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Scarcity Makes Everything Desirable

How does scarcity shape our decision making?

Scarcity is a pervasive condition of human existence. Everyday circumstances of limited resources (money and time) can make individuals experience a sense of scarcity. Scarcity functions like an obstacle to goal pursuit, which intensify the value of goal.

Source: By Matt Lavin from Bozeman, Montana, USA - Lupinus pusillusUploaded by Jacopo Werther, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Scarcity prioritizes our choices and it can make us more effective. The time pressure of a deadline focuses our attention on using what we have most effectively. Distractions are less tempting. When we have little time left, we try to get more out of every moment. For example, we are more frugal with the toothpaste as the tube starts to run empty, and college seniors tend to get the most out of their time before graduation.

Many stores strategically create perception of scarcity to motivate consumer behavior (urge to buy). For example, the pricing practice of limiting number of items per person (e.g., two cans of soup per person) can lead to increased sales. The sign implies that the items are in short supply and shoppers should feel some urgency about stocking up. The fear of missing out can have a powerful effect on shoppers. When we see a 50 percent off clearance price tag, that scarcity impulse creates a feeling that you have to seize the deal.

For an item that is attractive to begin with, its attractiveness will intensify when it is scarce. For instance, warning labels on violent television programs, designed to decrease interest, often backfire and increase in watching the programs. Sometimes people want things precisely because they cannot have them (“the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”).

The scarcity effect explains why coyness often is considered an attractive attribute? Experts say that “playing hard to get” is a most effective strategy for attracting a partner, especially in the context of long-term love (or the marital) in which a person wishes to be sure of their partner’s commitment. A “hard to get” player likes to appear busy, create intrigue and keep the suitors guessing. As Proust noted, “The best way to make oneself sought after is to be hard to find.” However, playing hard to get is less effective in men, as they are the ones who are socially expected to initiate the relationship.

Scarcity also contributes to an interesting and a meaningful life. In the words of Professor Todd May, when there is always time for everything, there is no urgency for anything. A life without limits would lose the beauty of its moments, and it would become boring.

Source: By Matt Lavin from Bozeman, Montana, USA - Lupinus pusillusUploaded by Jacopo Werther, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Scarcity shows that reminding individuals of the reality of death increases the value of life. Death represents life’s scarcity, which may influence subsequent efforts to protect the threatening aspects of death. Midlife often heightens the feeling that there is not enough time left in life to waste. We overcome the illusion that we can be anything, do anything, and experience everything. We restructure our lives around the needs that are essential. This means that we accept that there will be many things we won’t do in our lives. Resolution of midlife crises consisted in accepting mortality.

More from Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.
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