Concerns about Scarcity Make Us Want to Be Better People
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Marketing Oct 6, 2016

Con­cerns about Scarci­ty Make Us Want to Be Bet­ter People

When we think we have too lit­tle, we will spend more on self-improvement.

If you were trapped in a desert, resource scarcity would cause you to exercise willpower and become your best self to surviveIf you were trapped in a desert, resource scarcity would cause you to exercise willpower and become your best self to survive

Michael Meier

Based on the research of

Kelly Goldsmith

Ali Tezer

Caroline Roux

Peo­ple become more self­ish when resources are scarce.

Such is the con­clu­sion of a research project Kel­ly Gold­smith com­plet­ed about a year ago. But then she start­ed to ques­tion whether human nature was real­ly that dark. Per­haps there was a sil­ver lin­ing to this self­ish­ness? And so a new research project was born.

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Gold­smith, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School, along with her col­leagues, set out to under­stand whether there was an upside to being self­ish in the face of scarci­ty. The team found that indeed there was: the same moti­va­tion that dri­ves con­sumers to get their fair share also dri­ves them to try to improve themselves.

It’s not that, all of a sud­den, you devel­op this very pure desire to become an excel­lent per­son,” Gold­smith says. It’s real­ly moti­vat­ed by the thought that, when the world is run­ning out of resources, yes, it ben­e­fits me to secure what resources I can for myself, and it also ben­e­fits me to be the best per­son I can be. The per­son who’s the best is going to have the best access to resources.”

In oth­er words, when we are remind­ed of scarci­ty, many of us become moti­vat­ed to become a bet­ter ver­sion of our­selves. If we are faster, stronger, or smarter, we are going to be well posi­tioned to get what we need. And under those con­di­tions, the researchers found, we may also be will­ing to pay more for prod­ucts and ser­vices that promise self-improvement.

Prov­ing the Theory

Gold­smith, along with Car­o­line Roux and Ali Tez­er of Con­cor­dia Uni­ver­si­ty, con­duct­ed four exper­i­ments to exam­ine how being remind­ed of resource scarci­ty impacts behavior.

In one exper­i­ment, they recruit­ed 116 par­tic­i­pants who either described sit­u­a­tions in which they did not have enough of some­thing or a few things they did dur­ing the past week.

when the world is run­ning out of resources, yes, it ben­e­fits me to secure what resources I can for myself, and it also ben­e­fits me to be the best per­son I can be.”

They were then asked which of two kinds of Vit­a­m­in­Wa­ter they were more like­ly to pur­chase. One bot­tle, the Focus” water, empha­sized its abil­i­ty to deliv­er clar­i­ty and alert­ness to improve men­tal per­for­mance. Essen­tial” water, on the oth­er hand, sim­ply promised hydra­tion — some­thing that any water would deliv­er. Both waters were the same price.

The researchers found, as pre­dict­ed, that thoughts of scarci­ty led to a pref­er­ence for bet­ter­ing one­self. Six­ty-six per­cent of par­tic­i­pants who had been think­ing about resource scarci­ty choose Focus, with its self-improve­ment ben­e­fits, while only 47 per­cent of the con­trol group did.

But would thoughts of scarci­ty affect people’s will­ing­ness to spend money?

To find out, the researchers recruit­ed 170 under­grad­u­ate stu­dents who con­duct­ed the same writ­ing exer­cise as above. Then the par­tic­i­pants were shown a pic­ture of Post-It Notes. For some, the cap­tion read: Sticky Notes for Effec­tive Knowl­edge Reten­tion! The Secret Weapon of Those Wish­ing to Improve.” Oth­ers sim­ply saw the label Sticky Notes.” How much would those in each group be will­ing to spend on the Post-Its?

Those who had been prompt­ed before­hand to think about resource scarci­ty were will­ing to pay an aver­age of 74 cents for Post-It Notes that tout­ed self-improve­ment, while par­tic­i­pants with­out this prompt were will­ing to pay just 42 cents for the same product.

The phe­nom­e­non was reversed for the Post-Its that were not paired with a mes­sage of self-improve­ment, with par­tic­i­pants wor­ried about resource scarci­ty set­ting the aver­age price at 46 cents and the rest set­ting it at 57 cents.

Con­trol­ling the Future

Why might resource scarci­ty bring out the best in us — or at least the urge to be the best?

One fac­tor may be a person’s desire for con­trol. Pri­or research has shown that the wish for self-improve­ment is root­ed in the desire to have con­trol over the future.

To test whether this might be dri­ving the urge for self-bet­ter­ment, the researchers had 81 under­grad­u­ate stu­dents answer a series of ques­tions to mea­sure their desire for con­trol. Some par­tic­i­pants were then prompt­ed to think about scarci­ty, while oth­ers were not. After that, the stu­dents watched an ad for a free smart­phone app that pro­mot­ed self-improve­ment and were asked if they would be like­ly to try the app.

The results showed, once again, that par­tic­i­pants who had dwelled on resource scarci­ty were more like­ly to be inter­est­ed in a prod­uct offer­ing self-improve­ment. Crit­i­cal­ly, those who most desired con­trol were also the most like­ly to want to use the app.

Take­aways for Marketers

These find­ings are high­ly rel­e­vant for mar­keters, Gold­smith says. There are many prod­ucts that have self-improve­ment ben­e­fits — case in point: Post-It Notes — but are not posi­tioned that way. Instead of focus­ing on feel-good mes­sag­ing or gen­er­al brand aware­ness, mar­keters may be bet­ter served to remind peo­ple that some resources are finite, so it is time to get fit­ter, smarter, and make the most out of life, she says.

This can hold true for scarce resources like fuel, or even resources like time, which con­sumers are all too fre­quent­ly short on. Fur­ther, the appeal of self-improve­ment ben­e­fits could be par­tic­u­lar­ly com­pelling dur­ing an eco­nom­ic reces­sion, when thoughts of scarci­ty are gen­er­al­ly on con­sumers’ minds.

When the world is run­ning out of stuff, you want to advance your own stand­ing,” she says. Not in a bad way, but just in a look­ing-out-for-your­self sort of way.”

Featured Faculty

Kelly Goldsmith

Member of the Department of Marketing faculty until 2017

About the Writer

Gwen Moran is a writer and author specializing in business and finance.

About the Research

Citation: Goldsmith, Kelly, Ali Tezer, and Caroline Roux. 2016. “When Thoughts of ‘Having Less’ Promote the Desire to Become One’s Best: Reminders of Resource Scarcity Increase the Desire for Self-Improvement.” Working paper.

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