Scarcity: A Diary

How my perception of urgency is leveraged to persuade me to act.

In Robert B. Cialdini’s seminal marketing book on persuasive techniques, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, he lists scarcity as the final principle in his “6 Principles of Influence.”

Scarcity is the perception that something is more attractive when their availability is limited.

I was drawn to this principle at first because it felt very familiar. This is a tactic that I am usually aware of when companies use it. If I read that a sale online is a “Limited time offer!”, I’m generally conscious that I’m being pushed to buy now. But the thing is, rather than other persuasive techniques where the realization of it’s goal often diminishes it’s effect, I usually still buy into it.

Scarcity scares me, and gets me to act. It plays on my need for uniqueness, and it threatens my freedom to the point where I’ll act out. But even if I feel like I’m conscious of its effect, I wondered just how much this tactic infiltrates my subconscious. This week, I decided to make an active effort to identify any instance of scarcity used as a technique to get me to behave a certain way, and record in it a journal.

I was inspired by Money Diaries, a journaling format popularized by Refinery29 and Man Repeller). I thought I would try to document my life, but rather from the perspective of spending, focused on being conscious of the times I’m influenced by scarcity. So here are 5 days in my life, where I recorded every time I noticed the lever of scarcity used on me. To record the lever’s effect on me, I’ve noted the tool, whether it peaked my interest, and then whether I took the intended action.

Day 1, Friday

7:00 AM — I’m scanning my email as I brush my teeth, and I see a recent blast pop up from my “Promotions” folder: “CLOSING HOURS: GET THESE SWIM SETS BEFORE THEY’RE GONE.” It’s from a store I don’t love, but they have notoriously good sales and I’m going to Miami next week….I browse through the first page, but decide it’s still not worth it.
Tool: Scarce Time
Interest: ✅
Action? ❌

11:29 AM — I came back home after class to an EVENT in my dining room: one of my roommates is gathered at the kitchen table with a group of friends, counting down the seconds until one of his favorite sneakers drop. Apparently he’s fighting thousands of people (and programmed bots) to buy a limited edition themed release of AF1s. I observe as 11:30 hits, his friend shouts his credit card numbers to him and he frantically spends $200.
Tool: Scarce Supply
Interest:: ✅
Action? ✅

5:30 PM I’m on the Creative Team for the Lunar Gala fashion show (which is tomorrow), and the producers decided last minute to shift the rest of the unsold “Preferred” tickets to the sold-out “Student” and “General” seats. But, they decide to be sneaky about it, and frame the announcement “A select number of additional seats have been made available for students, for a limited time. Don’t miss this opportunity!” It works by the end of the night. We sell the rest off.
Tool: Scarce Supply
Interest:: ✅
Action? ✅

6:50 PM — That same store blasts me with an app notification (I thought I turned these off!) announcing that the swim sale from this morning is on “LAST CALL FOR 100s of MARKED-DOWN ITEMS!” I’m tempted. Maybe I’ll just pursue the app, since it’s pretty easy to open from notification.
But it’s the same content I’ve seen this morning. Duh. I don’t buy anything.
Tool: Scarce Time
Interest: ✅
Action? ❌

6:53 PM — Now I see more notifications, since I’ve unlocked my phone. Another email, this time from a similarly cheap online clothing store, is having a limited offer. I know this store too well. They always have a sale. I swipe the notification away.
Tool: Scarce Time
Interest:❌
Action? ❌

Day 2, Saturday

8:50 AM — On twitter, I get a targeted ad from the New Yorker about their new tote bags. They’re exactly like the original, but in dark mode. Limited edition. I want it. I’m so materialistic. I use the duration of time it takes for me to floss to consider whether I should cancel my subscription and then resubscribe for the sake of this tote. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Stop.
Tool: Scarce Time
Interest: ✅
Action? ❌

11:40 AM — I’m meeting my friend to get to our favorite bagel place, and I’m currently pressuring everyone in the group chat to leave earlier than planned. I’m panicking because this time last week, they shop posted a proud, handmade “CLEAN OUT OF BAGELS” sign, 2 hours before they’re supposed to close. But my friends tell me to chill. I chill.
Tool: Scarce Resources
Interest: ✅
Action? ❌ (but my friends helped out)

8:20 PM — My friend and I are working the show and we haven’t eaten. I’m starting to feel like I’ve been spending too much money this weekend, but we’re starving and I’m stuck inside ushering for another couple hours, but I remember seeing a coupon on my phone pop up from earlier so we decide to order delivery. I haven’t opened Postmates since I last updated: now there’s a feature called “Party” where you can get free delivery if you order from a participating restaurant within the time frame. I didn’t even choose a restaurant based on this, but coincidentally I was in a party that screamed “Ends in 1:23, order fast!” I immediately rushed to finish our order. I think this was the fastest we’ve ever decided on what we wanted to eat.
Tool: Scarce Time
Interest: ✅
Action? ✅

Day 3, Sunday

10:15 AM — I use the Nike Training app to workout sometimes, but lately I’ve been getting frustrated with the slowly shrinking ratio of free services to paid ones. When I open my homepage, a “New Premium Workouts” feature is waiting for me as the hero image, with animated trainers lifting nicer-looking weight and in a more professional looking studio than the trainers I’m used to in the free version. The copy reads “For serious athletes. Upgrade for better variety and more coaching. ”… I want to be a serious athlete. I consider, but also I’m short on time and don’t have enough cognitive capacity right now to really mull over this purchase.
Tool: Restricted Access
Interest: ✅
Action? ❌

12:30 PM — There were a couple baskets of free fruit in the UC when I walked by (Some sort of health campaign? I’ll take it). The banana, gala apple and pear baskets were still pretty full, but the granny smith basket was nearly empty. I was drawn to it. I took one of the last, bruised up granny smiths. I realized when I approached the stand I didn’t have any preexisting ideas about which fruit I would want, and kind of just assumed that the most empty would be the best tasting.
Tool: Scarce Resources, Abundance to Scarcity
Interest: ✅
Action? ✅

Day 4, Monday

7:30 AM — A mass of promotional emails this morning. I wonder why don’t I filter more of this out so I don’t wake up to it. Since tracking the uses of scarcity in my life, I think I’ve become extra scrutinous of my inbox now. I completely ignore all of the “LIMITED” and “FINAL HOURS” and “LAST CALLS.” I feel good about it.
Tool: Scarce time, Scarce Resources
Interest: ❌
Action? ❌

5:20 PM — I’m walking through the airport with a friend when she noticed a window display in store in there terminal (the store is called “America!”, as if to really remind us that we are in D.C.). There is a giant pink sign, an elaborate pink table and a bunch of stacked and decorated pink items arranged in the front. It’s such an aggressive use of color we both stop and examine the objects. Moleskine is doing a “Special Collaboration” with Sakura, and they’ve released a line of (offensively) pink notebook products. Sure, it’s limited edition, but we both decide it’s not our taste.
Tool: Scarce time, Scarce Resources
Interest: ❌
Action? ❌

6:00 PM — I want coffee now, and I’m a little snobby about what I drink. But my friend has a reward for and extra drink at Starbucks that expires in a day, so I agree to stop with her and venmo her the comped difference.
Tool: Scarce time
Interest: ❌
Action? ❌

Day 5, Tuesday

9:20 AM — I’m travelling today. My mom keeps texting me about precautions to take for the coronavirus outbreak. She’s especially nervous because I have to be on a lot of airplanes this week. I go to the mini market inside my hotel, looking for anti-bacterial wipes. I notice that there’s a giant bin labeled as hand sanitizer, but there’s only one little bottle left. It gets me thinking about the outbreak here in DC in comparison to Pittsburgh. Is there a higher likelihood of the virus spreading here, or are people just more paranoid? Why are the bins emptied here? I already stocked up before I left yesterday, but if there’s only one left here….I grab it and buy it.
Tool: Scarce Resources, Abundance to Scarcity
Interest: ✅
Action? ✅

9:20 AM — As I check into my American Airlines flight, the app asks me multiple times throughout the process if I want to upgrade my seat. I see how much extra money it will be and I don’t think it’s worth it, but I do pause a little when a screen pops up and says “Only 3 Main Cabin Extra seats left. ” I come back to reality when I see the price again, though.
Tool: Scarce Resources
Interest: ❌
Action? ❌

11:50 PM — My Lyft driver is chatting about how his cousin’s fiance has the coronavirus. She lives in New York. I’m quietly freaking out.
He then tells me about all of the masks he swiped from the hospital while he was visiting his mom yesterday. He said he looked online to buy the special filtration masks on Amazon, but the price jumped from $18 a pack to over $90 for just one. I try to subtly check my Prime app while he’s talking. He’s right. I mentally remind myself to ask my dad later if I should buy one for myself.
Tool: Scarce Resources
Interest: ✅
Action? ✅

Final Thoughts

This was an interesting exercise. I definitely think that in these past five days, I’ve been thinking a lot about this viral outbreak and it’s influenced the way scarcity techniques affect me. I wonder how different my week would look if we were under different circumstances.

Reading through all of the notes I took throughout the week, it’s interesting to me how much I am drawn in by a scarcity technique, but not fully persuaded. I think I still waste a lot of cognitive energy considering an option that was sparked by a scarcity technique. So even if I don’t buy the swimsuit, I’m still going to spend a good amount of time and decision-making power considering if it’s worth it. I think a direct intervention I’d like to make in my own life is to be more conscious of the time I spend making decisions. Especially now that I know the outcome is likely going to be that I don’t buy it or don’t act.

I also noticed that a lot of advertising that uses scarcity is specifically targeting humans who are perceiving themselves as part of a group. This principle of influence relies on my inherit need to feel unique, but also my tendency to try to conform. As in the case with the apple basket, I assumed the most popular fruit is the best.

Overall, this was an interesting way to live out 5 days. It scared me how much the devices that I choose to put in my life are constantly trying to convince me that opportunities are running out and I need to act now, fast quick!. We really do live in an attention economy, and I want to be more aware of how I can choose to participate.

⏰📝

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Jaclyn Saik

Jaclyn Saik

Designer. Currently at Asana, previously at Khan Academy. Language + Data + Digital + Print.