Dating & Relationships, Sex Ed

The Erotic Equation and Why We’re Drawn to People Who Play Hard to Get

September 30, 2019 by Justin Lehmiller

In Jack Morin’s classic book The Erotic Mind, he describes the “erotic equation” as follows:

Attraction + Obstacles = Excitement

What this equation means is basically that if we’re attracted to something and we’re told we can’t have it, this makes us come to want it even more. It’s kind of like the phenomenon of reverse psychology, and it seems to be a basic part of human nature. Indeed, there’s a lot of evidence that this is true when it comes to both our sexual turn-ons and the romantic partners we’re drawn to.

For example, in the survey of sexual fantasies I conducted for my book Tell Me What You Want, I found that people who identified as Republican and/or were more religious tended to fantasize more about sexual activities they aren’t “supposed” to want, such as infidelity, orgies, and swinging. To be sure, these are common fantasy themes across the board—but it’s notable that the people who fantasized about them the most often were the ones who had the most obstacles in their way of participating in those activities (read more about what your political beliefs say about your sexual fantasies here).

Likewise, consider a study in which attractive targets were described as having either low, intermediate, or high availability [1]. When asked who they would most like to date and what kind of restaurant they’d take that person to, participants tended to choose the low availability target and, further, they opted to splurge and take them to the fanciest restaurant (read more about this study here).

In another study, participants were told that an attractive person liked them a lot, liked them an average amount, or liked them at a level that was unknown [2]. Participants then rated how attracted they were to the target. Not surprisingly, people were drawn to the target who liked them a lot over the target who liked them an average amount. However, they were actually most attracted to the target who liked them an unknown amount!

Uncertainty probably works on a few levels here. On the one hand, being uncertain about a stranger’s feelings can be seen as an obstacle to pursuing something with them. However, uncertainty could also create a sense of mystery that draws you in, further increasing excitement.

What all of this tells us is that there seems to be a lot of truth to the erotic equation. For sexual activities we desire and persons we’re attracted to, obstacles do seem to increase excitement.

However, this isn’t to say that playing hard to get always works—in fact, it could potentially backfire in some cases. For instance, if you’re just looking for casual sex (and not a romantic relationship), playing hard to get can actually make you less desirable. Likewise, if you keep your feelings about another person secret for too long, they may eventually lose interest because they come to think you’re just playing games with them.

In short, while playing hard to get does seem to work—it only works up until a certain point.

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[1] Jonason, P. K., & Li, N. P. (2013). Playing hard‐to‐get: Manipulating one’s perceived availability as a mate. European Journal of Personality.

[2] Whitchurch, E. R., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2011). “He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not…” Uncertainty Can Increase Romantic Attraction. Psychological Science.

Image Source: 123RF/iuphotos

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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