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What follows is taken primarily from Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.1 I own three copies of this book: one for myself, and two for loaning to friends.

Scarcity, as that term is used in social psychology, is when things become more desirable as they appear less obtainable.

Similarly, information that appears forbidden or secret seems more important and trustworthy:

The conventional theory for explaining this is “psychological reactance,” socialpsychology-speak for “When you tell people they can’t do something, they’ll just try even harder.” The fundamental instincts involved appear to be preservation of status and preservation of options. We resist dominance, when any human agency tries to restrict our freedom. And when options seem to be in danger of disappearing, even from natural causes, we try to leap on the option before it’s gone.

Leaping on disappearing options may be a good adaptation in a hunter-gatherer society—gather the fruits while they are still ripe—but in a money-based society it can be rather costly. Cialdini reports that in one appliance store he observed, a salesperson who saw that a customer was evincing signs of interest in an appliance would approach, and sadly inform the customer that the item was out of stock, the last one having been sold only twenty minutes ago. Scarcity creating a sudden jump in desirability, the customer would often ask whether there was any chance that the salesperson could locate an unsold item in the back room, warehouse, or anywhere. “Well,” says the salesperson, “that’s possible, and I’m willing to check; but do I understand that this is the model you want, and if I can find it at this price, you’ll take it?”

As Cialdini remarks, a chief sign of this malfunction is that you dream of possessing something, rather than using it. (Timothy Ferriss offers similar advice on planning your life: ask which ongoing experiences would make you happy, rather than which possessions or status-changes.)

But the really fundamental problem with desiring the unattainable is that as soon as you actually get it, it stops being unattainable. If we cannot take joy in the merely available, our lives will always be frustrated…

Robert B. Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion: Revised Edition (New York: Quill, 1993). ↩︎

Sharon S. Brehm and Marsha Weintraub, “Physical Barriers and Psychological Reactance: Two-year-olds’ Responses to Threats to Freedom,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35 (1977): 830–836. ↩︎

Michael B. Mazis, Robert B. Settle, and Dennis C. Leslie, “Elimination of Phosphate Detergents and Psychological Reactance,” Journal of Marketing Research 10 (1973): 2; Michael B. Mazis, “Antipollution Measures and Psychological Reactance Theory: A Field Experiment,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 31 (1975): 654–666. ↩︎

Richard D. Ashmore, Vasantha Ramchandra, and Russell A. Jones, “Censorship as an Attitude Change Induction,” Paper presented at Eastern Psychological Association meeting (1971). ↩︎

Dale Broeder, “The University of Chicago Jury Project,” Nebraska Law Review 38 (1959): 760–774. ↩︎

A. Knishinsky, “The Effects of Scarcity of Material and Exclusivity of Information on Industrial Buyer Perceived Risk in Provoking a Purchase Decision” (Doctoral dissertation, Arizona State University, 1982). ↩︎

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