In the 2020 pandemic, customers bulk-bought toilet paper, pasta and many other household basics.

Supermarket shelves emptied and rationing measures were put in place.

What was it about our psychology that influenced us to do this?

Here, red10‘s Gavin Simpson shares what psychologist Professor Cialdini calls the Rule of Scarcity.

Influencing using Scarcity

Let’s explore the three main ways we can influence using scarcity and then look at the important ethical question this raises:

  1. Focusing on the high demand
  2. Focusing on the short supply
  3. Focusing on the unique and limited

Focusing on the high demand

Perceiving that something is in high demand triggers us to think that there may be insufficient quantities available soon. This perceived threat of loss drives us to action.

For example, I heard the following statement on the news in the lead up to the Christmas in pandemic, and low and behold my wife and I were immediately busy buying presents online and posting them to relatives 😊

“people can’t meet up this year, consequently they are buying presents early to post them now to beat the delays caused by the impending high demand on our postal service”

Focusing on the short supply

 If the quantity is perceived to be limited then again, the threat of loss is triggered.

This takes us back to pasta and toilet paper! On the news, not only did we see people coming out of supermarkets with trolleys piled high with toilet paper (perceived high demand) we saw the shelves empty or nearly empty (perceived short supply).

It was a combination that acted powerfully to fuel the upward cycle of demand resulting in government-imposed rationing.

We see online stores like Amazon actively using this technique when they say “Only 3 left in stock”.

Focusing on the unique and limited

Have you heard “this is only for a select group of people”?

For example, my local restaurant deli and wine shop deployed this one with me. Having their restaurant closed for 3 months due to a Covid lockdown you could only go in and purchase wine or deli type products.

Many people stayed completely away, yet we thought we would keep going in and buying stuff each week to help our favourite local business stay open.

They said to me “When we re-open our restaurant after the lockdown we want the people who have cared about us to be the first on the list for table reservations. Do you want to give us your phone number and we can call you as soon as we know?”

It was a great win:win!


Cialdini’s latest book “Pre-suasion” quite rightly has a long chapter on the ethics of Influencing.

To get to a shorter version, in our Influencing Masterclasses, we often ask: what is the difference between influencing and manipulation?

Our clients tells us that Ethical Influencing is about being truthful, having good intent and getting to a Win:Win.

For example, if it is true your people are in high-demand, and are between projects, so “if you chose quickly, we could assign them to you” then it is helpful to your clients to know. In fact, they might be upset with you if they were delayed having missed the opportunity.

Yet if it is untrue, then it’s manipulation.

Putting this together

Cialdini wondered “What are the types of persuasive arguments that are hard-wired to make sense to our human brains?” and listed them in his classic book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, calling them the “Universal Rules”.

‘Scarcity’ is one of these eight Universal Rules.

Each rule is backed by multiple research studies showing that humans naturally think and act in these ways, whether they realise it or not.

You can read about the other seven rules here or ask us about our Influencing Skills Masterclass, where we help leaders use these rules ethically to extract the hidden arguments from their heads that are persuading them.