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. Someone or something that’s not available all the time is desirable.
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!
Even more interesting is the second way in which scarcity affects our thinking and ultimately our behaviour. As opportunities become less available, we lose freedom and boy do we loathe to lose freedoms we already have. Psychologist Jack Brehm has been researching this to explain the human response to diminishing personal control – Reactance Theory.
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.
Along the same lines as scarcity, telling someone that they can’t have something plays even deeper into their greed. You see this all the time at a shop when a child throws a tantrum over something he can’t have.
So how do we use this interesting piece of information about the human psyche? The first is when providing bonuses to employees or indeed anyone in order to increase their motivation to behave in a desirable way.
We need to be cautious of making the bonus too frequent or too consistently. If we do use this technique too often then the receiver may well get used to having it – they might even begin to EXPECT it. And what if they expect it? Well, if they expect it, then it is no longer working as a motivator.
In fact, if for some reason the bonus does not come, then it will become a huge de-motivator. Those who were expecting what did not come will feel aggrieved, hard-done-by and angry. They will spend significant time moaning about what they have not been given..about what they were ‘due’. It will not cross their minds that they did not receive it because their results were below target.
Advertising companies use the psychology of scarcity all the time: “Limited supply, limited time offer… only 3 left at this price!” If there aren’t many left, you better get yourself one right now or someone else is going to snap it up and you’ll be jealous! We all know how this one works….certainly I’ve fallen to this selling ploy.
Ever heard yourself say about sending a prospective date a text message…”I’ll leave it a few hours, wouldn’t want them to think I’m too keen”…hmmm? or “I mustn’t tell them I’m free at this notice for the weekend, mustn’t make myself too available.”
So what other ways does this principle persuade us to behave or not behave in certain ways?
How can we use this information to change our results?