Scarcity Technique #1: Limited Number

28.03.2017 |

Episode #7 of the course Persuasion science masterclass: Part II by Andy Luttrell


According to the “Limited Number Tactic,” you can create the impression that there are only a few items available, and that will increase influence by increasing the perceived value of those items.

To see more clearly what I mean, let’s take a look at one study that’s been really influential in developing the idea of scarcity as an influence principle. Let’s call it the “Cookie Jar Study” (Worchel, Lee, & Adewole, 1975).

In this study, people came into a lab, thinking they were going to taste test some cookies and provide their impressions. When they arrived, there was a jar of cookies sitting on the table, which was ostensibly the cookie jar for the taste test. Critically, there were either only two cookies in the jar or 10 cookies. At this point, this would be a clear case of scarcity (two cookies) or abundance (10 cookies).

But there’s more to it than that. In addition to simply how many cookies there were, the experimenters also wanted to see whether it mattered why participants thought there were that many cookies. There were really four different ways the experiment could go:

1. There are two cookies in the jar when the participant arrives, and it stays that way.

2. There are 10 cookies when the participant arrives, but they have to take away eight to use in another session next door because they ran out.

3. There are 10 cookies in the jar when the participant arrives, and it stays that way.

4. There are two cookies when the participant arrives, but they add eight “leftovers” that other participants in the next room didn’t want.

The participants then did the taste test, rated how much they liked the cookies, and guessed how much they cost.

Importantly, for the first two groups, they ultimately get to choose from two cookies, and in the last two groups, they get to choose from 10. Overall, people liked the cookies more when there were only two cookies in the jar, compared to when there were 10…even though the cookies were the same! This is a clear scarcity effect—more value was placed on the product in the scarce condition.

But it also mattered why there were two vs. ten cookies. When you look at the four groups separately, it was the second group who liked the cookies the most. These were people who believed that there were only a few cookies because there was such high demand. This made the cookies even more desirable than when there were only two to begin with.

This study reveals a few things about the “Limited Number Tactic.” One is that people value something when it’s scarcer. When you know that there’s a limited opportunity, you’re more likely to want it, so you’ll comply with someone’s request. But people value something scarce even more when it was once abundant. If something has always been limited in quantity, then it is certainly seemingly valuable, but when it was once abundant and now it’s not, the perception of value goes way up.

You can apply the limited number technique by creating the perception that there aren’t many opportunities left for something. And if you want to be a little more heavy-handed about it, do so in a way that suggests that it’s because so many other people have taken advantage of those opportunities that now there are only a few left.

Tomorrow we’ll discover another important use of the scarcity principle: imposing deadlines on your offer.


Recommended book

“Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing” by Roger Dooley


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