It’s Not About You. It’s About Me.
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Marketing Nov 3, 2014

It’s Not About You. It’s About Me.

Scarci­ty can dri­ve us to altru­ism — when it serves our own interests

Based on the research of

Caroline Roux

Kelly Goldsmith

Andrea Bonezzi

The Gold­en Rule — treat oth­ers the way you would like to be treat­ed — hints at a con­nec­tion between altru­ism and self-inter­est. Be moral in your deal­ings with oth­ers, it sug­gests, and you might receive the same in return.

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It is espe­cial­ly impor­tant to keep this con­nec­tion in mind dur­ing times of eco­nom­ic hard­ship, accord­ing to research by Kel­ly Gold­smith, assis­tant pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Kel­logg School. Gold­smith and her coau­thors, Kel­logg alum­nae Car­o­line Roux of Con­cor­dia Uni­ver­si­ty and Andrea Bonezzi of New York Uni­ver­si­ty, find that when peo­ple believe resources are scarce, they are more inclined to be selfish.

We con­sis­tent­ly find that when peo­ple encounter reminders of resource scarci­ty, their next move is to put them­selves first — in front of oth­ers,” Gold­smith says.

But we want peo­ple to pay their tax­es,” she con­tin­ues, which is a proso­cial behav­ior. Tax­es build roads and bridges that ben­e­fit every­one. We want peo­ple to donate to char­i­ty. We want peo­ple to give in blood dri­ves and to buy green products.”

So what’s a pub­lic pol­i­cy mak­er — or a mar­keter of eco-friend­ly laun­dry deter­gent — to do?

One strat­e­gy might involve dou­bling-down — high­light­ing how low blood dona­tions are run­ning or the finite­ness of our nat­ur­al resources. The hope here is that fear will pro­voke generosity.

What our research strong­ly indi­cates,” Gold­smith says, is that if there is a cli­mate of scarci­ty, you should real­ly empha­size the per­son­al ben­e­fits of the behav­ior that you want to promote.”

But instead, what our research strong­ly indi­cates,” Gold­smith says, is that if there is a cli­mate of scarci­ty, you should real­ly empha­size the per­son­al ben­e­fits of the behav­ior that you want to pro­mote.” In oth­er words, you should make peo­ple believe there is some­thing in it for them, if you want them to do it.

Char­i­ty Begins at Home

Goldsmith’s research was moti­vat­ed by a flood of news reports about scarci­ty — from the eco­nom­ic hard­ships expe­ri­enced by low- and mid­dle-class work­ers in the wake of the recent reces­sion to the sky­rock­et­ing glob­al demands for dwin­dling nat­ur­al resources. We are just bom­bard­ed with infor­ma­tion about all the things the world was run­ning out of,” she says. This got the researchers won­der­ing: How does liv­ing in this day and age of scarci­ty affect our con­sump­tion behavior?”

Once we began read­ing about it,” says Gold­smith, we real­ized that scarci­ty has these con­flict­ing effects. Scarci­ty can lead you to put your own needs first, which is a log­i­cal pre­dic­tion. But oth­er lit­er­a­ture sug­gest­ed that when the world is run­ning out of resources, that’s when we real­ly band together.”

To address the dis­crep­an­cy, Gold­smith and her col­leagues designed a series of six exper­i­ments. In one, par­tic­pants were allowed to allo­cate mon­ey to either them­selves or to an anony­mous oth­er per­son. Those who had just described a sit­u­a­tion where resources were scarce were like­li­er than oth­er par­tic­i­pants to allo­cate the mon­ey to themselves.

But anoth­er exper­i­ment estab­lished that think­ing about scarci­ty can increase gen­eros­i­ty — so long as we’re remind­ed that gen­eros­i­ty can be in our own best inter­est. Par­tic­i­pants were like­li­er to thank” a class­mate with a gift when they were remind­ed that the gift might endear them to the class­mate, who might then be more inclined to help them with their next home­work assignment.

This rela­tion­ship between self­ish­ness and altru­ism offers per­haps an uneasy truth about human nature, but it is one to which mar­keters and pol­i­cy mak­ers should nonethe­less pay attention.“By under­stand­ing these psy­cho­log­i­cal mech­a­nisms, we can take advan­tage of them,” Gold­smith says. If I buy a green prod­uct because it’s going to save me mon­ey, or because it’s bet­ter qual­i­ty, I’m still buy­ing a green prod­uct that will use less ener­gy. So there’s still a ben­e­fit to the world.”

See­ing the Big Picture

Researchers are just begin­ning to under­stand the impact of the scarci­ty mind­set. One thing we do know is that scarci­ty shapes how con­sumers val­ue spe­cif­ic prod­ucts. If you sig­nal that a prod­uct is in lim­it­ed sup­ply,” says Gold­smith, peo­ple will want to pay more for that prod­uct. Peo­ple want things that are scarce. If you tell me that the world is run­ning out of gas, will I pay more for gas? Sure.”

But might our response to gas scarci­ty affect how gen­er­ous we are in oth­er con­texts — say, with our mon­ey and time? That ques­tion is par­tic­u­lar­ly press­ing as the ten­sion between envi­ron­men­tal aware­ness and con­sump­tion pat­terns grows more urgent. The scarci­ty mind­set pro­voked by promi­nent cov­er­age of water short­ages in Cal­i­for­nia and oth­er parts of the West, for exam­ple, might moti­vate behav­ior that makes the prob­lem worse — caus­ing peo­ple to be more self­ish rather than coop­er­a­tive, and not only in the realm of their water usage.

Giv­en that we’re still liv­ing in a time in which we’re con­stant­ly being remind­ed of the things we’re run­ning out of,” Gold­smith says, it’s impor­tant to under­stand that those reminders can have car­ry­over effects on unre­lat­ed behav­iors. I think this paper rais­es more ques­tions than it answers, in a good way. The expe­ri­ence of scarci­ty is fun­da­men­tal to human exis­tence, and know­ing how to man­age it is essen­tial for survival.”

Art­work by Yev­ge­nia Nayberg.

Featured Faculty

Kelly Goldsmith

Member of the Department of Marketing faculty until 2017

About the Writer

Theo Anderson is a writer and editor who lives in the Boston area.

About the Research

Roux, Caroline, Kelly Goldsmith, and Andrea Bonezzi. 2014. “On the Consequences of a Scarcity Mindset: Why Thoughts of Having Less Can Lead to Taking (and Giving) More.” Conditionally accepted at the Journal of Consumer Research.

Read the original

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