The psychology of persuasion – scarcity

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

This article is the last in our series about Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. The scarcity principle boils down to this: we want what we’re afraid we can’t have. Fear of losing out on something can be an extremely powerful motivator.

Availability might be threatened by limited quantity, a time deadline, or by competition. Whatever the reason, the item in question becomes more attractive to us if we think we can’t have it. Whether it’s a potential mate, a used car, or an item on sale, once its availability is threatened we WANT it!

Cialdini tells of a saleman who always arranged for more than one interested buyer to arrive when he was showing a used car. The competition increased anxiety in both of them, and made the car seem much more attractive.

He observed appliance salepeople at another company routinely inform potential buyers that the item they were interested in had just been sold to another customer, but they “might” be able to find another in the back if these customers wanted to buy it. Of course, another one was always found, and by then the consistency principle was at work, too.

There’s a corollary of the scarcity principle that is intriguing in its potential for persuading ourselves: people really hate to lose freedoms they already possess.

In addition, there is a unique, secondary source of power within the scarcity principle: As opportunities become less available, we lose freedom; and we hate to lose freedoms we already have. This desire to preserve our established prerogatives is the centerpiece of psychological reactance theory, develped by psychologist Jack Brehm to explain the human response to diminishing personal control. According to the theory, 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. So when increasing scarcity – or anything else – interferes with our prior access to some item, we will react against the interference by wanting and trying to possess the item more than before.

Using scarcity techniques in your advertising may seem counter-intuitive, because it’s normally most effective to visualize what you DO want. But the raw power of the underlying psychological principle at work in these scarcity techniques suggests some interesting opportunities to influence ourselves. For example:

1. Act now while supplies last.

Create some compelling reason that you can only have this particular benefit NOW, or a deadline by which you’ll lose the opportunity. For example, there are only about 15 weekends in a summer. If I want to go on a hiking or camping trip, the window for good weather is closing fast. If I have trouble making it happen I could create some kind of ad around the scarce resouce of nice weather, emphasizing that if I failed to take advantage of this dwindling opportunity I’d have to wait a whole year to have it again.

2. Identify your competition.

Let yourself know that the opportunity in front of you is not open-ended because you have rivals who would love to beat you to it. If you don’t do this thing someone else will. If you know who your competition is perhaps you could motivate yourself by displaying their picture.

3. Use it or lose it.

Research shows that people are more likely to change health behaviors if you point out what they will lose rather than what they will gain. For example in one health study messages urging people to get tested for HIV were more effective when they stressed the bad things that could occur if the subjects did not get tested rather than the peace of mind that would result if they did.

Want to eat better or exercise more? Try threatening yourself with negative consequences. Point out freedoms you have now, such as mobility and cognitive function, that you’ll lose if you don’t adopt healthier behaviors, Don’t just worry about these consequences, though. Instead, intentionally advertise about them in a focused, organized way.

Psychology of Persuasion wrap-up

Studying Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion has been fascinating. I can’t remember the last time I read a book that has illuminated the behavior I see in myself and the world around me as much as this one has. I feel much more qualified after reading it to create ads that are grounded in strategies which have proven their effectiveness to influence human behavior.

As I’ve said many times, Take Back Your Brain! is about leveling the playing field. Other people use these industrial strength persuasion techniques to get you to do everything from donating money to buying a car. How about mobilizing some of them to help in your own attempts to create the life you want!

Other articles in the psychology of persuasion series

  1. The psychology of persuasion – because
  2. The psychology of persuasion – perceptual contrast
  3. The psychology of persuasion – reciprocation
  4. The psychology of persuasion – consistency
  5. The psychology of persuasion – social proof
  6. The psychology of persuasion – liking
  7. The psychology of persuasion – authority
  8. The psychology of persuasion – scarcity (you are here)

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  1. By tapstein on April 8, 2011 at 11:28 am

    [...] Looking back at old threads from past admissions cycles it looks like waitlisters generally don’t start hearing back until Mid-may. But the threads continue with increasingly desperate posts into Late May. June. July… Fuck, I really hope it doesn’t come to that. I have to ask myself soon where my breaking point is. When do I set up shop at VCU and say screw it to the rest? A lot of the times I wonder if I want the other two so bad simply because I don’t have them. If I were waitlisted at VCU would it be a top choice? If I were in at Irvine, would I be hung up on VCU? Damn you, scarcity! [...]

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