Make people compete for your attention

We are social creatures, and are immensely influenced by the tastes and desires of other people. Imagine a large social gathering. You see a man alone, whom nobody talks to for any length of time, and who is wandering around without company; isn’t there a kind of self-fulfilling isolation about him? Why is he alone, why is he avoided? There has to be a reason. Until someone takes pity on this man and starts up a conversation with him, he will look unwanted and unwantable. But over there, in another corner, is a woman surrounded by people. They laugh at her remarks, and as they laugh, others join the group, attracted by its gaiety. When she moves around, people follow. Her face is glowing with attention. There has to be a reason.

In both cases, of course, there doesn’t actually have to be a reason at all. The neglected man may have quite charming qualities, supposing you ever talk to him; but most likely you won’t. Desirability is a social illusion. Its source is less what you say or do, or any kind of boasting or self advertisement, than the sense that other people desire you. To turn your targets’ interest into something deeper, into desire, you must make them see you as a person whom others cherish and covet. Desire is both imitative (we like what others like) and competitive (we want to take away from others what they have). As children, we wanted to monopolize the attention of a parent, to draw it away from other siblings. This sense of rivalry pervades human desire, repeating throughout our lives. Make people compete for your attention, make them see you as sought after by everyone else. The aura of desirability will envelop you.

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Your admirers can be friends or even suitors. Call it the harem effect. Pauline Bonaparte, sister of Napoleon, raised her value in men’s eyes by always having a group of worshipful men around her at balls and parties. If she went for a walk, it was never with one man, always with two or three. Perhaps these men were simply friends, or even just props and hangers-on; the sight of them was enough to suggest that she was prized and desired, a woman worth fighting over. Andy Warhol, too, surrounded himself with the most glamorous, interesting people he could find. To be part of his inner circle meant that you were desirable as well. By placing himself in the middle but keeping himself aloof from it all, he made everyone compete for his attention. He stirred people’s desire to possess him by holding back.

Practices like these not only stimulate competitive desires, they take aim at people’s prime weakness: their vanity and self-esteem. We can endure feeling that another person has more talent, or more money, but the sense that a rival is more desirable than we are—that is unbearable. In the early eighteenth century, the Duke de Richelieu, a great rake, managed to seduce a young woman who was rather religious but whose husband, a dolt, was often away. He then proceeded to seduce her upstairs neighbor, a young widow. When the two women discovered that he was going from one to the other in the same night, they confronted him. A lesser man would have fled, but not the duke; he understood the dynamic of vanity and desire. Neither woman wanted to feel that he preferred the other. And so he managed to arrange a little menage a trois, knowing that now they would struggle between themselves to be the favorite. When people’s vanity is at risk, you can make them do whatever you want. According to Stendhal, if there is a woman you are interested in, pay attention to her sister. That will stir a triangular desire.


Your reputation—your illustrious past as a seducer—is an effective way of creating an aura of desirability. Women threw themselves at Errol Flynn’s feet, not because of his handsome face, and certainly not because of his acting skills, but because of his reputation. They knew that other women had found him irresistible. Once he had established that reputation, he did not have to chase women anymore; they came to him. Men who believe that a rakish reputation will make women fear or distrust them, and should be played down, are quite wrong. On the contrary, it makes them more attractive. The virtuous Duchess de Montpensier, the Grande Mademoiselle of seventeenth-century France, began by enjoying a friendship with the rake Lauzun, but a troubling thought soon occurred to her: if a man with Lauzun’s past did not see her as a possible lover, something had to be wrong with her. This anxiety eventually pushed her into his arms. To be part of a great seducer’s club of conquests can be a matter of vanity and pride. We are happy to be in such company, to have our name broadcast as this man or woman’s lover. Your own reputation may not be so alluring, but you must find a way to suggest to your victim that others, many others, have found you desirable. It is reassuring. There is nothing like a restaurant full of empty tables to persuade you not to go in.

A variation on the triangle strategy is the use of contrasts: careful exploitation of people who are dull or unattractive may enhance your desirability by comparison. At a social affair, for instance, make sure that your target has to chat with the most boring person available. Come to the rescue and your target will be delighted to see you. In The Seducer’s Diary, by Søren Kierkegaard, Johannes has designs on the innocent young Cordelia. Knowing that his friend Edward is hopelessly shy and dull, he encourages this man to court her; a few weeks of Edward’s attentions will make her eyes wander in search of someone else, anyone else, and Johannes will make sure that they settle on him. Johannes chose to strategize and maneuver, but almost any social environment will contain contrasts you can make use of almost naturally. The seventeenth-century English actress Nell Gwyn became the main mistress of King Charles II because her humor and unaffectedness made her that much more desirable among the many stiff and pretentious ladies of Charles’s court. When the Shanghai actress Jiang Qing met Mao Zedong, in 1937, she did not have to do much to seduce him; the other women in his mountain camp in Yenan dressed like men, and were decidedly unfeminine. The sight alone of Jiang was enough to seduce Mao, who soon left his wife for her. To make use of contrasts, either develop and display those attractive attributes (humor, vivacity, and so on) that are the scarcest in your own social group, or choose a group in which your natural qualities are rare, and will shine.


The use of contrasts has vast political ramifications, for a political figure must also seduce and seem desirable. Learn to play up the qualities that your rivals lack. Peter II, czar in eighteenth-century Russia, was arrogant and irresponsible, so his wife, Catherine the Great, did all she could to seem modest and dependable. When Vladimir Lenin returned to Russia in 1917 after Czar Nicholas II had been deposed, he made a show of decisiveness and discipline—precisely what no other leader had at the time. In the American presidential race of 1980, the irresoluteness of Jimmy Carter made the single-mindedness of Ronald Reagan look desirable. Contrasts are eminently seductive because they do not depend on your own words or self-advertisements. The public reads them unconsciously, and sees what it wants to see.

Finally, appearing to be desired by others will raise your value, but often how you carry yourself can influence this as well. Do not let your targets see you so often; keep your distance, seem unattainable, out of their reach. An object that is rare and hard to obtain is generally more prized.

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