Scarcity (social psychology)

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Scarcity, in the area of social psychology, works much like scarcity in the area of economics. Simply put, humans place a higher value on an object that is scarce, and a lower value on those that are in abundance. For example diamonds are more valuable than rocks because diamonds are not as abundant. [1] The thought that we, as humans, want something we cannot have drives us to desire the object even more. This idea is deeply embedded in the intensely popular, “Black Friday” shopping extravaganza that U.S. consumers participate in every year on the day after Thanksgiving. More than getting a bargain on a hot gift idea, shoppers thrive on the competition itself, in obtaining the scarce product.[2]


There are two social psychology principles that work with scarcity that increase its powerful force. One is social proof. This is a contributing factor to the effectiveness of scarcity, because if a product is sold out, or inventory is extremely low, humans interpret that to mean the product must be good since everyone else appears to be buying it. The second contributing principle to scarcity is commitment and consistency. If someone has already committed themselves to something, then find out they cannot have it, it makes the person want the item more.


Numerous studies have been conducted on the topic of scarcity in social psychology. One of these sought to examine the effects of scarcity rhetoric in a job advertisement for restaurant server positions. Subjects were presented with two help-wanted ads, one of which suggested numerous job vacancies, while the other suggested that very few were available. The study found that subjects who were presented with the advertisement that suggested limited positions available viewed the company as being a better one to work for than the one that implied many job positions were available. Subjects also felt that the advertisement that suggested limited vacancies translated to higher wages. In short, subjects placed a positive, higher value on the company that suggested that there were scarce job vacancies available.[3]

Another study examined how the scarcity of men may lead women to seek high-paying careers and to delay starting a family. This effect was driven by how the sex ratio altered the mating market, not just the job market. Sex ratios involving a scarcity of men led women to seek lucrative careers because of the difficulty women have in finding an investing, long-term mate under such circumstances.[4]


  1. ^ Mittone, Luigi; Savadori, Lucia (2009). "The Scarcity Bias". Applied Psychology. 58 (3): 453–468. doi:10.1111/j.1464-0597.2009.00401.x. 
  2. ^ Highhouse, Scott; Beadle, David; Gallo, Andrew; Miller, Lynn (1998). "Get' em While They Last! Effects of Scarcity Information in Job Advertisements". Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 28 (9): 779–795. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.1998.tb01731.x. 
  3. ^ Snyder, C. R. (1992). "Product Scarcity by Need for Uniqueness Interaction: A Consumer Catch-22 Carousel?". Basic and Applied Social Psychology. 13 (1): 9–24. doi:10.1207/s15324834basp1301_3. 
  4. ^ Durante, Kristina M.; Griskevicius, Vladas; Simpson, Jeffry A.; Cantú, Stephanie M.; Tybur, Joshua M. (2012). "Sex ratio and women's career choice: Does a scarcity of men lead women to choose briefcase over baby?". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 103 (1): 121–134. doi:10.1037/a0027949. PMID 22468947.