As quoted in Cialdini’s book,
"The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost." – G. K. Chesterton”
The threat of potentially missing out or losing something has dramatic effects on how we perceive items and our subsequent action. Research has shown that the scarcer an item is, the more highly it is rated. Worchel, Lee and Adewole (1975) provide evidence for this phenomenon, the so-called ‘Scarcity principle’, in their study which showed that objects were rated more highly in value when perceived to be in low supply.
In this study, 146 female psychology students from the University of Carolina were recruited and told that they were involved in a customer-preference study. They were asked to taste and rate the quality of cookies in a jar. However, there were two conditions: half of the participants were given a jar of ten cookies and the other half were given jars with only two cookies inside. Subjects rated the cookie much higher when it was in the jar of only two because they observed it to be in shorter supply, and thus perceived it as more desirable (we all want what we can’t have!). This explains the results shown in Table 1, where cookies in the jar containing just two were rated as more desirable to eat, more attractive and more expensive than the cookies from the jar containing ten. These results support the observation that when we see an item lower in supply, we are more likely to rate it more favourably and therefore desire it more.
Table 1. The means for liking, attraction and cost in Experiment 1
This effect has been replicated by other studies, such as Parker (2011). Participants were asked to visit a simulated store and select which items they would buy. After explaining their item choices, it was clear that when items were in lesser supply, they were perceived to be scarcer, and thus were more likely to be selected.Scarcity in Marketing
Real-world examples of the Scarcity principle are easy to come across in a marketing context. The principle is applied by alerting customers that there is limited supply of stock and a limited amount of time to act so that they are motivated to act quickly, or regret it. The idea of potentially missing out on a now more desirable item if action is not taken fast enough creates a sense of urgency to act quickly. Such unavailability simultaneously works to enhance the value of the product, making it more desirable (hence the higher ratings in the studies mentioned previously), for example, limited edition items.
I’m sure you have come across may other manifestations of this principle that are effective in a marketing context, such as limited delivery time (“only 2 more hours left to get free delivery..!”) which often includes a ticking timer and verbal encouragement to “HURRY!” so as to heighten your sense of urgency and act fast before you miss out.
Cialdini, R. B. (1993). Influence: The psychology of persuasion. New York: Morrow.
Parker, J. R., & Lehmann, D. R. (2011). When shelf-based scarcity impacts consumer preferences. Journal of Retailing, 87, 142-155.
Worchel, S., Lee, J., & Adewole, A. (1975). Effects of supply and demand on ratings of object value. Journal of personality and social psychology, 32, 906-914.