Why Science Says You Shouldn’t Text Him Back Right Away

March 10, 2017

Turns out men and rats really aren’t that different.

So you had a great date last night with a guy you really like, and you’re hoping he likes you, too. Then it happens; he texts you the next day! Naturally, you want to reply immediately, right?

Not so fast.

It might seem like game-playing to wait to text someone back (and who are we kidding, it totally is) but as they say, “Life is a game. You either play, or get played.”

As far as games go though, not texting someone back right away seems like a pretty dumb one. Most of us have our phones within arm’s reach pretty much 24/7. We reflexively check our texts, emails, and social media updates throughout the day, and we do it a lot – a 2015 study from Deloitte consulting found that the average American woman checks her phone 46 times a day. So who are we kidding? There’s really no point pretending you didn’t see that text come through.

But, even though he probably knows you saw his text, and you know he knows, there’s good reason to hold off sending that perfect, just-flirty-enough, just-cool-enough reply you’ve been carefully composing in your head all morning…

Reward uncertainty

To explain why, let’s talk about rats for a minute. If you’ve ever taken an intro-level psychology class, you’ve probably heard of B.F. Skinner. He’s the psychologist who used rats to develop his theory of operant conditioning. He put the rats in a box where they could push a lever to get food, then experimented with sometimes giving them food when they pushed the lever, and sometimes not.

Skinner found the rats were most interested in getting food when they weren’t consistently rewarded for pushing the lever. If they got food every time, they quickly lost interest. Similarly, if they only very rarely got food, they got bored and gave up. But, when pushing the lever resulted in getting food on an unpredictable basis, the rats went crazy pushing it. Also interestingly, their dopamine levels went up. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with the brain’s pleasure areas; for example, dopamine levels skyrocket when we’re falling in love.

So, what does this mean when we apply it to texting guys? Basically, you want to think of him like a rat. If you text him back right away some of the time, that’s okay. It might even be good, just to keep him off balance and give him a taste of getting that instant reward. But don’t always reply immediately. Reply unpredictably by varying your response times; keep those itchy texting fingers still and let him wonder for a while. If you text back right away every time, he’ll start to take it for granted he can get a response from you any time he wants, which, much like the rats who could get food whenever they wanted it, eventually leads to your value being lowered in his eyes – whether he’s even aware that’s what’s happening or not. It’s just science.

The scarcity principle

Another scientific principle that reinforces the argument for not texting back right away – the ‘scarcity principle’ – postulates we value things more when they’re harder to get. Think about it: no matter how great something is, if you can have it anytime you want, it loses its appeal after a while. For example, if you could afford to stay in the world’s most luxurious hotels every night of the week, eventually, the thrill would wear off. And isn’t that last dress dangling on the sale rack always more alluring than a full-stocked shelf?

So think of yourself like that coveted dress, and make yourself a little bit scarce. Unless he’s truly not that into you, or just a total fuckboy, chances are he’ll be more attracted to you when he knows you’re not available to him at the drop of a hat (read: you’re out having a life, not needily sitting by the phone awaiting his next text). It might seem a little weird, but consider that people actually like to be kept a little bit on edge. It’s exciting.

Another prime example: researchers Erin Whitchurch, Timothy Wilson, and Daniel Gilbert showed a group of women Facebook profiles of men, telling them these men had all looked at their profiles and rated them as to how much they liked them. The researchers told the women that some of the men rated them highly, some rated them as only ‘average’ and that others had said they weren’t sure how they felt. Then they asked the women which guys they like the best. Maybe not surprisingly, the women were most attracted to the guys who were uncertain about whether they liked them or not. They reported thinking about those men more in the following days, as well. And thinking about people (obsessing about them, even) can lead to feelings of attraction and desire.

The lesson? If you want to be on his mind, keep things a little mysterious. Make him wonder if you really like him or not, and don’t text him back on a consistent basis. It’s a delicate balance, making sure he doesn’t lose interest completely by being too cold, while also not letting him get too comfortable by being way too available. If he really likes you, it ultimately won’t matter whether or not you texted him back too fast – but in the early days of a relationship (or potential relationship), why not learn to play the game, just a little? It just might pay off in the end…

GIFs via giphy.com.

Comment: Do you wait to text someone you like back? How has it worked for you?

 

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