The Principle of Least Interest (Or: Why Regina George Isn't Totally 'Cray')

In the 2004 hit Mean Girls, antagonist Regina George calls the shots in her high school relationships: the word "fetch" is out, holey tank tops are in, and nobody wears sweatpants on Monday, all because Regina says so. She's the queen bee, adored by her followers. But in response to her classmates' affection, Regina displays a palpable disinterest towards everyone who holds her in such high-regard. As the girls fawn and boys swoon, Regina makes one thing clear: you care about me more than I care about you.

Remarkably, psychology suggests that Regina's disdain may be the source of her popularity rather than simply a response to it. Underlying Regina's success is a phenomenon called the "principle of least interest": the member of a relationship who cares least about it is often more desirable and powerful than their partner.

This makes intuitive sense, especially in romantic relationships; "playing hard to get" is a tried and true strategy for making oneself more desirable. Take an extreme example from nature: The female crayfish confronts each potential mate that approaches in a violent, all-out brawl. Only a male strong enough to flip her onto her back is rewarded with the opportunity to mate. The harder she fights, the more attractive the prize. (Yet another reason to be thankful I'm not a crayfish).

Exchanges like this boil down to a statement of value: "This relationship is more valuable to you than me, so I have less to lose by walking out the door." (Or, in the case of a female crayfish, "I have less to lose by throwing you out the door.") This perception of increased value results in greater authority and desirability. By not freely accepting any passing male crayfish, the female communicates the value of her goods. By being impressed by no one, Regina makes her peers (and even teachers) jump through hoops for her approval.

Why am I telling you all this? In business, where the ability to assess the value of new opportunities is paramount, these relational forces are particularly relevant. No one wants to buy a product from a desperate salesman; we assume that since no one else wants what he's selling, we shouldn't either. Conversely, we're often most excited and anxious to close deals that we fear losing. We're hardwired to want what others pine after, and every lonely, defeated male crawfish you pass on the way towards your goal validates that what you're pursuing is sexy, desirable, and yes, valuable.

I learned this the hard way during one of my first, more "traditional" pitches. I was meeting with a big-name company, and felt out of my league and desperate to close. After vomiting a pitch and stressing how much I wanted to work with them, their disengagement was obvious. In crayfish terms, l rolled on my back and shouted "take me!" (let me know if I'm taking this metaphor too far).

The lesson from Mean Girls and mother nature is clear: Never appear desperate. Those truly inspired by their product or idea can sell with the quiet confidence that they're offering a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; if you don't jump on, they suggest, someone else certainly will.

So cultivate this confidence, and try not to put too much stake in any one deal. Give yourself plenty of alternatives to avoid feeling backed into a corner. And walk into negotiations with a clear understanding of your BATNA (or your best alternative option if the deal falls through) so you know what's actually at stake.

Most importantly, remember that "I want (but don't need)..." is always a more empowered stance than "I need..." Just ask the crayfish.