One of those moments happened recently when I realized that multiple clients were all exploring a version of the same thing: issues with scarcity and abundance. There are two types of scarcity: exogenously or environmentally-induced and endogenously or human-induced. The first applies to things that – within the world at large – are hard to find. Diamonds, gold, oranges in Springtime are examples. The other is created intentionally – limited edition art prints, 2000 or fewer cars of a certain make, low stocks of a ‘hot’ commodity released into the market. Whether the scarcity is manufactured or natural though, can do anything from inspiring a little desire to full-on black Friday-esque frenzy.
Here’s where it gets messy: how much we buy into the feelin
g of scarcity isn’t often up to us; our expectations of what abundance looks like to each of us can be guided by things like poverty levels in childhood, neighborhood safety, career path, education levels and sense of self-worth. An example: a 27 year old engineer who grew up in a safe neighborhood with loving parents and has a few healthy relationships would see – say – an empty refrigerator or pantry as no big deal. If a tool was out of stock at the store, or the car they hoped to upgrade to wasn’t available in the color they wanted until 3 months from now, they’d likely be patient and wait for it to arrive. Apply that scarcity to a fast food worker with their GED who’d grown up with parents on hourly salaries in a neighborhood known for being high crime, an empty pantry or a wait for a product they desired might feel completely different.
A theory posited in the 60’s offers “when consumer freedom is threatened or coerced, s/he strives to repeal the threat/coercion by establishing a psychological defense mechanism of resistance (reactance), which is a motivational state directed toward safeguarding a person’s behavioral freedom. This reactance may be triggered by events such as scarcity that impede a perceived freedom of choice, and motivate behaviors like sense of urgency and hoarding, in which people may react quickly and at time illogically to perceived shortage in order to restore the lost freedom (Brehm, J. 1966).” Later research noticed that some people were more susceptible to social manipulation, and – based in large part on Brehm’s work – companies have capitalized on scarcity as a marketing tool.
Now swing the other way: abundance in many ways comes with its own challenges. If something is seen as being available everywhere, it becomes less valuable. Fresh watermelon or corn in August gets marked down to pennies, but in January, is priced 10 times higher. Jobs in accounting in February are plentiful, but are scarce in May. Let’s consider our demographics again: for the engineer, when they see a great deal on fresh strawberries or a double-down trade-in credit at the car dealership, they may consider the purchase. The fast food employee however, is statistically far more likely to buy the extra produce or make an early car purchase.
Mitigating requires mindfulness: is it realistic to keep a pantry full of canned goods? An icebox full of produce? Do I need to trade in my car, or was my plan to hold off until I get my tax return? In other words: did I feel this way about that product before I knew how scarce/abundant it was?
Keeping list of one’s planned purchases, knowing both how to pay for and one’s actual usage of an item helps too, as does allowing a small impulse buy weekly could benefit- giving in to a candy bar at the register might satiate the impulse to buy 10 carwashes for a savings of 5 dollars. Lastly, remembering that stores, advertisers, employers and social media have all studied and applied tools of scarcity and abundance… and yes, sometimes, that deal really is too good to pass up.