Being rejected increases many people’s motivation to pursue that elusive objective. But there’s a catch, say Stanford researchers. Being rebuffed, in fact, makes people less fond of what it is they think they want more. Once they obtain the desired goal, many are quicker to lose interest in it.
STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS—Playing hard to get is a timeworn technique for snagging that desired significant other. And there’s a reason, say Stanford researchers. Being rejected increases many people's motivation to pursue that elusive objective—with a vengeance.
But there's a catch. It turns out that being rebuffed, in fact, makes people less fond of what it is they think they want more. Once they obtain the desired goal, many are quicker to lose interest in it.
"For many people, wanting and liking are two separate things that can become contradictory," says researcher Baba Shiv, professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. "When someone is thwarted from obtaining his original desire, he, in fact, comes to find the attractiveness and appeal of his target to be diminished. Yet, perversely, he may feel he wants it even more. The thrill becomes the chase."
Those most susceptible to wanting the desired object more but liking it less, the authors found, are people who tend to feel and express emotions with a lower level of intensity. "People who are more hot-headed tend to respond to the denial experience by ramping down both their level of interest in the objective and their desire for it––their attitude becomes 'it's not so great, and I don't want it anyway," explains Ab Litt, a doctoral student at the Stanford Graduate School of Business who coauthored the study with Shiv and Uzma Khan, assistant professor of marketing. "There’s less contradiction because they're more in tune with their raw feelings. They're therefore more likely to make decisions that are going to make them happier in the long run."
Interestingly, women in the study were more prone to the like less–want more syndrome than men. "That’s probably explained by the fact that they were somewhat less emotionally reactive than men," suggests Litt. While women typically may experience and express emotions more richly, the researchers speculate, men may do so with more raw intensity, which influences how they take action on them.
In the study, participants were asked to solve several puzzles and were told that if their performance was in the top 25th percentile, they would receive a gift. Then, at random, some were told they had met the goal, while others were told that they had not.
Those who were denied the gift were then asked how much they would be willing to pay for it in a store. Participants who did not receive the gift were willing to pay more for it than those who later did actually receive it. "This shows that being rejected made them want it more," says Shiv.
"Jilted" participants then completed a second set of tasks to obtain the same gift, and all were told they had won. They were subsequently asked whether they would like to trade the item for another of equal value. Significantly more subjects who had been denied the gift the first time were willing to trade it away than those who had received it on round one.
"This serves as a measure of how much they liked the item," says Shiv. "Those who had been thwarted in getting it initially actually came to like it less. Being jilted causes people to want something more, but it also makes them feel more negative about it once they get it––and to not want to have anything to do with it."
The study, to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, has implications for product marketing as well as personal relationships. One traditional technique to increase demand for an item, for example, is to create an artificial shortage. "The study shows that this approach will be effective as long as people get the item without a good deal of problems," says Shiv. "But if they're constantly frustrated, having to stand in line or return to the store only to find the item still not there, they may desire it more but quickly lose interest in it once they have it. The long-term success of the product will be doomed."
Meanwhile, singles in pursuit of Mr. or Mrs. Right may want to keep in mind that it's good to play hard to get—as long as it doesn’t get too hard.