The Seductive Allure of Uncertainty

Amongst the forests of trees cut down in support of self-help books on dating, some not inconsequential percentage of lumber has probably been exclusively dedicated to variants on the theme that one must “play hard to get” to find love. If you never heard this expression, I would be curious to know what solar system you’ve just arrived from. And for you, my alien friend, I say welcome to our planet, and please allow me to explain. As it’s been passed down through the ages, the story goes that If a person wants to attract the interest of another toward whom they have romantic inclinations, they should be aloof and slightly stand-offish, so as to gain the attention and interest of their betrothed. Popular self-help manifestos such as “Why men love bitches,” are based on the idea of making oneself more attractive by decreasing one’s availability (to put it mildly). Going back several hundred years, even Juliet, from Shakespeare’s most famous play, knew as much when she told Romeo that “…if you think it’s too easy and quick to win my heart, I’ll frown and play hard-to-get, as long as that will make you try to win me.” I remember hearing some variant on this theme (“Don’t be too eager”) from older boys when I was a scrawny young fellow just becoming interested in girls for the first time.

Erin Whitchurch and colleagues from Harvard University were interested in how this seeming truism (the Uncertainty Principle), conflicted with another observation from the social psychological literature, which is that people tend to like those who like them back (known as the Reciprocity Principle). Interested in testing this principles against each other, they designed a study whereby 47 women viewed Facebook profiles of a set of men who, they were told, had previously viewed their profiles and rated how much “they would get along with each woman if they got to know her better.” A subject knew that a given man either liked her a lot, liked her about average or they were uncertain as to whether the man liked her or not. Then she would rate each man on a number of different dimensions including how much they might like him as “a potential boyfriend” and how much they would be interested in “hooking up” with him.

The results showed that women liked men who liked them a lot more than men who liked them a little, supporting the Reciprocity Principle; that is, we like those who like us back. But the study also supported the Uncertainty Principle (that we like those who we are uncertain about) by showing that women liked men about whose feelings they were uncertain more than men who said they liked them a lot. They also reported thinking a lot more about these men. The authors mention that although this advice has often appeared in the popular press, social psychological research has never confirmed it. The authors also point out important constraints and limitations that bear on the ecological validity of the effect. Among these are the fact that participants didn’t know anything about the men and it’s not clear that this effect would hold after meeting someone and/or beginning a relationship. Perhaps, as they suggest, this finding would be most applicable in the context of online dating, in which people don’t know very much about the other person initially. Also, only females participated and there may be gender differences.

One important point to reiterate is that participants mentioned thinking about the men in the “uncertain” condition much more than in the other conditions. Although I’m not overly familiar with research on dating, romantic attraction, relationships, etc., the reason I was inspired to write about this study is because I’m quite interested in the effect of uncertainty on cognitive and attentional processes and decision making, topics that a handful of recent studies have addressed. One 2010 study from researchers at Cornell found that people were more distracted by hearing one person on a cell phone nearby vs. two people having a conversation, the suggestion being that it was the unpredictable nature of the one-sided conversation that led to participants’ increased distraction. Zachary Tormala at Stanford has performed studies in which he has found that expert advice expressed with low certainty can be more persuasive than that expressed with high certainty. Tormala says that when an expert, say a restaurant critic, is unsure of themselves in a review of a restaurant, this is surprising to people. And “…surprise increases readers’ interest in and involvement with the review, which is essentially a persuasive message, and this promotes persuasion,” says Tormala. “Experts … get more attention and can have more impact when they express uncertainty.” In standard human fear conditioning experiments, the strongest fear conditioning is generally achieved when you shock participants only about a third of the time. That is, the strongest fear responses are generated when participants are maximally uncertain as to when they’re going to be shocked. That’s when you’ve really got their attention.

So, over a variety of different domains and outcomes, uncertainty is the variable common to all of the above situations. From an adaptive perspective it makes sense that we would direct extra attention to unsolved vs. solved problems. As organisms whose very survival is dependent upon our ability to learn about the world around us, we often have no choice but to devote an inordinate amount of attentional energy to the unknown. But from a mechanistic point of view, what motivates this orientation?

There is a rather large scientific literature discussing the role of reward signals in learning and uncertainty. And while its well-established that learning is largely dependent on reward systems, primarily the dopamine system, it’s also been shown that uncertainty alone is subserved by the same system. Going back to the study at hand, it doesn’t seem outrageous to imagine that participants had conflated the reward signal associated with uncertainty about being liked with the reward signal associated with liking someone.
This wouldn’t be surprising as the same dopamine neurons that preferentially report subjectively pleasant events also seem to signal attention-inducing ones. Dopamine neurons fire much more strongly to unexpected rewards and they may also fire strongly when presented even with the prospect of such a possibility, a kind of second-order reward effect. So, the effect could be framed as a kind of neural parlor trick, a technique whereby one can hijack the reward system of another person, causing that person to experience feelings that they then misinterpret.

I’m concerned with how science is presented to the public and how misunderstood scientific findings often become cultural “memes” that permeate the culture and plant incorrect ideas about human nature inside of people’s heads. Whitchurch’s study has already generated just these kind of sensationalistic and over-simplified headlines:


Men should play hard to get, find psychologists

It’s important to keep in mind that the more rewarding your dream girl or guy finds uncertainty, the more likely it is that this “technique” will work on them. And there is evidence that individuals vary in how sensitive they are to uncertainty, so this may not work on everyone. Furthermore, if their attraction to you is driven largely by uncertainty, then what’s going to happen once the uncertainty is no longer there?

(a page from an imagined self-help book):

“You shouldn’t play hard to get. Why? Because, as Harvard researchers have pointed out, it will attract (wo)men to you, but it’s an illusion. They might not be attracted to you because they like you, but because you’ve increased their attention to you through manipulating uncertainty as to how you feel about them! While this might work for as long as you maintain that uncertainty, remember this is not the same thing as someone liking or loving you. While human beings might be wired to pursue certain situations and people because of this, if you’re a healthy, well-adjusted person, you don’t want that kind of person in your life, because they’ll always be interested in chasing the unknown and once they’ve “figured you out,” they’ll be on to the next mystery.”

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