Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily
Two principles of persuasion—door-in-the-face (starting with a large offer followed by a small offer) and expert authority (using expertise to sell)—can be particularly effective. Cialdini and his cohort have explored several others, including creating scarcity. What makes this technique so powerful?
How Creating Scarcity Works
One of Professor Vishton’s personal favorite persuasion techniques is creating scarcity. When something is in short supply, it becomes increasingly attractive.
Several respectable studies support the benefits of scarcity, but even before the first data point was collected, Professor Vishton believed that this principle would work on him.
“One time, I was up about three in the morning, flipping through TV stations,” Professor Vishton said. “I ran across what was, at the time, a relatively new phenomenon—a home shopping channel. I watched for a bit and saw a watch that looked pretty cool to me. The price was pretty reasonable.
He called and asked about the watch but did not call to buy it. He was thinking about it, even though he didn’t have that intention when he dialed the 800 number.
“I started asking the nice lady who answered the phone questions about it,” Professor Vishton said. “Who made it? Is there a guarantee that it will keep working for more than a few weeks? Is it water-resistant?”
The woman answered his questions and then said they only had nine of them left in stock. He started to ask another question, and she said, “Oh, only eight left. Now seven. Oh, now there are only six. It looks like they are really going fast. I think you’d better buy one now if you want it.”
Professor Vishton ran across the house and found his credit card. He managed to get one of the last two watches.
Making Products More Attractive
“For what it’s worth, I was happy with the product when it arrived,” Professor Vishton said.
A few nights later, he noticed that the watch was still available. “Now, I don’t want to call that nice operator a liar, but I’m pretty sure she was lying to me,” he said.
By indicating that the watch was in short supply, she didn’t make the watch any better, the price any lower, or the value any better. What she did was change Professor Vishton’s reasoning about it in such a way that the watch seemed more attractive.
Scarcity and the Brain
There is evidence that when something is described as scarce, it creates a fear of missing out. People tend to feel that possibly in the future they will regret not having said yes to an opportunity that is now gone.
Several neuroimaging studies suggest that the brain produces activity associated with distress when we hear messages like this. The sympathetic nervous system is even somewhat activated in response—that area associated with the fight or flight response that we use for survival.
If you want to persuade someone to select something, do something, or say yes to your request, our intuition is usually to make it as easy as possible for someone to do so. If you’re asking for someone to volunteer for some charitable activity, it feels like your yes responses will increase if you say that they can work for an hour or a half hour any time that would work with their schedule.
The scarcity principle suggests that this can backfire. In fact, the best way to nudge someone to a yes, in this case, might be to mention that almost all of the available volunteer times are already taken. By creating a scarcity, the opportunity is made far more attractive.
Humans are an inherently social species—it’s our ability and tendency to cooperate with one another that has allowed humans to achieve so many of our greatest accomplishments. We are even subject to persuasion that makes us more likely to do things for other people. However, if we are aware of the automatic reflexes that get activated in our brains, we can resist making impulse decisions based on persuasive sales techniques.
This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.