Scarcity Principle Definition
According to the scarcity principle, objects become more attractive when there are not very many of them. This scarcity may be either real or imagined. People assume that because others appear to want something, and it is in short supply, it must be valuable. In a classic demonstration of the scarcity principle, students were divided into two groups. One group was asked to choose a cookie from a jar with two cookies. The other group was asked to choose a cookie from a jar that contained ten cookies. Consistent with the scarcity principle, students who chose from the jar with two cookies (scarce condition) rated the cookies as more desirable than students who chose from the jar with ten cookies (plentiful condition).
Importance of the Scarcity Principle
Imagine the following scenario, which illustrates several strategic compliance techniques, most notably the scarcity principle. A family’s dinner is interrupted by a knock on the door. The father, Fred, answered the door to find an older gentleman, Al, who was holding a bundle of sketches. Al greeted Fred and told him of a great opportunity. For the low, low price of $249, Al would sketch a portrait of Fred’s house. By this time, Fred’s wife, Mary, had come outside with their two young sons. The man quickly commented on how cute the boys were and proceeded with his pitch. “This type of sketch normally costs $700,” he informed the couple. Knowing the perils of making quick, emotional decisions, Fred asked Al for his phone number to call him back after discussing his offer. Al quickly replied, “I can’t really come back because of time constraints. I do all the sketches and all the door-to-door contacting, so it’s simply not efficient for me to return. I really need to know tonight.” Mary remarked that she really wanted to have a portrait of their house in the living room and Fred reluctantly agreed. They discussed it briefly and told Al they’d give him $200. Al countered with $225 and no sales tax, and they agreed on a deal. Fred and Mary thought, “Wow, did we ever get a bargain: from $700 to $249 to $225 without sales tax! We had saved nearly $500!”
It was only after Fred and Mary sat down later that evening that they realized Al was indeed an artist: both a sketch artist and a master in the art of persuasion! Maybe, instead of saving money, they unexpectedly spent $225 more than they planned to at the outset of the evening. Al had skillfully employed a number of compliance techniques, particularly in his use of the scarcity principle. By telling the couple they had to decide immediately, Al created the illusion that this opportunity would not be available again. Notice how Al did not even respond to their question of whether they could call him. If he had, the sketch would no longer be scarce. By creating the false impression that they had to decide now, Al invoked the scarcity principle, a powerful weapon of social influence.
Of course, Al is not alone in his recognition of the power of a scarce resource. Walk through any mall to find any number of messages alerting people to unbelievable opportunities to purchase items they have always (or never) wanted. But, to take advantage of these fabulous offers, one must act now. Consider the following signs:
- “Hurry, while supplies last!” (Presumably supplies will be around as long as people keep buying.)
- “Don’t miss out!” (Who wants to miss out, on anything?)
- “Don’t be left out in the cold!” (People in cold climates are particularly sensitive to this one.)
- “Buy today—save thousands!” (Who in their right mind doesn’t want to save thousands?)
Employed effectively, the scarcity principle is a subtle way to take advantage of the fact that most people assume that if something is in short supply, others must like it, it must be good, and a purchase ought to be made quickly. The scarcity principle has the potential to make something good seem great, and something undesirable seem desirable. The belief that one may miss out on a fabulous opportunity creates a sense of urgency, leading individuals to make emotional, rather than rational, decisions. Thus, one may end up purchasing unwanted items, simply because of what psychologist Robert Cialdini has termed a feeding frenzy, not unlike that witnessed among fish when food is sprinkled in a lake. This explains why every holiday season, parents and children line up and fight for the hottest new toys. By creating the perception of scarcity, corporations recognize their products will be more appealing. Hence, the race to purchase Cabbage Patch Kids in the 1980s, Beanie Babies in the 1990s, and sadly, gasoline in the 21st century.
Implications of the Scarcity Principle
Fortunately, there are ways to avoid falling prey to the scarcity principle. First, when people start feeling emotional during a decision, they can stop, and promise to return to the decision when they feel more rational. Although a salesperson may claim that one must act now, odds are the same offer will still be around tomorrow. Actually, many stores seem to have a once-a-year sale on a nearly weekly basis! Second, individuals can limit their purchases to items they had already planned to buy. Anytime people are caught off guard by an offer, they should consciously choose to wait some time before deciding whether or not to purchase the item. Legendary economist John Galbraith theorized that business manufactures the needs it seeks to satisfy. Consumers will be far better off if they decide what they need and make their purchases accordingly, rather than letting others create and decide these needs for them.
- Cialdini, R. B. (2001). Influence: Science and practice. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
- Levine, R. (2003). The power of persuasion. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.