Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Value of Life

Wanted: Boyfriend to adorn me with affection, gifts, and regular trips to the Carribean. Apply quickly; places are going fast...

A plethora of psychological literature robustly endorses the scarcity principle as a persuasive mechanism, whether it take the form of fewer cookies in a jar[1] limited information availability[2] or time-limited offers[3] (except the DFS sale, which clearly never ends). But why does the scarcity principle work, coaxing you into purchasing items you'll never need? According to the revered Cialdini, it's not your fault, as scarcity increases perceived value of the item[4]. Furthermore, by the principle of Psychological Reactance[5] when our freedoms are threatened (such as by limiting our options via number or time), we want that freedom more.

The total lack of restricted freedom of having David Beckham just makes you want him more...(this one's for you, Nic)

 Can this phenomenon extend to a more abstract concept, such as life and death? According to Worchel, Lee, and Adewole[6], absolutely. The authors conducted 3 studies. For the purpose of this blog, I will be focusing on Experiment 1, which aimed to test the prediction that reminding participants of the scarcity of life would increase their perceived value of life. For your interest, Experiments 2 and 3 focused on delineating potential confounding effects of Terror Management Theory (TTM)[7] and the Meaning-Maintenance Model (MMM)[8]. Let's take a look.

Experiment 1

Participants were asked to complete an online word-find puzzle. In the experimental condition (n = 112), the embedded words were death related (death, tombstone), whereas in the control condition (n = 169), the words were pain related (pain, headache). Next, participants completed three questionnaire-based measures of meaning in life. To ensure associations were specific to death, some participants were then asked to rate shopping products following another death-related word puzzle.


The authors found a significant association between life scarcity and the more positive evaluation of life, a result which did not extend generally to the shopping products and thus indicated a specific association with life scarcity. These findings extended to experiments 2 and 3, such that reminders of the scarcity of life lead to more positive evaluations of more death-related word completions were reported in the high-value condition compared to the low-value condition or control. These results, which involved word-completion tasks after manipulating the perceived monetary and human value of life, respectively, could not be explained by TMT or MMM, but could be explained by the scarcity principle. Indeed, highlighting the scarcity of life increases perceived value of it.

So, there you have it. Unlike previous literature, this study investigated whether the power of the scarcity principle can extend to the abstract, such as the psychological perception of human life value.  The implications of this research is substantial, not only for the persuasion domain, but also perception, psychological therapy and attention. But how?!, you cry. Well, this study clearly demonstrates how focusing your attention to certain concepts, such as life scarcity, can bias our perception, attention and very beliefs on that very concept. Pretty neat.

So, if you're ever having a down day, just remember: you're alive, and that's a rarity.

[1]Worchel, S., Lee, J. & Adewole, A. (1975). Effects of supply and demand on ratings of object value. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(5), 906-914.
[2]Fischer, P., Jonas, E., Frey, D., & SchulzHardt, S. (2005). Selective exposure to information: The impact of information limits. European Journal of Social Psychology, 35(4), 469-492.
[3]Gierl, H., Plantsch, M., & Schweidler, J. (2008). Scarcity effects on sales volume in retail. The International Review of Retail, Distribution and Consumer Research, 18(1), 45-61.
[4]Cialdini, R. B. (1993). Influence: The psychology of persuasion.
[5]Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York.
[6]King, L. A., Hicks, J. A., & Abdelkhalik, J. (2009). Death, life, scarcity, and value: An alternative perspective on the meaning of death. Psychological Science, 20(12), 1459-1462.
[7]Greenberg, J., & Arndt, J. (2011). Terror management theory. Handbook of theories of social psychology, 1, 398-415.

[8]Heine, S. J., Proulx, T., & Vohs, K. D. (2006). The meaning maintenance model: On the coherence of social motivations. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(2), 88-110.

Laura Cunniffe

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