Why Being Hard-To-Get Attracts Consumers (And Men)

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Why would a person drive across town to get a bottle of wine rather than pick up a nice red down the street? Why would a guy at a bar seek out the woman across the room instead of the one right in front of him? According to a study in the Journal of Consumer Research, certain types of shoppers and suitors prefer putting in the extra effort, even when the effort is pointless.

The researchers started by challenging the assumption that for consumers easier is always better. “We are conditioned to think of effort as something negative. It’s painful, right?” says Aparna Labroo, a marketing professor at the University of Toronto, but “some consumers just like challenge.”

In other words, the researchers posited, some consumers are less interested in products that occupy the most prominent place on the shelf or that are stocked in every store. For them, harder-to-get items seem better.

Labroo and University of Chicago doctoral student Sara Kim found that such people are sometimes motivated by the value they’re considering. For shoppers, that may come down to whether they want to buy a good product or whether they want to buy the best of all possible products.

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For example, participants in one of their experiments were told that they needed to buy an exceptional bottle of Barolo for a friend’s birthday. One group was told that the only store selling the wine was very close by, while others were told the only store was halfway across town. Those who believed they would have to travel presumed the wine would be much better.

“Usually when people want the best outcome, they associate striving with that outcome,” Labroo says. Meanwhile, when participants were told they simply had to buy a good bottle of wine for a friend, no special occasion involved, they were happier to just mosey down the street. This same feeling of importance may be what inspires shoppers to needlessly choose a product pushed back from the front of a shelf rather than one at the front.

NEXT: Certain people feel themselves “deserving of the best outcomes”

The researchers found that self-images also come into play, that certain people feel themselves “deserving of the best outcomes” and are therefore willing to put in extra effort.

In one study, the researchers classified single, heterosexual male participants as “shy gawkers” or “smooth talkers” based on their responses to the charmingly named “Flirting Superiority Scale.” They showed the participants a photo of the same attractive girl; in some men saw a sharply focused photo while others saw the same image slightly blurred. The gawkers found the girl more attractive when presented in the clear photo, while the smoothies rated the blurred photo more highly.

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Labroo calls this an “ironic effect,” explaining that the men who thought of themselves as savvy preferred the blurred photo because “it felt as if there was an ongoing sense of effort while evaluating the woman. And so she must be really good.”

These suitors are the same types who may be lured by the woman across the room. “The measures tap into a person’s belief that he is in control of and can influence his flirting outcomes to get the best ones possible,” the authors write, and because getting the best outcome out there is associated with making extra effort, a more elusive object seems better.

They found the same contrast with shoppers who saw themselves as highly effective: those who said they were in control of their shopping decisions and rarely regretted what they bought felt better about going out of their way for whatever they were buying. “Even if an outcome is associated with a pointless or needless effort, they can end up assuming that it’s more valuable because it’s associated with that effort,” Labroo says.

The implication for marketers (and women) seems to be that playing hard to get might attract two kinds of people: those in search of the very best and those who think they are the very best. The corollary advice from the study certainly rings true. “Marketers whose products require the consumer to exert effort,” they write, “should focus their consumers on why the product is among the best, over easily accessible products in the marketplace.”

Katy Steinmetz is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @KatySteinmetz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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