What People Are Really Doing When They Play Hard to Get
You might think that your desires are shaped mostly by your preferences. But in reality, we model them after others.
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, though, is a fundamental law of human desire that is rarely, if ever, 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.
The Romantic Lie
In our minds, we desire things independently.
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.
“Pulling” at Heartstrings
Imagine the following scenario. A freshman in high school breaks 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 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.
It’s interesting that we talk about “falling” in love (did you know that in almost every culture, people do something like “fall” in love? Nobody “rises up” into it…) and people “pulling” at our heartstrings. What’s really doing the pulling are models.
Mimetic Desire and Models
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.
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.
Let’s imagine our freshman guy from above starts dating a new girl. 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 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 Groucho 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.)
Unfortunately, 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.