other publications


Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Chapter 6: Scarcity: The Rule of the Few

Scarcity of water in dunes required use of aging tanker trucks

The principle of scarcity is based on the future unavailability of something, even if we don't need it: "[O]pportunities seem more valuable to us when their availability is limited" (238). People "seem more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value." Examples include insulating one's house--people are more likely to insulate if they are told how much they will lose rather than how much they will save; and health--people will seek treatment more readily if they are told what they will lose if they don't.

The scarcity principle figures in the cost of any objects considered rare. The "precious mistake" confers additional value on an object because the flaw makes it more rare. In sales, the "limited-number tactic" is used all the time to induce customers to purchase something before there are none left. Some sales are closed when an item appears to be sold but, no, there might be another one somewhere. The "deadline tactic" works by requiring a decision to buy or act before time runs out.

The response to scarcity is, like the other weapons of influence, often a shortcut which usually pays dividends. And we are prompted to react because a missed opportunity is a loss of freedom. The theory of psychological reactance developed by Jack Brehm states that "whenever free choice is limited or threatened, the need to retain our freedoms makes us desire them (as well as the goods and services associated with them) significantly more than previously" (245). We react against anything that threatens to limit our freedoms. A plexiglas barrier placed between 2-year old boys and a toy prompted them to make special efforts to obtain that toy rather than another one without a barrier. The emergence of independence and autonomy in children around the age of 2 explains why reactance becomes common at this stage of life. Children "have come to a recent and exhilarating perspective on themselves as free-standing human entities. Vital questions of volition, entitlements, and control now need to be asked and answered within their small minds. The tendency to fight for every liberty and against every restriction might be best understood as a quest for information" (247).

The "Romeo and Juliet effect" predicts that teenagers in love will be much more likely to pursue this romantic attachment when they encounter parental interference. The stronger the influence, the greater the desire to continue the romance (249). For teenagers, being told not to smoke may have the effect of initiating a reactance response. Similarly, banning a product such as phosphate cleaners or marijuana may initiate a greater desire for that product, and because of the ban, consumers will rate the benefits of the banned product more highly than if it had not been banned. Similarly with information: "Almost invariably, our response to the banning of information is a greater desire to receive that information and a more favorable attitude to it than before the ban" (251). If a political speech or message is banned, we are more likely to agree with the argument; thus, some people gain sympathy to their arguments when their announced speeches are censored. Studies show that when a judge instructs the jury to disregard evidence, the jury will actually value that information more than if they had not been instructed to disregard it.

The "commodity theory" analysis of persuasion developed by Brock and Fromkin (255) suggests that information which appears to be scarce or exclusive is considered to be more valuable.

Water Scarcity

Newly-experienced scarcity has a greater impact on our assessment of worth than constant scarcity. If we have never experienced freedom, we are less reactive than if our freedoms have recently been removed. James Davis argues that "we are most likely to find revolutions where a period of improving economic and social conditions is followed by a short, sharp reversal in those conditions. Thus it is not the traditionally most downtrodden people--who have come to see their deprivation as part of the natural order of things--who are especially liable to revolt. Instead, revolutionaries are more likely to be those who have been given at least some taste of a better life" (257). Cialdini cites the racial riots in the 1960s to illustrate the argument that a sharp reversal of fortune will stimulate resistance. "Freedoms once granted will not be relinquished without a fight"--to wit, the Soviet people's reaction to a coup that attempted to reverse Gorbachev's reforms in the early 1990s. Similarly, it is predictable that children will be more rebellious if parents discipline them inconsistently.

Not only do we desire something more that appears to be scarce, our desire is further increased if there is competition involved. This increased desire may have something to do with social proof--others like us want what we want. "The ardor of an indifferent lover surges with the appearance of a rival. It is often for reasons of strategy, therefore, that romantic partners reveal (or invent) the attentions of a new admirer" (262). The same strategy--"goosing them off the fence"--is frequently used by realtors claiming that someone else wants to purchase the property in question.

Loss leaders--like bait tossed by fishermen to initiate a feeding frenzy--draw in consumers who become caught up in the competition for full-priced products. Barry Diller (of ABC television) purchased a one-time showing of The Poseidon Adventure in 1973 for $3.3 million after being drawn into a bidding war in an open-bid auction. Scarcity + rivalry is a potent source of motivation.

Saying no to arguments based on scarcity is difficult because our reaction to scarcity is emotional, while our understanding of the inducement is cognitive. It's also helpful to remember that scarce things, once we possess them, are not necessarily better because they were considered scarce.

Epilogue: Instant Influence

Joe Pine (talk show host): I guess your long hair makes you a girl.

Frank Zappa: I guess your wooden leg makes you a table.

A fundamental theme of the book is that "[v]ery often in making a decision about someone or something, we don't use all the relevant available information; we use, instead, only a single, highly representative piece of the total" (274). The pace of modern life often means that we have to use shortcuts when making decisions, even though we are likely to use only part of the available information.

Using only selected cues and shortcuts often places us in a position similar to animals who respond predictably to single-stimulus messages: cheep-cheep, click-whirr. In our future shock world, "Novelty, transience, diversity, and acceleration are acknowledged as prime descriptors of civilized existence" (276) The burgeoning supply of information threatens to overwhelm us with possibilities, and opportunities for exploitation through the manipulation of messages--promotion, persuasion, propaganda. More information means more frequent resort to the "shortcut response," and more exploitation by compliance practitioners. Cialdini advocates an aggressive counterattack on those who abuse the legitimate use of shortcuts, because they are undermining the reliability of those shortcuts when we increasingly need them. "The stakes have gotten too high" (280).