Why Do You Want What You Can’t Have? The Scarcity Principle

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Have you ever bought something just because it was on sale and you didn’t want to miss the good price? What about buying something just because you think it’s rare? The Scarcity Principle of persuasion makes us want what we think we might not be able to have.

The Scarcity Principle is a theory that says people find more appealing those things with limited availability. When something is or seems rare, you are more likely to want it. Learn about scarcity and how it affects your decisions.

Understanding the Scarcity Principle

The Scarcity Principle of persuasion explains how things that aren’t freely available become more appealing. On a basic level, we encounter the notion of scarcity all the time: rare goods are expensive, while abundant items are cheap.

Scarcity is closely related to the idea of loss aversion. As humans, we are powerfully guided by our desire to avert losing what we already have. We are inherently conservative and cautious. Loss aversion is a strong framing effect: we are more afraid of losing something than we are enticed by the hope of gaining something of equal value.

As you know by now, compliance practitioners know how to frame their proposals to make them seem like rare, fleeting opportunities that we’ll miss if we don’t capitalize on them immediately. “Limited-time only” or “first come, first serve” sales offers are the most common use of the Scarcity Principle. Compliance practitioners can greatly enhance the appeal of their product if they can convince you that what they’re selling is in short supply, will be taken off the market imminently, or is only available to an exclusive set of customers.

The Scarcity Principle of persuasion is powerful because it manipulates our desire to be in control and have as many options as possible: when we face a deadline or a competitive scramble for a rare item, our freedom to have whatever we want is limited.

As we’ll see, the Scarcity Principle of persuasion is most effective when:

  1. Something is rare;
  2. It has recently become rare;
  3. It is rare because of social demand or competition.

Why We Want What We Think We Can’t Have

Scarcity, or the appearance of it, is a powerful motivating factor in influencing our behavior. We want things we can’t have—or at least think we won’t be able to have if we don’t act quickly and decisively.

Like our other fixed-action mental shortcuts, scarcity usually is a good gauge of how valuable something is. It’s simple supply-and-demand: when there’s less of something and there’s a high demand for it, the price increases.

(Shortform note: Throughout human history, across all societies, humans have valued rare goods and skills. Gold was used as the standard for currency in ancient societies because it was a highly rare metal. In the late medieval and early modern period, European traders braved dangerous sea and land routes to access the spices of the East Indies, because they knew that the rarity of these commodities would make them desirable and valuable to other Europeans who couldn’t access them locally. Today, people with expertise in fields like bioengineering and cryptocurrency are paid very well because there are very few people who have their knowledge— there is a scarcity of their skillset.)

Maximizing Choices: The Magnetic Pull of Scarcity

The Scarcity Principle derives much of its strength from a phenomenon known as psychological reactance. This is the adverse reaction we have to any restriction of our choices.

When something is freely available and abundant, we don’t feel any limitation in our options: we can have as much of it as we want. Conversely, scarcity limits our choices, especially when whatever we desire was previously abundant.

Psychological reactance stems from loss aversion,  our desire to preserve what we already have: when this freedom is restricted, we desire the item more than we did before.

Resisting the Scarcity Principle

How do you avoid getting caught up in the mania of scarcity? How do you resist the temptation of “buy now, limited-time only?”

Knowledge, as with the other principles, is power with the Scarcity Principle. When you sense that your desire for some scarce item or experience is clouding your judgment, precisely because it is scarce, you should hit the pause button.

Rare or scarce things aren’t inherently better than common things. Compliance practitioners know this better than anyone. Used-car salespeople, for example, know that they can greatly increase the desirability of a given car, simply by making potential customers wait in line while other potential customers inspect it and take it for test drives.

But the fact that they have to wait doesn’t make the car any better: the tires, transmission, shocks, and alignment are still the same. These customers become consumed by their desire to have the car, not by the actual utility of the car. The perception of scarcity means more than the item that is scarce.

You should remember this as you confront the compliance practitioners of the world. Is the rarity of the thing itself what’s drawing you to it? If so, are there any inherently desirable qualities that would make the item rare? If there aren’t, then you might be buying something for entirely the wrong reasons.

Why Do You Want What You Can’t Have? The Scarcity Principle

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  • How professional manipulators use your psychology against you
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Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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