Playing hard to get: the gist

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  • Playing hard to get can be a matic tactic
  • Compartmentalization of self-representation is manifested via the hard-to-get tactic as a way of coping or defending a persons’ self-concept in different roles (e.g mother, lover, colleague) and preventing negative spillovers between the roles.

Reasons why someone might be playing hard to get

You’ve met someone, might even be your soulmate, you’ve hit it off. You send a nice text. You wait… and wait.. and wait… Are they playing hard to get?

You don’t want to seem desperate, so you play it cool for a bit. The next day; a reply! You want to jump in the air, but you manage to keep it cool and wait another hour before replying and the cycle starts all over again but this time you’re not going to fall for that old trick. You get yourself a rebound, you hit it off, and the cycle repeats. Sound familiar? It seems like everybody is playing hard to get these days. But what is the point? Are there any advantage to playing hard to get?

Playing hard to get as a mating tactic

According to an article by Jonasan and Li (2013) playing hard to get can be a mating tactic.

Playing hard to get can be done in order to test the commitment of their new potential mate.

Playing hard to get by acting busy and unavailable can also be done to increase demand for oneself. The hard-to-getee tries to inflate their own value and try to increase the demand for themselves and make potential mates want them more.

According to Jason and Li (2013) people whom allready consider themselves ”a catch” are more likely to try the hard-to-get strategy, which can be indicative of a narcissistic and/or manipulative personality. (Hence the study title!)

Typical hard-to-get behaviour

Typical behaviour indicative of playing hard to get according to Jonasan and Li (2013) and which undoubtedly have encountered at least once in your life:

  • Taking a long time to respond to messages and/or calls
  • Flirting but suddenly stopping
  • Talking and flirting with other people
  • Not sharing a lot of information about themselves
  • Acting busy
  • Showing initial interest but quickly letting it dissipate
  • Being hard to reach via phone, message or social media

Playing hard to get as a manifestation of compartemtalization of self-representation

Another interesting, as of yet untested hypothesis, reason for using the hard to get strategy involves a slightly more complex psychological approach. Playing hard to get as a manifestation of compartmentalization of self-representation (say whaaaat?).

In order to get to this point we’ll explain a bit!


Compartmentalization is a form of psychological defense mechanism in which thoughts and feelings that seem to conflict are kept separated or isolated from each other in the mind.[1] It may be a form of mild dissociation; example scenarios that suggest compartmentalization include acting in an isolated moment in a way that logically defies one’s own moral code, or dividing one’s unpleasant work duties from one’s desires to relax.[2] Its purpose is to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.” (Wikipedia, 2022)

So we can see how compartmentalization can be used to behave certain ways. A loving father or mother who is secretly having an affair. The affair might be seen as morally reprehensible, compartmentalization will allow the person having the affair to, for example, still act as a loving and caring parent and spouse. The negative connotations in the role of secret lover do not necessarily spillover to other roles within that persons’ life.


Self-representation or in this case self-concept, is the collection of beliefs that a person holds about themselves. It generally answers the question who someone thinks they are. For example a big part of someones self-concept might constitute belief: ”I am a loving parent”.

Self-representation and self-concept are generally speaking a part of a multitude of self-aspects such as self-esteem (e.g. I feel good about being a loving parent), self-knowledge and self-awareness that all interact to give a person a generally steadfast mental image of oneself, of who oneself was, and what oneself aspires to become in the future.

Cognitive dissonance

When people assume their different roles, values and moral codes related to one’s self-concept can clash with actions. A loving parent and/or spouse might be in love with someone else and start an affair. This could lead to serious psychological stress. The perception of contradicting information (e.g being a loving spouse) and having an affair is called cognitive dissonance. In order to reduce this psychological stress a person will do everything to find a way to reconcile the new information (the affair) with previous beliefs about oneself (being a loving spouse).

Defense & coping mechanisms

Now that we’ve touched on the subjects of compartmentalization, self-representation and cognitive dissonance, I’m going to make a leap to the subject at hand, playing hard-to-get.

When taking this approach, both the concept of coping mechanisms and defense mechanisms need to be taken into account. The relation between defense mechanisms and coping mechanisms is controversial. As a rule of thumb coping mechanism are regarded as conscious and purposeful processes (Cramer, 1998) and defense mechanisms as patterns of relatively involuntary responses (Cramer, 2000)

Coping and defense mechanisms have been analyzed in relation to different symptoms and disorders such as depression, anxiety or personality disorders (Vollrath and Torgersen, 1996). These mechanisms operate as a kind of double-edged sword. Poor coping mechanisms can increase vulnerability in the long-term, avoidant coping for example might increase negative symptoms (such as anxiety) in the future (Felton and Revenson, 1984) but good coping mechanisms may act as a protective factor in preventing negative symptoms.

Compartmentalization of self-representation

In that light it seems reasonable to say that people can play hard to get in order to use it as means to help preserve or defend (part) of certain representations (roles) of themselves from potentially negative romantic experiences like rejection and heartbreak but also from negative societal impacts (a loving and caring spouse having an affair, a college love interest with a tight-knight religious community back home). Playing hard to get can help a person keep each role neatly seperated from the other, minimizing or preventing negative spillovers and their potentially detrimental consequences on the mind from happening.

What are your thoughts the underlying reasons for playing hard to get?

At first glance it might seem easy to discern the reason for someone playing hard-to-get: seem busy to increase your value, make someone want you more. But if you look beneath the surface, there might be a plethora of reasons for someone to play hard to get. They like the flirting, feeling wanted, but they will never want to risk their identity as a loving spouse (e.g ”the other woman or man”) or exemplary son or daughter.

What are your thoughts? Please share your experiences below in the comments!

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