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How Unavailability or Playing Hard to Get Can Affect You Professionally

Updated: Apr 1

Katherine, a friend of mine, wasn’t looking for a new job.

She had been a director at her organization for nearly five years when she was contacted by Angela, the CEO of a well-respected company. Katherine met Angela two years prior at an industry conference and had kept in brief contact. Angela’s email stated that she wanted to schedule a Zoom meeting within the next two weeks, but it didn’t explain why. Katherine’s curiosity was piqued, so she agreed.

When the meeting began, Angela got straight to the point. She was looking to hire a new director and was impressed with Katherine’s work and reputation within their field. She wanted to know if Katherine would be interested in interviewing for the position. Katherine was a little surprised, to say the least. Being someone cautious, she said she would think about it. Angela said she would follow up with more information about the position for her review.

The thing was, Katherine was happy at her job. She had a great team and loved the daily rhythm she had created within her role. As promised, Angela followed up with more details about the position and asked if Katherine had given it more consideration. She answered that she was still thinking about it.

Angela then replied a little more persuasively than she had been. She provided additional reasons to consider the move, including great employee benefits, a more prestigious role, and higher pay.

While these were great advantages, Katherine hadn’t been in the mindset to leave her job. The fact that Katherine hadn’t jumped on the new job prospect only fueled Angela’s desire to hire her.

Eventually, Katherine agreed to an interview. She was a little anxious, but not as much as she normally would be for a job interview. The difference was that she didn’t need this job; she was content to stay where she was if needed. By all accounts, the interview went well, and Katherine had good chemistry with her interviewers.

In less than a week, Katherine was offered the role at Angela’s company. The salary was slightly higher than what she was currently making. Although Katherine was intrigued by the new opportunity, she was hesitant about accepting the offer. She told Angela that she needed to think about it. This shocked Angela, but what shocked her even more was that Katherine eventually turned down the job. In response, Angela came back with an offer that included a significantly higher salary.

We value something more when we think it is unavailable or hard to get. The commodity theory from 1968 best explains this concept. The original framework of commodity theory—which defines a commodity as a message, experience, or material object—focused on the psychological effects of unavailability.

A Commodity Will Be Valued to the Degree That the Commodity is Unavailable

In the context of this principle, valued means the commodity has an increase in perceived desirability.

We see commodity theory at work in commerce. Consumer products that are hard to find tend to be viewed as more valuable.

Commodity Theory is popular among researchers and has led to decades of studies. For example, researchers have concluded that people are motivated to obtain hard-to-get commodities. The theory was even used to explain why people at an Australian bar thought others were more attractive as the night went on. This involves a phenomenon known as the closing time effect.

The study was conducted at a popular bar in Sydney, Australia. The researchers approached participants throughout the bar and explained that they were conducting an experiment on social perceptions. If they wished to participate in the study, they would complete a short questionnaire at 9 p.m., 10:30 p.m., and again at midnight, asking them about their perceptions of other bar patrons. If they chose to participate, they were given a glow stick to wear on their wrist, identifying them as a part of the study.

The researchers used a Breathalyzer to measure participants’ BAC.

About 150 people participated in the study, but there were only 87 participants left by midnight. Their data was used in the study’s findings.

As the night went on, the participants rated other people as more attractive. The researchers found that people in a serious relationship showed a closing-time effect equivalent to participants who were single.

One of the explanations is the mere perception of unavailability and how it relates to value. As people started to pair up and leave the bar, individuals became scarce and, therefore, more attractive. The unavailability grew.

From a business perspective, does this mean we should make ourselves appear unavailable? Not necessarily. We’ll explore that more in a bit.

Emotions Intensify When a Goal is Difficult to Obtain

This principle falls under a different theory: Emotional Intensity. According to this theory, our emotional intensity is tied to the difficulty of attaining a particular goal.

If a goal is easy to attain, our emotional intensity is low because not much effort is required of us. However, if a goal is extremely difficult, our emotional intensity might still be low because the goal seems unrealistic and not worth our time and effort. In essence, we stop caring. Moderate goals will cause our emotions to intensify because the goal is challenging, but there is hope and belief that we can achieve it.

Emotion is thought to operate like a motivational state. It is also believed that emotions tend to involve an urge. Whether it is fear or anger, the emotion that is evoked causes an urgency to attain a goal or outcome.

Psychologists believe that the motivational system is designed to conserve energy. That is why easy and hard goals don’t cause intense emotions.

A great example of a business using unavailability and playing on emotional intensity is Nike’s collaboration with contemporary New York artist Tom Sachs. When we take a closer look at how Nike uses unavailability to market itself, we can begin to reverse engineer the approach and apply it to our businesses.

In May 2022, Nike and Tom Sachs announced the NikeCraft General Purpose shoe. In its ad, the product was pre-announced, and based on what consumers know from previous experience with Nike shoes, the shoe would likely sell out quickly.

In June, the shoe was released and, of course, sold out.

On August 1, Tom Sachs announced on Instagram that more shoes would be released on August 5. This showed a subtle hint of the product’s unavailability and would have activated emotional intensity.

On August 5, Tom Sachs notified his followers that, once again, the shoe was sold out, but to watch for more releases this year.

After that date, there was a lot of advertising activity, including a blog post with the headline “How to Score Limited Edition Tom Sachs Nike General Purpose Sneakers.” The post alerted readers of another drop on September 1 and warned them to act fast.

When something, or someone, is unavailable, the value goes up.

In Katherine's situation with the job offer, she was unintentionally playing hard to get. In terms of relationships and human interactions, “playing hard to get” psychology has often been associated with the scarcity principle.

Researchers Gurit Birnbaum , Kobi Zholtack, and Harry Reis conducted a set of studies to test whether potential dating partners become more desirable when perceived as hard to get. In each study, participants interacted with another research participant of the opposite sex—someone who was really a member of the research team. The participants were then asked to rate the degree to which they felt the other person was hard to get, their perception of the other person’s value, and their desire for that person. When the potential partner was considered less available, his or her value and desirability increased.

The research showed that we find someone more attractive and desirable when they are unavailable to us. However, there has to be some interest first. In Katherine’s example, her work and reputation caused Angela to try to recruit her. Playing hard to get helped, but there was already value there.

This sounds a little like dating, right?

The same interpersonal dynamics that exist in romantic and interpersonal reactions apply to scarcity in business. How can you apply commodity theory and scarcity principles to business?

In action, it might mean that you let clients know you have limited availability. Be honest. Are you only able to take so many clients on at a time? Tell them.

Will you need to wait to start that new project because you’re in high demand? Tell them.

If you’re unsure if you are ready to take that job offer, take the time to think about it. Don’t be afraid to mention if you have received multiple job offers. Job interview psychology comes into play here.

You can even take the approach of the Nike-Tom Sachs collaboration. Announce something new in advance. Remind people right before the launch. If you sell out, let people know. You can do all this through social media and your website.

[1] Birnbaum, G. E., Zholtack, K., & Reis, H. T. (2020). No pain, no gain: Perceived partner mate value mediates the desire-inducing effect of being hard-to-get during online and face-to-face encounters. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.


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