for the relationship, you suddenly become irresistible.
According to a new study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour, you can try your best with that method, but it probably won't work.
The team, led by IDC Herzliya psychology professor Gurit Birnbaum, conducted a series of six studies – some experiments and some looking at diary entries – to see whether uncertainty about a partner's romantic intentions affected how sexually attractive they were perceived to be.
In the first study, 51 women and 50 men, aged 19 to 31 and all single, were told they were chatting to another participant online who was in another room. Then they were told their photo would be shown to the other person and they could see a photo of who they were talking to in return. In reality, the other person in the chat was one of the researchers, and every participant was shown the same photo of someone of the opposite sex.
At the end of the chat, participants could send one final message. Some were told their chat partner was waiting for them, while others were told they weren't. The idea was to create certainty or uncertainty about the online partner's interest. Then, participants rated their partner's sexual desirability and how much they wanted to talk to them again.
Those who knew the partner was eager to hear from them perceived them as more sexually attractive than those who were uncertain. The rest of the studies showed a similar pattern – that sexual desire seems to thrive on reduced uncertainty. And this was true for men and women in committed relationships too.
So where did the idea come from that playing hard to get is a turn on? According to the study authors, it could all come down to self-preservation.
"People may protect themselves from the possibility of a painful rejection by distancing themselves from potentially rejecting partners," said Harry Reis, a professor of psychology and Dean's Professor in Arts, Sciences & Engineering at Rochester, and co-author of the study.
Birnbaum added that the findings suggest sexual desire may "serve as a gut-feeling indicator of mate suitability that motivates people to pursue romantic relationships with a reliable and valuable partner," and "inhibiting desire may serve as a mechanism aimed at protecting the self from investing in a relationship in which the future is uncertain."
In other words, we all fear rejection and playing it cool makes us appear less vulnerable. But in reality, by pretending you're not interested, that's exactly how you come across – literally not interested.
So if playing it cool is your dating method of choice, good luck with that. It might work if you're attracting a player or someone with an avoidant attachment style. But if you're looking for long-term happiness with someone who's right for you, it seems honesty really might be the best policy.
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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