The principle of least interest

Apathy is ingrained in human nature, but it can ruin a relationship before it starts.

by Allison Fingerett

My friends and I enjoy swapping soul-crushing stories of romantic injustice. We do this in search of commiseration, but sometimes, larger facets of human existence are uncovered. Recently, a close friend âÄî letâÄôs call her Layla âÄî told one such tale. SheâÄôd met a guy, gone on a few great dates and sent a text message that said simply, âÄúIâÄôm really glad I met you.âÄù From that point forward, his demeanor changed completely. âÄúThanks,âÄù was his only reply, followed by a cavalcade of silence. âÄúIt just makes no sense,âÄù she lamented, exasperated. Well, actually, it does. Several weeks ago, I learned about a seemingly simple concept that has continued to haunt me ever since. I was interviewing a professor for a column on courtship persistence via Facebook when he mentioned the âÄúprinciple of least interestâÄù and described it as âÄúone of the only hard and fast laws of the human heart.âÄù I tried to carry on professionally, as if my mind had not been blown. But I couldnâÄôt hide the fact that IâÄôd been forever changed. The principle of least interest is the law that dictates that in a relationship, the person who is perceived as being the least invested is the one who holds the most power. It is often discussed in the context of romantic relationships, but it extends to a wide array of social dynamics, as well. It is rooted in the social exchange theory, which posits that human relationships are determined by cost-benefit analyses and comparison to alternatives. Basically, if your boyfriend finds you whinier and uglier than the next available alternative, itâÄôs only rational for him to spend less time with you, unless of course you have a six-figure income. More generally speaking, we have little to gain from people who are less powerful than we are. But itâÄôs in our nature to strive for the top spot. The result is a constant battle between maintaining power over others and seeking the company of those who can exert power over us. But as creatures of regulatory self-doubt, sometimes the only power we deem attainable is through deceptive elusiveness. The element of perception is what turns the principle of least interest into a tactic. Let us examine the barbaric tradition of waiting as long as possible to call someone with whom youâÄôve had a successful date. In my experience, this behavior is fueled by insecurities. I know when I like someone, but itâÄôs hard to tell when they like me. Placing a call in this state of uncertainty is risky, and itâÄôs often the predicament of both parties. Henceforth, a competition for supreme apathy ensues until one person breaks down and expresses interest, thus forfeiting power. ItâÄôs all very childish. I called a boy (read: not man) with whom IâÄôd gone on several dates. ItâÄôd been weeks since weâÄôd spoken last. He answered the phone, âÄúHey, you!âÄù and proceeded to ask if I wanted to get together that night. What I garnered from that conversation was twofold. 1) He is, in fact, still interested, but 2) He is more concerned with maintaining power, which prevents him from picking up a phone to initiate contact. And do I really want to get involved with someone who is so clearly governed by his ego? This is where an awareness of the principle can cause it to backfire on the person who uses it to their advantage. I was so supremely turned off by his unapologetic power play that I declined his invitation to hang out. And, true to the principle, he responded with a gesture that smacked of shameless back-peddling. âÄúWell âĦ I miss you,âÄù he said. Oh, really? Sure fooled me. I had to get to the bottom of this. So I posed the same question to everyone I came in contact with for an entire week: âÄúHave you ever intentionally kept from calling someone after a date that went well in effort to âÄòplay it coolâÄô and seem less interested?âÄù Almost everyone had. âÄúIt lasts the whole relationship,âÄù said a friend on Facebook. âÄúItâÄôs a competition to see whoâÄôs the sucker for liking the other too much.âÄù Bam. Nobody likes a sucker, and nobody wants to be one. And so we wait. Granted, not every human being in existence plays this stupid game âÄî just the majority. But those who donâÄôt are able to shed light on how ludicrous it truly is. âÄúPeople who get spooked because you have recognized good human character in them arenâÄôt worth the time needed to become friends âĦ or more,âÄù said a student. Throughout the course of my research, IâÄôve adopted a crusade in tearing down the façade of indifference. Why must we behave in devious, avoidant ways when we could confront the power plays that guide us and instead choose to interact on the basis of honesty? The best way to deal with the principle of least interest is to point to it as a destructive elephant in the room. ItâÄôs important to note that not every person who opts not to call you is engaged in a misleading power play. Sometimes theyâÄôre just not that into you. So if youâÄôre going to confront someone about their lack of a post-date phone call, you must be prepared for the possibility of outright rejection. But only when we acknowledge our propensity to behave in ways that bolster our perceived sense of power are we able to choose a different path. I employed my friend Layla to test this hypothesis and requested that she call the elusive text-message recipient, inform him of the principle of least interest and ask if it played a role in his sudden change of heart. She called me the next morning and spoke in hushed tones. âÄúHeâÄôs actually still here,âÄù she whispered, âÄúbut it turns out you were right.âÄù His insecurities proved to be the catalyst for his avoidance, but their budding romance almost fizzled at the cruel hands of competitive apathy. Allison Fingerett welcomes comments at [email protected].