Part 7: Scarcity
This is a summary of my reading notes from Influence by Robert Cialdini.
Today we go deeper into the fascinating lessons we’ve learned about scarcity, psychological reactance, and the complex factors that influence our decision-making processes. In this extended discussion, we’ll explore the intricate nuances of these principles and their practical implications for our daily lives.
As we’ve seen, scarcity has a profound impact on our desires and behaviors. When opportunities become less available, we instinctively yearn to preserve the freedoms we already possess. This desire to retain our established prerogatives is at the core of psychological reactance theory. Essentially, when our free choices are limited or threatened, our need to preserve those freedoms intensifies our desire for them, along with the associated goods and services. Scarcity, whether due to external factors or interference, compels us to react by desiring and pursuing those items more passionately than before.
Let’s consider a study conducted in Virginia, where researchers observed a group of boys, averaging around twenty-four months in age. These boys entered a room with two equally attractive toys, but there was a crucial difference in how these toys were presented. One toy was placed next to a transparent Plexiglas barrier, while the other stood behind the barrier. For some of the boys, the barrier was only a foot tall, providing no real obstacle to the toy behind it, as they could easily reach over the top.
For the other group of boys, the Plexiglas barrier was two feet tall, effectively blocking their access to one of the toys unless they circumvented the barrier. The researchers wanted to understand how quickly these toddlers would engage with the toys under these conditions. The results were illuminating. When the barrier was too small to restrict access, the boys showed no preference for either toy, touching both with equal speed. However, when the barrier was tall enough to be a genuine obstacle, the boys immediately gravitated towards the obstructed toy, making contact with it three times faster than with the unobstructed one.
This study underscores the idea that an individual’s quest for independence and the desire to explore their options are fundamental aspects of human nature. The inclination to fight for every liberty and resist every constraint can be viewed as a quest for information. Children, for instance, test the boundaries of their freedom to discover where in their world they can expect to exercise control and where they can expect to be controlled. Wise parents provide consistent guidance and information to help children navigate these boundaries effectively.
Now, let’s draw a parallel between these concepts and a classic tale like Romeo and Juliet. While a romantic might attribute their passion to rare and perfect love, a social scientist might point to the role of parental interference and the psychological reactance it can generate. In this light, perhaps their love was fueled to a white heat by the presence of those barriers.
A study involving 140 Colorado couples provides intriguing insights. It revealed that while parental interference was linked to some problems in the relationship—such as partners viewing each other more critically and reporting more negative behaviors—it also intensified feelings of love and desire for marriage. As parental interference increased, so did the intensity of love experienced by the couples. Conversely, when interference weakened, romantic feelings cooled. These findings emphasize how psychological reactance can manifest itself in various ways, not only in personal relationships but also in broader societal contexts, making it relevant to lawmakers and policymakers.
Consider the case of Dade County, Florida, which includes Miami, where an anti-phosphate ordinance was imposed, prohibiting the use and possession of laundry or cleaning products containing phosphates. Following this restriction, a peculiar phenomenon occurred. Miami residents, in what seemed like a tradition, turned to smuggling. They began to perceive phosphate detergents as gentler, more effective in cold water, better whiteners, and fresheners, and more powerful stain removers than Tampa residents, who were not affected by the ordinance.
Over time, Miami residents even started to believe that phosphate detergents poured more easily than non-phosphate ones. However, the reality was that phosphate detergents did not clean, whiten, or pour any better after the ban than they did before. The perception of increased desirability stemmed from the fact that these detergents had become less available. This response is typical of individuals who have lost an established freedom, highlighting how scarcity pressures influence our desires and choices. Often, we fail to recognize that psychological reactance is driving our increased desire for these items; all we know is that we want them.
Moving on to the intriguing world of information censorship, we find that it’s not merely that audiences want censored information more; they also come to believe in it more, even without receiving it. For instance, when University of North Carolina students learned that a speech opposing coed dorms on campus would be banned, they became more opposed to the idea of coed dorms. In essence, without hearing the speech, they became more sympathetic to its argument. This raises concerns about how clever individuals holding weak or unpopular positions can manipulate public opinion by arranging to have their messages restricted.
An illuminating study conducted on Purdue University undergraduates sheds light on this. Students were shown advertisements for a novel, and half of them were told that the book was restricted to those aged 21 and over, while the other half saw no such age restriction. When later asked about their feelings toward the book, those who learned of the age restriction not only wanted to read the book more but also believed they would like it more than those who thought their access was unlimited. This suggests that censorship can inadvertently increase desire for and affinity toward certain materials.
In the realm of legal proceedings, we often encounter situations where evidence or testimony is introduced and subsequently ruled inadmissible by the judge. The jurors are then instructed to disregard that evidence. This peculiar form of censorship involves presenting information to the jury but banning its use. The effectiveness of such instructions from a judge is worth considering. It’s possible that for jury members who feel it’s their right to consider all available information, declarations of inadmissibility may actually trigger psychological reactance, leading jurors to use the evidence more extensively.
Let’s return to the concept of scarcity and its persuasive power. We learned from previous discussions that we find information more persuasive when we think we can’t obtain it elsewhere. This principle was highlighted in a study involving a sales team. Customers were contacted and asked for orders in three ways: a standard sales presentation, a presentation with information about the scarcity of imported beef in the upcoming months, and a presentation with both scarcity information and the added exclusivity that the information came from the company’s exclusive contacts. Customers who received the last presentation, with the additional exclusivity factor, were more convinced to make purchases. This demonstrates the potency of the scarcity double whammy – not only is the product scarce, but the information about its scarcity is also limited.
Now, let’s delve deeper into understanding when scarcity works best on us. Social psychologist Stephen Worchel devised an experiment to shed light on this. In a consumer preference study, participants were given a chocolate-chip cookie to taste and rate. For half of the participants, the jar contained ten cookies, while for the other half, it contained just two. As expected, the cookie in short supply was rated more favorably for future consumption and as a consumer item. However, Worchel’s experiment also explored a crucial question: Do we value more those things that have recently become less available to us, or those things that have always been scarce?
The answer was quite clear. The drop from abundance to scarcity produced a more positive reaction to the cookies than did constant scarcity.