The Six Weapons of Influence – Part 6: “Scarcity”
So far in this six-part article, we’ve covered five of Dr. Robert Cialdini’s six “weapons of influence”: Reciprocity, Commitment/Consistency, Social Proof, Liking, and Authority. Now for the sixth and final weapon, the one that may have the most viscerally powerful effect on us:
Weapon number six: “Scarcity: The Rule Of The Few”
Scarcity is the reason why someone who’s breaking up with you seems much more desirable than she did when you were thinking about breaking up with her.
The Scarcity Rule is the sales tool that is most obvious to us when we see advertising: “Sale ends June 30th”; “The First Hundred People Receive…”; “Limited Time Only”; “Offer Expires”; et cetera ad nauseum.
Remember this one well: the only thing more motivating than a limited supply of something is a rapidly diminishing supply of that same thing. It creates a hell of an itch. Now, we not only want an item for its utility, but we want to possess it simply to possess it.
When I was first learning the principles of direct response marketing, my mentor taught me early on that no promotion ever went out without a very explicit expiration. Sometimes promotional prices (set not by us but by our vendors) would be steady for months at a time. So month after month we would announce that prices would expire at the end of the month (factually true; we didn’t know for sure what prices would do in the coming month), but the month after that we would announce a similar promotion at the exact same price. This would go on for months.
But those promotions unfailingly encouraged end-of-month sales, even though the prices never changed. Why? Because the prices were expiring at the end of the month. They never actually expired, but that didn’t matter.
Good cons are often based on an “exclusive deal,” lauded by seemingly “rich men” who are “in the know.” You, the common man, are not allowed in on it. But wait, you seem like a good guy. I like the cut of your jib. I wouldn’t normally do this, but I’ll look and see if there’s any extra opportunity to get in on this deal…
…well, lo and behold! There’s one last opportunity to get in on Credit Default Swaps! You are so lucky! And it only requires an up-front $50,000 investment! I’ll wait here while you go break open your piggy bank…
This rule seems pretty straightforward. Create the perception that an item is either limited or diminishing, and you can create more demand. I just found a great blog called Persuasiveweb (though the last post was a year ago), with an article on how scarcity appeals can gain or lose effectiveness based on context.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out another great work by Strategy Insight.
This rule gets much more interesting when you expand it past commodities and apply it to other things like people, time, information, and freedoms.
Scarcity of freedom creates very interesting effects. I’m not necessarily talking about government oppression, although that certainly counts as an extreme example. I’m talking more about everyday freedoms. Cialdini notes that imposing restrictions on freedoms creates what he calls a “boomerang” effect, or a rebellious effect opposite of that which was intended by the imposer of that restriction.
He cites the play Romeo and Juliet, and points out that many scholars have found it implausible that two teens would succumb to a passion deep enough to motivate a double suicide after only a few days of knowing one another. This is probably true, and if the respective families weren’t at war, the love probably would never have developed as it did.
But because the two children we expressly forbidden to see one another, it created a challenging obstacle. The restriction on their freedom created a “boomerang” effect which made them look more attractive in the other’s eyes.
Cialdini gives another example of a study of punitive damages awarded by juries in accident cases. It is a well established fact that juries award more money on average when they know an insurance company will ultimately pay the bill. But sometimes juries are not allowed to know this fact, and if it slips out in court, a judge will instruct the jury to disregard the fact.
It surprised me to learn that in cases where a jury was told to disregard the fact that an insurance company would pay damages, the jury actually awarded more money than in those instances where they were simply allowed to know the fact. The simple act of being told to disregard a fact created a “boomerang” effect that actually caused the jury to apply that knowledge even more forcefully.
Also, we will react more forcefully to a diminishing resource than we will to a resource that is simply limited. This is especially true when a resource that appears to be newly given is immediately taken away.
Cialdini talks about the root cause of social uprisings, including the urban riots in the 60’s:
At the time, it was not uncommon to hear the question, “Why now?” It didn’t seem to make sense that within their three-hundred year history, most of which had been spent in servitude and much of the rest in privation, American blacks would choose the socially progressive sixties in which to revolt. [...] Federal legislation had struck down as unacceptable formal and informal attempts to segregate blacks in schools, public places, housing, and employment settings. Large economic advances had been made too; black family income had risen from 56 percent to 80 percent of that of a comparably educated white family.
But then…the rapid progress was stymied by events that soured the heady optimism of previous years. [...] For example, in the four years following the Supreme Court decision to integrate all public schools, blacks were the targets of 530 acts of violent…designed to prevent school integration. This violence generated the perception of another sort of setback in black progress. [...]
In keeping with the distinct historical pattern of revolution, blacks in the United States were more rebellious when their prolonged progress was curtailed somewhat than they were before it began. This pattern offers a valuable lesson for would-be rulers: When it comes to freedoms, it is more dangerous to have given for a while than to never have given at all…it establishes freedoms for the group where none existed before. And should these now established freedoms become less available, there will be an especially hot variety of hell to pay.
Think about this social tendency in the modern day “Tea Party” context. After eight years of a Republican administration widely viewed as economically libertarian (you are free to keep whatever you can earn), the first two major bills out of the new administration seem both expensive and redistributive. Though it may not be the actual case, many see this as the curtailing of economic freedom to keep what one earns after a long period of that freedom’s expansion.
The Scarcity Principle is one we see very commonly every day, in both obvious and subtle places. In the dating world, for example, there is a lot of advice circulating on not making yourself too available, because it would diminish your value in the eyes of the other. Men especially seem to obsess over how long to wait after getting someone’s number before calling them.
The rule holds up in relationships just like anywhere else: those who are ever so slightly less available or less accessible seem to become more attractive (What were the rules from The Tao of Steve? Oh, yes: Be Desireless, Be Excellent, and Be Gone!). How many times have we all waited for a return phone call or txt, with every passing minute making the returned communication more and more important?
One of the stores told in the book He’s Just Not That Into You featured a woman who was so excited to be dating this really busy guy who never called her. She gushed about how important a man he was, and how busy he was kept. However, when the situation was seen in an objective context, it was obvious that she was getting shorted in the deal, and only really valued the guy because of how in-demand he seemed.
Tell me your thoughts. Have you ever been influenced by the Scarcity Principle? Did you ever feel yourself start to value something irrationally, simply because you received information that it was limited, or might get taken away?
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