February 12, 2008
People Sense Scarcity Of Whatever They Desire

Some scientists have come up an interesting way of measuring whether people tend to overestimate or underestimate desired goods. They give the experimental subjects some reason to desire one or another of two things. Then they show an equal mix of those two things and then ask the subjects which did they see more of: What they desired or what they didn't desire. People always think they see less of what they really desire even if they are viewing equal amounts of two things.

Xianchi Dai, Klaus Wertenbroch and Miguel Brendl from INSEAD, the international business school with campuses in France and Singapore, have been studying what they call the “value heuristic.” A heuristic is a sort of cognitive short cut or “rule of thumb” that we use when we are unable to make a truly informed decision. The psychologists’ research suggests that many mate-seekers are unwittingly subbing something clear and simple -- their yearning for a potential mate -- for a complicated and unknowable statistic (i.e., how many of the relationship-worthy bachelors and bachelorettes are still available).

The connection between scarcity and value is something we all know; for example, gold is considered precious because it is rare, not because it makes for a poor construction material. The psychologists’ research suggests that this link has become deep-wired into our neurons, so that even its inverse is unconsciously called upon for life decisions -- what’s valuable must be scarce.

To test their value heuristic theory, the researchers had a group of young people view nearly one hundred pictures, half of birds and half of flowers, in random order. They then told participants that they would get paid a few cents either for each bird picture or for each flower picture they had seen. To determine whether a participant would be paid for bird or for flower pictures, the researchers let each participant flip a coin. Before being paid accordingly, all participants were asked to estimate the total number of bird pictures and the total number of flower pictures they had seen.

The results were unambiguous. As described in the January issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, people who were paid for spotting flower pictures thought there were fewer flowers than birds, and likewise, those who were made to value birds determined they were scarcer than flowers. Nobody knew that in fact there were exactly the same number of flowers and birds.

So in effect, their experimentally-induced yearning caused them to wrongly perceive scarcity.

So if you really want something that'll tend to make you think you can't get enough of it. Learn how to enjoy what you don't want? Do people who want the most feel the most sense of scarcity?

People viewing pictures of men and women also tended to believe there were fewer of the opposite sex even when there were equal numbers of each sex.

To increase the validity of their findings, the scientists ran several other experiments. In one, participants of both sexes viewed portraits of men and women, some attractive and some not. When questioned later, both men and women believed that there were fewer attractive people of the opposite sex than there were of the same sex.

If the portraits were unattractive, they tended not to perceive a sense of scarcity. As in the first experiment, the participants appeared to be substituting their emotional desire for calculation, and ended up believing that what they wanted was less likely to be found.

I hear Dwight Yockum singing "I ain't ever satisfied".

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 February 12 08:46 PM  Brain Economics

David Govett said at February 12, 2008 9:22 PM:

Scarcity of sex?

Bob Badour said at February 13, 2008 7:00 AM:

Interesting music choice. I hear Mick Jagger singing: "I can't get no satisfaction."

I never took you for a country and western fan.

LarryO said at February 15, 2008 4:10 PM:

Steve Earle sang "I ain't ever satisfied", not DY.

Brett Bellmore said at February 16, 2008 8:29 AM:

Makes sense; There's no evolutionary point to sensing scarcity of a good you don't want.

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