Does playing hard to get work? AB testing for romance
I have long wondered if I would be more romantically successful if I played hard to get. In a majority of my relationships I pretend to be less interested in my (female) to increase their interest in me. Because I am unusually affectionate, excitable and gregarious, playing hard to get (PHTG) moves me toward the modal behavior.
I recently moved to a coastal US city and experimented with texting strategies on dating apps. I switched to low effort, easy-to-respond-to texts, and greatly increased my dates/week rate. I now go on about two dates a week. I worry that when I meet someone that I really like, I get too excited and signal “desperate” or “low status”. So only less exciting women attend the second date. This could extend the girlfriend search and force me to settle for a bad match.
In a date, women have to assess lots of behavioral factors about a partner. Unfortunately, dates do not offer real-time tests of problem-solving, social, physical and mental health skills. You just learn if the person is an interesting talker. So women want to infer about partner’s behavioral traits from limited information.
One mechanism that female primates (including human women) have evolved is to prefer men who are high in status. Becoming high status requires those social and mental health attributes that women want, so status is correlated with effectiveness (presumably it also had direct benefits in the evolutionary environment). Women therefore evolved to be more attracted to high status men. My favorite dating blog puts it
Men can easily create [the impression that they are lower status than their partner] by playing out too many low status behaviors, making women feel like they’re on a pedestal. Women are evolutionarily programmed to lose attraction for men who make them feel this way.
But women need honest signals of status (signals which are difficult to fake). A great signal would be how my peers treat me, but this signal is unavailable on a date. Instead women can only judge my status from surface signals and my reactivity.
To avoid reinventing the wheel, I’ll quote Grotesman’s practical definition here in full.
When you feel reactive in an interaction, your brain is saying, “this person is interesting and important; give them your undivided attention”. Your behaviors will have the characteristic signs of low status: anxiety, discomfort, excitement, eagerness, anger, curiosity.
The higher a person’s status is relative to yours, the more you react in an interaction with them. The lower the status, the less you react – or maybe you don’t react at all.
High-status, unreactive behaviors
Holding eye contact
Extending limbs, taking up a lot of space
Exposing vulnerable body parts: throat, abdomen and groin
Succinct and monotone speech
Disclosing little information
Comfortable and relaxed body language
Ignoring questions or requests
Still body positions
Low-status, reactive behaviors
Contorting the body to take up little space
Disclosing a lot of information
Overly loud or quiet voice
Avoiding eye contact
Being the first to laugh after making a joke
Trying to impress
Being defensive in disagreements
Intentionally reducing my reactivity helps me play hard to get.
Furthermore, expressing too much interest is hard to recover from on a first date. Expressing too little interest is relatively easy to recover from. Waiting to express interest in the partner until you’re confident they will reciprocate is a better strategy. Evidence
Most of my relationships began when I intentionally hid my interest
My relationships have a strong tendency to end shortly after I make an unreciprocated affection signal
Women often complain that men seem “desperate”, which probably means both low status and too interested.
Folk wisdom that “when it rains it pours”
Setting the prior
Because I am highly reactive and affectionate relative to the average man, I expect I can gain by reducing my reactivity and hiding interest in the first three dates. However, there is also a folk wisdom that “being yourself is always most attractive” or “being authentic is best”. I am doubtful but cannot disprove it. Furthermore, I might be too bad an actor to hide my feelings. Both theories imply intentionally reducing reactivity and affection will have negative results. I will test the claim that “intentionally reducing reactivity and affection for the first three dates will increase attraction in partners” (H1)
My prior is 70% that the H1 is true (conditional on null being false).
Fortunately now that I have frequent dates, I can test the theory. For the next ~20 dates I will flip a coin before arriving at the venue. If the coin lands heads, I will intentionally reducing my reactivity and interest signals. If the coin lands tails, I will make no effort in either direction. I talk a lot and loudly. I tell the other person tons about my life. I riff a lot on their statements.
My control behavior is my regular date behavior, but people vary wildly in their courtship behavior so that deserves explanation. I have ADHD, am extroverted and am prone to ranting. I fidget a lot. I make lots of eye contact. When I am interested in a partner, I give a lot of reinforcement. I laugh hard at their jokes. I validate their statements (sometimes even bad ones). I do tease a lot, which is high-status.
It’s difficult to compare my behavior with others because I do not date men. From observing other couples I am louder, more talkative and more reactive, but I cannot distinguish first from 30th dates at the table over. These are my best guesses of comparative behavior.
In the treatment group I will intentionally reduce the interest signals. In general, I will attempt to observe the dates reactivity and interest and exactly match it. That could include:
Thinking to myself “Yes I am anxious that I will seem unattractive. That anxiety is normal and healthy. A failure is an opportunity to learn, and you only need one success.”
Occasionally feigning losing interest in a line of conversation if the other person is also losing interest.
Allowing longer silences into the conversation.
Open hand gestures (hands on the table or expansive gestures)
Disclose aspects of my life more slowly than my partner
If the other person is contributing less to the conversation, asking direct questions about their life like “who are you closest to?”, “What did you do after college?” or “Are you friends with your coworkers”. Ideally these questions are short but open up space for her to overshare
Between venues walking slightly ahead of or alongside her
Teasing her more than I normally do
Generally repressing the excitement I feel after each conversational move
Never ever ever talk about meta dating
Behaviors I will do in both cases
Make lots of direct eye contact (unless feigning losing interest)
If asked “What I’m looking for” I will dodge the question. It has been my experience that if you say “If I meet the right girl, I would like a girlfriend”, she will assume that you want to date her. This is too much early interest, and an instant K.O. for the romance. I have not decided how I will solve this problem. Whichever solution I choose, will be applied evenly.
In the treatment category I will continue the altered behavior for three dates. However, I will only gather data from the first two, since I might lose interest after the first date and skew my own data. I’ll collect three signals of interest
Shows up to second date
Invites herself over for sex
Eye contact (subjectively reported)
I reject the null “that PHTG does not matter”. In an academic sense, the null is perfectly possible. In a practical sense, I must choose to PHTG or not. If the null is true the decision does not matter, so getting it wrong has no practical consequences.
I set my prior at .65 that PHTG is more effective. PHTG is more consistent with the presented evidence, but not overwhelmingly so.
After 10 dates in each group, I will do a t-test on both second dates and eye contact to produce a likelihood ratio. I will post that likelihood ratio in the final analysis. Then I just multiply the prior by my LR to find my posterior.
If my posterior belief is between .4 and .6, I will just not PHTG. It’s too much of a hassle.
All posts about dating get ethical responses because they inevitably violate our vague but intense norms about dating. Ultimately, I must present myself somehow, and I choose the best light possible.
Because this is an AB test, ethical complainants face an additional hurdle. I’m going on these dates anyway, and must apply either the treatment or the control. Therefore, if one wishes to state that the AB test is unethical, one must further assert that either “all treatment” or “all control” or “do not go on dates” would be more ethical (non-consequentialist ethicists please start your own post to debate philosophy).