What People Are Really Doing When They Play Hard to Get

A Lesson in Mimetic Relationship Dynamics

(My book about mimetic desire, Wanting, is out June 1st. Pre-order it here.)

What’s really happening when someone plays hard to get? There have been plenty of psychological explanations, usually involving the person’s insecurity and lack of vulnerability. The primary reason that people engage in this behavior, however, is a fundamental law of human desire that is rarely acknowledged:

The desire that a person has for another person (or thing) is completely tied to how the desire for that person or thing is modeled to them by other people. 

In this article, I’m going to explain what that means.

If we understand how models of desire affect what we want, we can move through life with a better understanding of why we’re more attracted to certain people and things and not to others—and maybe even save ourselves from heartache. Most importantly, as we’ll see, we might begin to learn how to love better. 

What Pickup Artists Know About Desire

A book came out in 2005 called The Game: Penetrating the Secret World of Pickup Artists. The author, Neil Strauss, shares what he learned as part of a secret society of pickup artists. 

Frankly, I hate the book. It’s poorly written, and it celebrates psychological manipulation. I read it in 2005 because I was living in LA (starting my first company at the time) and met a member of the pickup artist community mentioned in the book. I was so repelled by him and by the Hollywood culture that I was newly immersed in that I bought the book to make sense of what I was experiencing. Who the hell are these people, I wondered?

Strauss and his pickup artist friends had learned to hack human desire—and you should know how they did it. 

The pickup artists exploited the most fundamental law of attraction: that what people want is determined through the influence of people who are models of desire.

The third chapter of The Game is called “Demonstrate Value.” Strauss introduces the concept of what the pickup artists call a “pivot”: 

Pivot. n. a woman, usually a friend, used in social situations to help one meet other women. A pivot serves many functions: she provides social proof, she can create jealousy in the target...she can brag about the pickup artist to the target.

In reality, people don’t desire anything solely due to its objective qualities, or due to their independent evaluation. That’s just the story we tell ourselves.

In an age of hyperindividualism, that story is more powerful than ever. But it’s a lie. 

The truth is that we want most things according to how other people model the value of those things to us. These people are models of desire.

We’ll see how this plays a role in the game of hard-to-get. But first, a quick primer on how models shape desire in general.

A freshman in high school has recently broken up with his girlfriend. He’s sure that he isn’t attracted to her anymore. He hasn’t thought about her in weeks. 

Then he sees a picture of her on Instagram eating sushi on a date. She’s with a new guy—a good-looking junior athlete from his same school, by the way. 

Suddenly, his desire for her is inflamed. He now has a model—someone important to him, someone he aspires to be like—who desires his ex. 

His newly inflamed desire for her is completely determined by his model, but he doesn’t realize it. He convinces himself that his new attraction is the result of “realizing that he made a mistake,” or “seeing new qualities” in her.

What he saw, of course, was a model: the right person wanting her, revealing her desirability in a way that instantly transfigured her before this poor freshman’s eyes. 

About “Playing” Hard to Get

The French sociologist René Girard is the first one to fully explain how human desire is reliant on models. He called it mimetic desire. “Mimetic” is another way of saying “imitative.” We don’t desire anything directly—we imitate models.

People even imitate the desire we have for ourselves. People that play hard to get know they are not simply objects of desire; they are also models for that same desire.

A person who seems desperate for attention is baring his desires. He reveals how much he wants to be loved, to be known, to be admired.

Of course, we all want these things. The problem with showing it too much is that it decreases a person’s mimetic value in other peoples’ eyes. 

A person who does this is modeling their intense desire for approval, which makes us wonder why they need it so badly. We look around for other people (models) to make sure that we aren’t the only one who approves of them—to make sure, God forbid, that we aren’t the only one who likes them.

We’re all afraid of wanting the wrong things.

Our freshman guy is now blowing up his ex’s phone, confessing his undying love for her. But she ignores him. And the more she ignores him, the more he wants her. 

Maybe she is interested in getting back together with him—but she can’t let him know that. She makes sure he sees as many pictures of her with the handsome junior as possible. Her mimetic value increases with every picture she shares. 

By playing hard to get, she’s modeling herself as desirable. 

The most desirable things are the things we can’t have. Our models always seem to be closer to those things than we are. That’s why they are models to us in the first place: we think (almost always, wrongly) that they either have or are closer to having something that we do not.

This is why most of us spend our lives on a never-satisfied search for the next object of desire. There is always another model somewhere making us wonder if what they want, we should be what we want, too.

The danger with models is this: if our desire is determined by models, then our desire is not entirely our own

Organizational psychologist and author Adam Grant refers to some people as “Maximizers.” They look to maximize their decisions for the absolute best outcome every step of the way.

He cites a study of college grads to explain. Some grads, he found, to “maximize” the impact of their first job out of college; others simply looked for the “best fit” and didn’t obsess over the quality of the job opportunity relative to their peers.

Grant writes:

“Here’s the surprise: despite doing better, maximizers actually felt worse. They experienced more negative emotions during the job search, were less satisfied with the jobs they accepted, and were more likely to question whether they made the right decision. Why? They spent more time comparing their outcomes to their peers to figure out whether they really had the “best” job, and ruminated more about “what if” scenarios. Searching for the best made them less happy.”

The non-stop comparison game that Maximizers play usually makes them miserable. We could say that maximizers are more driven by mimetic desire than the “Satisificers”—those who are satisfied with finding “the right fit” rather than needing to maximize every outcome.

(There’s nothing wrong with aiming for the best; but it can easily lead to a Sysphean tragedy because what we believe is the “best” is often determined by models. And there are always new models. The key is knowing when to be a Maximizer and when to be a Satisficer.)

Now let’s turn back to Freshmanistan to see how this story ends. 

The Tragedy of Clubhouse Love

We not only want the things that we can’t have; we don’t want things unless other people want them, too. 

Our freshman guy starts dating a new girl now. But he desperately seeks the approval of his friends. He takes her to parties, he introduces her to everyone he knows. Secretly, he wants one of them to be wildly attracted to her. He is actually looking for a rival

If he can’t find one, he’ll begin to doubt whether he made the right choice—he’ll begin to doubt whether he really wants to be with this new girl, after all.

If nobody seems interested in pursuing her, then she wasn’t hard enough to get. And that—from the standpoint of mimetic desire—is our worst fear.

Most of us go through life like mini-masochists, constantly worried that our achievements must not be achievements if we managed to achieve them. We are like Grouch Marx, who didn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member.

To paraphrase René Girard: we set out in search of the one thing we think we truly want, which we believe must be hidden under the one rock that is too heavy for us to lift.

If we get something that we wanted, we believe we must have wanted the wrong thing. We go in search of a new model.

I would love to live in a world where I never felt pressure to posture about how hard I am to reach, or how busy I am, or how hard other people should have to work to be with me. (I gave up this game on a romantic level in my twenties. But I still feel the pressure in my professional life—lest anyone undervalue me because I’m too easy to reach! I am speaking partly in jest, but partly not. In the business world, deals are won and lost based largely on mimetic value, not objective value.) 

But a world in which nobody cared about what other people want would be a little less human. Mimetic desire is the most human experience of all. As far as we know, animals aren’t caught in a never-satisfied striving to achieve the lifestyle of other animals. They establish a dominance hierarchy, and it’s relatively stable. Us? We’re caught up in an ever-changing sea of desires.

Each of us cares deeply about what other people care about. We care what other people want. 

In the end, I think playing hard to get is easy, and being easy to get is hard. 

It means overcoming that initial impulse of pride that makes us want to make other people work really hard to get to us. It means being accessible, open, vulnerable—making an unmerited gift of ourselves to others. Another word for that is love.

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