The ladder theory of love

Love guru I am not, but I’ve shared this theory with many of you.

The ladder theory suggests that guys have one ladder on which they rank their preference for girls. This ladder is determined by how much – to put it crudely – the guy wants to have sex with the girl. On the other hand, girls have two ladders on which they rank guys: a friends ladder, and the “real” ladder. The friends ladder is the one on which guys are viewed as just friends, nothing more; while the real ladder is the one on which guys are viewed as potential partners. In other words, girls are better than guys when it comes to distinguishing between platonic and romantic love.

What’s worth noting here is that a guy may be very close to a girl, but he stands next to no chance if he happens to be placed on the girl’s friends ladder. The theory goes on to say that in between the two ladders lies an abyss. The message is simply: jump over to the other ladder at your own peril. It doesn’t preclude the possibility that you might be able to jump ladders, but the ramifications for failure are harsh. You might even lose her as a friend.

I suspect this theory might have some relation to the pithy observation that nice guys finish last. As is the case sometimes, a guy may be very nice indeed; yet from the girl’s point of view, he happens to only be on the friends ladder. The wild guys on the other hand, are typically on the real ladder (perhaps because they would never make it as friends). What gives?

It could be that wild guys provide a certain thrill; you never know what to expect from them. On the other hand, nice guys tend to be more boring; paradoxically, the sense of security they are able to provide works against them. That saying, it is important to note that while there might be a correlation between niceness and lack of desirability, the relationship is not necessarily causal, i.e. being nice does not automatically make a guy less desirable.

I digress, but this brings up an interesting question: Why do girls, or guys for that matter, play hard-to-get? A cost-benefit analysis tells us that we should go for the easiest catch – one which involves the lowest “search” cost. If we are rational, why do we still play hard-to-get?

Dan Ariely explains using the concept of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling you get when you are holding two conflicting cognitions in your head, e.g. I know smoking is bad for me, but I still want to smoke. We dislike dissonance, and hence we  circumvent it by either (1) altering our beliefs, e.g. smoking is not that bad. After all, we only live once, or (2) altering our behavior, e.g. stop smoking. By playing hard-to-get, what you’re effectively doing is introducing cognitive dissonance in the other person (Let’s call him X). We tend to get ahead of ourselves when we love, so before X knows it, he would have committed too much into the relationship. At this point of time, X might wonder if you’re really worth it. X has to contend with the dissonance, and ultimately, he rationalizes that he must love you because he’s already put in so much effort.

The ladder theory of love introduces some stereotypes, most conspicuously how all men are libidinous creatures. It is certainly not a scientific theory – in fact it was originally conceived as a work of satire – but you might find some truth in it.

Your love guru,


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