The last of Prof. Cialdini’s weapons of influence centers on scarcity or, as he explains it, the increase in the appeal of an opportunity when it appears that it will soon become unavailable. This lure is evident in the actions of those who put a telephone conversation on hold when another phone line rings simply because of the fear that the chance to hear information might be lost or the possibility to speak to that person if that call is not taken.
In fact, the thought of “losing” something over winning something is typically more appealing and interesting. More people insulate homes because of the “money that they could lose” rather than the money that they could save.
Consider the language of marketers who tell us that “only a limited number” are available or that you should hurry because “a sale ends Sunday.” Scarcity has a tendency to make items more valuable in our eyes. This is because we understand that those items that are difficult to possess are typically better than those that are easy to possess. This concept is more often than not a true one. The second factor that weighs in that we hate to lose “freedoms” – that is whenever free choice is limited, the need to retain our freedoms makes us desire them more.
Cialdini engages the reader in a very interesting discussion of the behaviorists’ view of Romeo and Juliet. Was this a case of young and pure love or rather was the intensity of the love heightened because of the extraordinary obstacles that the Montague and Capulet families placed in the path of these young lovers and therefore infringed on their freedoms? Or to use a biblical example, did Adam and Eve desire the apple more because it offered enlightenment and knowledge or because it was “one of a kind” and prohibited?
The Iranian election and the management of its outcome by its supreme leader may be an additional event worth studying through the prism of scarcity. Did the current leadership fan the flames of revolt by making opposition information scarce (and more believable because exclusive information is more persuasive) and by reducing freedoms while creating obstacles? And conversely, can groups pretend that information is restricted so as to align others with their perspectives? If this interpretation of Cialdini’s thinking is correct – and he does acknowledge that this concept applies to information and censorship as well – there are tremendous implications for the way governments manage conflict and companies manage information flow.
There are a number of corollaries to our scarcity weapon of influence. The first is that scarcity has greater impact when people have a taste of abundance and then have that abundance replaced with scarcity. Cialdini cites the glasnost era led by Gorbachev followed by a crackdown. The Soviet people chafed at the loss of freedoms and fought more strenuously to keep the freedoms that were already experienced during the Gorbachev regime.
The second corollary is that scarcity is made more impactful when there is competition for a good or service. Imagine for a moment, those department store sales where certain goods are only available between certain hours and the panic that ensues within the store. These sales are designed to foment both scarcity and competition and force a buying decision.
So how does one control the strong emotional pull of scarcity? First, we need to recognize the heightened sense of arousal that comes with scarcity. Then, knowing that we are now engaged at this level, we must separate the use we have for the item from the desire to acquire it. By its very nature, scarcity is about possession and not utility. Distinguishing the two will allow us to behave more rationally.
It is important to recognize that all of the weapons highlighted in “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” will become more pervasive simple because of the overwhelming information available to and thrust upon us. We are truly information overloaded and it is imperative that we recognize when gut reactions cause our behaviors. Where Cialdini has done us a great service is by “pulling the curtain back” so that we may more effectively recognize manipulation, and combat it.