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On the Psychology of Scarcity: When Reminders of Resource Scarcity Promote Selfish (and Generous) Behavior

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Consumers often encounter reminders of resource scarcity. However, relatively little is known about the psychological processes that such reminders instantiate. In this article, we posit that reminders of resource scarcity activate a competitive orientation, which guides consumers' decision making towards advancing their own welfare. Further, we reveal that this tendency can manifest in behaviors that appear selfish, but also in behaviors that appear generous, in conditions where generosity allows for personal gains. The current research thus offers a more nuanced understanding of why resource scarcity may promote behaviors that appear either selfish or generous in different contexts, and provides one way to reconcile seemingly conflicting prior findings.
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On the Psychology of Scarcity: When
Reminders of Resource Scarcity Promote
Selfish (and Generous) Behavior
CAROLINE ROUX
KELLY GOLDSMITH
ANDREA BONEZZI
Consumers often encounter reminders of resource scarcity. However, relatively lit-
tle is known about the psychological processes that such reminders instantiate. In
this article, we posit that reminders of resource scarcity activate a competitive ori-
entation, which guides consumers’ decision making towards advancing their own
welfare. Further, we reveal that this tendency can manifest in behaviors that ap-
pear selfish, but also in behaviors that appear generous, in conditions where gen-
erosity allows for personal gains. The current research thus offers a more nuanced
understanding of why resource scarcity may promote behaviors that appear either
selfish or generous in different contexts, and provides one way to reconcile seem-
ingly conflicting prior findings.
Keywords: resource scarcity, competitive orientation, welfare advancement,
selfish, generous
Resource scarcity is a pervasive facet of human life.
Mankind has regularly experienced periods of famine
and draught (Chakravarthy and Booth 2004), modern econ-
omies often must cope with economic recessions
(Griskevicius et al. 2013), and even in resource-rich envi-
ronments consumers routinely encounter cues that empha-
size the limited nature of products and resources (Cialdini
2009). As a consequence, consumers often think about,
worry about and discuss scarcity-related concerns (Twist
and Barker 2006). However, in spite of the frequency of
cues and cognitions related to scarcity, relatively little is
known about what psychological processes are activated in
response to scarcity cues and how these processes influ-
ence subsequent decision making.
In this article, we build on previous research on scarcity
and competition (Fu¨lo¨p 2004;Griskevicius et al. 2009;
Grossman and Mendoza 2003;Keller 1992) to suggest that
reminders of resource scarcity promote a competitive ori-
entation, which guides consumers’ decision making toward
advancing their own welfare (Van Lange et al. 2007;Van
Lange and Kuhlman 1994;Van Lange et al. 1997).
Importantly, although a desire to advance one’s own wel-
fare often leads to behaviors that appear selfish (e.g., re-
taining one’s money as opposed to donating it to charity),
our theoretical framework suggests that reminders of re-
source scarcity can also increase generosity toward others
when such behavior indirectly allows for personal gains
Caroline Roux (caroline.roux@concordia.ca) is Assistant Professor of
Marketing, John Molson School of Business, Concordia University,
Montreal, QC H3G 1M8. Kelly Goldsmith (kelly-goldsmith@kellogg.
northwestern.edu) is Assistant Professor of Marketing, Kellogg School of
Management, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL 60208. Andrea
Bonezzi (abonezzi@stern.nyu.edu) is Assistant Professor of Marketing,
Stern School of Business, New York, NY 10012. The article is based on
the first author’s dissertation. The first author thanks Ulf Bo¨ckenholt,
Derek Rucker, and Eli Finkel for their helpful advice as members of her
dissertation committee. The authors thank the editors, associate editor,
and reviewers for their constructive feedback. The authors also thank
Angela Lee and Brian Sternthal for their feedback, as well as Blake
McShane and Simon Blanchard for their assistance with data analysis.
Supplemental materials (e.g., additional analyses, experiment materials,
and an additional experiment) can be found as an attachment in the online
version of the article.
Ann McGill and Darren Dahl served as editors and Rebecca Hamilton
served as associate editor for this article
Advance Access publication September 11, 2015
V
CThe Author 2015. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of Journal of Consumer Research, Inc.
All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com Vol. 42 2015
DOI: 10.1093/jcr/ucv048
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(e.g., charitable giving in order to gain status, Griskevicius,
Tybur, and Van den Bergh 2010). Through testing this hy-
pothesis, the current research offers a more nuanced under-
standing of why resource scarcity may promote behaviors
that appear either selfish or generous in different contexts,
and provides one way to reconcile seemingly conflicting
prior findings (e.g., Aarøe and Petersen 2013;Holland,
Silva, and Mace 2012;Kraus et al. 2012;Piff et al. 2010;
Sasson et al. 2012).
The remainder of this article is organized as follows. We
first present a brief review of prior research relevant to the
influence of perceived scarcity on consumer decision mak-
ing. We then draw from this work in order to suggest that
reminders of resource scarcity activate a competitive orien-
tation, which guides consumers’ decision making toward
advancing their own welfare. Next, we test these predic-
tions in five experiments involving both real and hypotheti-
cal decisions. We conclude with a discussion of the
theoretical and practical implications of these findings, as
well as suggestions for future research.
THEORETICAL BACKGROUND
Consumers often report feeling as though resources in
their life are lacking (Fernbach, Kan, and Lynch 2015).
Many people face chronic resource-shortages (Banerjee and
Duflo 2007), and even people who live in relative abun-
dance often feel that certain resources are insufficient to
meet their needs (Hill, Martin, and Chaplin 2012;
Mullainathan and Shafir 2013). Scarcity is thus a ubiquitous
phenomenon and, accordingly, it has received considerable
attention across a variety of academic disciplines, including
marketing (e.g., Sharma and Alter 2012), psychology (e.g.,
Griskevicius et al. 2013), economics (e.g., Banerjee and
Duflo 2011), sociology (e.g., Booth 1984), philosophy (e.g.,
Lerner and Lerner 1981), political science (e.g., Grossman
and Mendoza 2003), biology (e.g., Fu¨lo¨p 2004), and more.
Despite the plethora of research that has examined how
scarcity influences consumer behavior, prior findings offer
seemingly conflicting perspectives on one of the most cen-
tral questions concerning the influence of scarcity on social
behavior, namely how scarcity cues affect decisions that
require making tradeoffs between outcomes that benefit
the self and outcomes that benefit others (Cropanzano,
Goldman, and Folger 2005;Gerbasi and Prentice 2013).
On the one hand, certain prior findings suggest that re-
source scarcity may increase generosity towards others.
For instance, research has shown that people with less ma-
terial wealth and more restricted access to resources tend
to be more generous and helpful (Kraus et al. 2012;Piff
et al. 2010). This notion is consistent with data showing
that the poorest (bottom 20%) Americans donate a greater
proportion of their income (3.2%) than the wealthiest (top
20%) Americans (about 1.3%; Stern 2013).
On the other hand, other findings suggest that resource
scarcity may decrease generosity towards others, and in-
stead promote behaviors that benefit the self to the detri-
ment of others (hereafter, selfish behaviors). For example,
research shows that people living in low-socioeconomic
status neighborhoods are less likely to spontaneously dem-
onstrate altruistic behaviors (e.g., returning a “lost letter”
to the intended recipient, performing bystander-initiated
CPR) than those living in high-socioeconomic status neigh-
borhoods (Holland et al. 2012;Sasson et al. 2012). These
findings are also consistent with research showing that un-
der time constraints (i.e., scarcity of time) people are less
likely to engage in helping behaviors (Darley and Batson
1973), and that individuals experiencing hunger (i.e., scar-
city of food) are less likely to share financial resources
with an anonymous other (Aarøe and Petersen 2013;
Petersen et al. 2014).
These seemingly divergent findings call for a deeper un-
derstanding of the psychological processes that are acti-
vated in response to resource scarcity, and how such
processes influence decision making. For example, imag-
ine two consumers who are waiting in line at a cash regis-
ter. While waiting, one happens to notice a magazine with
a headline highlighting the dangers of global commodity
shortages. The other does not see the magazine. Upon
check out, each consumer is asked whether she would like
to add a dollar to her bill to benefit a local charity. How
will the consumer’s exposure to the reminder of resource
scarcity affect her subsequent decision?
In this article, we suggest that reminders of resource
scarcity promote a competitive orientation, and that this
competitive orientation strategically guides consumers’ de-
cision making toward advancing their own welfare. As a
consequence, consumers who are exposed to reminders of
resource scarcity (vs. control) will be more likely to dem-
onstrate behaviors that confer personal benefits. Notably,
these can either be actions that offer direct benefits to the
self at the expense of others (i.e., selfish behaviors) or ac-
tions that offer indirect benefits to the self through the as-
sistance of others (i.e., seemingly generous behaviors).
Reminders of Resource Scarcity Activate a
Competitive Orientation
In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes states that limited re-
sources, coupled with humans’ selfish nature, result in mer-
ciless competition or a constant state of “war of all against
all” (1985). This link between resource scarcity and com-
petition for resources is supported by research across di-
verse areas of academic inquiry. Economics and
evolutionary biology both hold that competition always in-
volves scarce resources (Fu¨lo¨p 2004;Keller 1992). For ex-
ample, imbalances in sex ratios (i.e., when either males or
females are scarce in the population) have been shown to
result in greater intrasexual competition for mates, both in
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animals and humans (Griskevicius et al. 2012). More gen-
erally, Grossman and Mendoza’s (2003) work formalized
the hypothesis that as a resource (e.g., food) becomes
scarce, people will expend more time and effort competing
with others for that resource. Thus, it is widely acknowl-
edged that resource scarcity increases competition for the
resource that is scarce.
Building on this work, in the current article we explore
the novel proposition that mere reminders of resource scar-
city are sufficient to activate a competitive orientation.
This idea is important because it is common for consumers
to encounter cues that trigger cognitions related to resource
scarcity, regardless of whether their own resources are in-
sufficient (Fu¨lo¨p 2004;Greenberg 1981). To illustrate, in
the scenario described previously, the consumer who was
exposed to the magazine highlighting the dangers of global
commodity shortages may have had thoughts related to re-
source scarcity, even though her own resources at that time
may have been objectively adequate.
We suggest that mere reminders of resource scarcity will
activate a competitive orientation due to a cognitive associ-
ation between scarcity and competition, which may form
one of two ways. First, a competitive orientation may be-
come associated with the idea of resource scarcity through
repeated personal experiences (Ross and Nisbett 1991)
over time, such as through the repeated experience of hav-
ing to compete for scarce resources throughout life (e.g.,
competing for grades or jobs, or competing for mates;
Griskevicius et al. 2012). Put differently, as with other cog-
nitive associations (e.g., the link between guilt and plea-
sure; Goldsmith, Cho, and Dhar 2012), a cognitive
association between resource scarcity and a competitive
orientation may become established over time due to re-
peated co-activation (Bargh and Chartrand 1999;
Ramanathan and Menon 2006).
Second, a competitive orientation may become associated
with resource scarcity through repeated exposure to in-
stances in which resource scarcity lead to competition
(Morris, Menon, and Ames 2001). For example, history pro-
vides countless accounts of global entities competing in-
tensely (e.g., going to war) over scarce resources (Pinker
2011), and the popular press regularly showcases instances
when product shortages have led to violent competitive re-
actions among consumers (e.g., Baldwin 2011;Goldberg
2011). Accordingly, it can be expected that many, if not
most, consumers will have been exposed to situations in
which resource scarcity engendered a competitive response.
Importantly, once an association between a concept and a
certain motivational orientation is established, activating the
concept also activates the motivational orientation (Keinan
and Kivetz 2011). Building on this notion, we posit that re-
minders of resource scarcity will activate a competitive ori-
entation, which will then guide subsequent decision making.
In particular, we suggest that this competitive orientation
will promote the desire to advance one’s own welfare,
which can manifest in either selfish or generous behavior, as
a function of the associated benefits to the self.
A Competitive Orientation Prompts Consumers
to Advance Their Own Welfare through Selfish
and Generous Behaviors
As mentioned previously, understanding how resource
scarcity affects consumers’ propensity to engage in selfish
versus generous behavior is important given the seemingly
conflicting predictions suggested by prior work. We pro-
pose that because resource scarcity activates a competitive
orientation, consumers will seek to advance their own wel-
fare following exposure to reminders of resource scarcity
(McClintock 1977;Van Lange 2000). Logically, this sug-
gests that resource scarcity will often increase selfish be-
haviors (i.e., behavior that benefits the self at the expense
of others), because such behaviors often confer the most di-
rect benefit to the self. For example, in the consumer sce-
nario described previously, the individual exposed to the
magazine headline highlighting the dangers of global com-
modity shortages may be more likely to retain her money,
and less likely to donate her money to charity, in order to
advance her own welfare.
However, the same theorizing suggests that reminders of
resource scarcity will likewise increase generous behav-
iors, when such behaviors offer an indirect means to ad-
vance one’s own welfare through the assistance of others
(Frimer et al. 2011). Although no research has tested this
hypothesis to date, some findings may be interpreted as of-
fering indirect support for this prediction. For example,
Aarøe and Petersen (2013) manipulated whether or not par-
ticipants were experiencing hunger (i.e., scarcity of food)
and found that while individuals experiencing hunger ex-
pressed greater support for social welfare, they also dem-
onstrated more selfish behavior (e.g., allocating less money
to an anonymous other in a dictator game). This disparity
between expressed preferences and behaviors suggests
that, when resources are scarce, people may express prefer-
ences that are seemingly generous in order to increase their
odds of accruing self-benefits. Said otherwise, although re-
source scarcity may increase generosity in some instances,
it is possible that this generosity reflects self-interested
motives, or “impure altruism” (Andreoni 1990), wherein
behavior that seems generous is in fact driven by a self-
serving motive to achieve personal gains (Petersen et al.
2014), as opposed to being driven by other-focused mo-
tives such as empathy or altruism. Reflecting on our prior
example, this would mean that if donating to charity was
construed as a way to benefit the self, for example through
social signaling (Griskevicius et al. 2010), the consumer
exposed to the magazine headline highlighting the dangers
of global commodity shortages might be more likely to
make a donation, as compared to the consumer who did not
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see the magazine, due to the increased desire to advance
one’s own welfare.
This theorizing leads to three key hypotheses: First, we
hypothesize the existence of a learned association between
scarcity and competition, such that reminders of resource
scarcity activate a competitive orientation. Second, we hy-
pothesize that reminders of resource scarcity shift people’s
preferences toward advancing their own welfare as op-
posed to advancing the welfare of others. Third, we hy-
pothesize that reminders of resource scarcity need not
produce exclusively selfish outcomes, and may also
prompt consumers to become more generous when being
generous indirectly benefits the self (Frimer et al. 2011;
Gerbasi and Prentice 2013).
By testing these hypotheses, this research provides an
important theoretical advancement to the understanding of
the psychology of scarcity. In particular, this research of-
fers a novel theoretical perspective to understand the moti-
vational processes associated with resource scarcity, as
well as their behavioral implications. Further, this research
provides relevant practical insights into the factors that can
promote and inhibit prosocial behaviors, in contexts where
cues and cognitions related to scarcity may be present.
OVERVIEW OF THE EXPERIMENTS
We next present five experiments that test our hypothe-
ses. Experiment 1 provides evidence for the cognitive asso-
ciation between the concepts of scarcity and competition
using a Lexical Decision Task. Experiment 2 demonstrates
that reminders of resource scarcity heighten individuals’
competitive orientation, which then prompts them to be-
have selfishly in conditions where such behavior confers
direct personal benefits. Experiment 3 shows that re-
minders of resource scarcity shift consumers’ preferences
toward advancing their own welfare and away from ad-
vancing the welfare of others. Experiment 4 replicates
these results and demonstrates that one’s selfish or proso-
cial orientation moderates the effect of reminders of re-
source scarcity on behavior. Finally, experiment 5 reveals
that reminders of resource scarcity can prompt both selfish
and generous behaviors. Specifically, it shows that, in the
context of charitable giving, scarcity cues increase dona-
tion intentions when the donation offers an opportunity to
advance one’s own welfare through social signaling; how-
ever, the same cues decrease donation intentions in con-
texts where the donation offers no social signaling value.
EXPERIMENT 1: THE COGNITIVE
ASSOCIATION BETWEEN SCARCITY
AND COMPETITION
We posit that reminders of resource scarcity activate a
competitive orientation because of a cognitive association
between scarcity and competition. Accordingly, experi-
ment 1 was designed to test for this cognitive association.
Method
Seventy-one undergraduate students (26.8% male;
M
age
¼20.4; SD ¼3.0) participated in a laboratory session
in exchange for a small monetary compensation.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of two experi-
mental conditions where exposure to reminders of resource
scarcity (vs. a control condition) was the manipulated
factor.
Participants first completed an episodic recall task
adapted from Fischhoff et al. (2003). Specifically, in the
scarcity condition, participants were asked to describe
three or four episodes when they felt like they “didn’t have
enough of something” or “resources were scarce.” They
were next asked to pick two of the episodes they mentioned
and describe each of them in detail, explaining what was
lacking and what they experienced. In the control condi-
tion, participants were first asked to think about and write
down three or four things that they did during the past
week, then to focus on and describe in detail two of these
events.
To test whether recalling past experiences of scarcity ac-
tivated cognitions related to scarcity, a separate sample of
participants drawn from Mechanical Turk, a national on-
line participant pool maintained by Amazon.com (n¼142;
57.0% male; M
age
¼31.4; SD ¼10.8), was exposed to the
manipulation used in the main study and then asked to indi-
cate the extent to which they agreed with the following
statements: “My resources are scarce,” “I don’t have
enough resources,” “I need to protect the resources I have,”
and “I need to acquire more resources” (scale: 1 ¼Strongly
disagree to 7 ¼Strongly agree). Responses to these items
were averaged to form an index of experienced scarcity
(a¼.89). Participants in the scarcity condition provided
higher ratings on the experienced scarcity index (M¼5.15,
SD ¼1.20), compared to those in the control condition
(M¼3.94; SD ¼1.54; F(1, 141) ¼24.57, p<.001;
n2
p¼.15), thus providing evidence that the manipulation
was effective.
Following the manipulation, participants completed a
computerized Lexical Decision Task (LDT), programmed
in Inquisit 3 by Millisecond software. The LDT is designed
to provide an implicit measure of semantic associations
(Fazio 1990). The more strongly associated the concepts of
scarcity and competition are, the faster participants should
be at recognizing competition-related words after being ex-
posed to reminders of resource scarcity. Following the pro-
cedure from Lepore and Brown (2002), participants were
presented with a series of letter strings and were told that
their task was to categorize the letter strings as real words
(e.g., Tuesday) or non-words (e.g., cudio) as quickly and
accurately as possible. Participants performed 6 practice
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trials and then responded to 10 competition-related words
(i.e., combative, compete, competing, contest, fight, rival,
rivalry, struggle, opponent, battle), 10 neutral words (e.g.,
beige, Wednesday, plain, etc.), and 30 non-word trials
(e.g., fohdib, azbt, roxg, etc.). The order in which these tri-
als were presented was randomized. The main dependent
variable was participants’ speed of recognition (in millisec-
onds) for each word.
Finally, all participants completed a mood measure and
answered standard demographic questions. Because the
scarcity manipulation did not produce any consistent sig-
nificant effect on mood in this experiment or the subse-
quent experiments, all information relevant to the mood
measures used in these experiments will not be reported in
the main text for the sake of brevity. However, all mood
measures, along with a statistical analysis of the effects of
the scarcity manipulations on the mood measures, are re-
ported in the online appendix.
Results and Discussion
Prior to analysis, incorrect identifications of real words
as non-words (and vice versa) were removed from the data
set (Fazio 1990). To reduce the impact of outliers, reaction
times were then subjected to a natural log transformation,
and reaction times exceeding three standard deviations
from their cell mean were eliminated from the analysis,
following prior work (Bargh and Chartrand 2000;Fazio
1990). Reaction times were then averaged to generate one
score for each type of word for each participant. For the
ease of interpretation, raw reaction times are presented for
descriptive purposes only.
We then conducted a 2 (prime: scarcity vs. control) x 2
(word type: competition vs. neutral) repeated-measures
analysis of variance to test for the effect of reminders of
resource scarcity on reaction times. The results showed a
significant interaction between the scarcity and word type
manipulations (F(1, 69) ¼4.61; p¼.03; n2
p¼.06).
Pairwise comparisons revealed that participants exposed
to reminders of resource scarcity were faster to identify
words related to competition (M¼202.81; SD ¼69.79)
than neutral words (M¼217.97; SD ¼65.98; F(1,
69) ¼6.33; p¼.01; n2
p¼.08). Conversely, among those in
the control condition, there was no significant difference
in terms of reaction times between the competition
(M¼218.18; SD ¼58.73) and the neutral words
(M¼223.84; SD ¼60.97; F(1, 69) ¼.18; p>.6;
n2
p<.01). These results suggest that competition-related
concepts were indeed more accessible among participants
in the scarcity condition than among participants in the
control condition. Neither the scarcity (F(1, 69) ¼1.36;
p>.2; n2
p¼.02) nor the word type (F(1, 69) ¼2.50;
p>.1; n2
p¼.03) manipulations produced a significant
main effect on reaction time.
Experiment 1 demonstrated that reminders of resource
scarcity activated concepts related to competition, thus
providing evidence in support of the cognitive associa-
tion between scarcity and competition. Experiment 2
builds on these results by testing for convergence on
whether reminders of resource scarcity activate a compet-
itive orientation, as well as testing for downstream conse-
quences for this shift in orientation on actual choice
behavior.
EXPERIMENT 2: A COMPETITIVE
ORIENTATION MEDIATES THE EFFECT
OF SCARCITY ON BEHAVIOR
The goal of experiment 2 was to examine if reminders
of resource scarcity increase selfish behavior when such
behavior confers the most direct benefit to the self, using
a consequential financial decision: the decision to donate
US$1 of their participant payment to charity versus
keep the money for oneself. We expected that exposing
participants to reminders of resource scarcity would in-
crease their competitive orientation, which would reduce
their likelihood of donating the money to charity (i.e., in-
creasing their likelihood of keeping the money for
themselves).
Method
Fifty-two undergraduate students (32.7% male;
M
age
¼20.2; SD ¼1.6) participated in a laboratory session
in exchange for a monetary compensation of US$6.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of two experi-
mental conditions, where exposure to reminders of re-
source scarcity (vs. a control condition) was the
manipulated factor.
All participants first completed the same episodic recall
task as in experiment 1. Next, participants were presented
with a real donation opportunity. They were reminded that
they would be compensated US$6 for their participation in
the laboratory session and were offered the opportunity to
donate US$1 of their compensation to charity (UNICEF’s
Relief Fund for the Children of Sudan’s Darfur). Following
the procedure used in Savary, Goldsmith, and Dhar (2015),
in order to frame the decision as private and anonymous,
all participants were given their compensation inside an
unsealed envelope placed at their workstation prior to be-
ginning the experiment. The envelope was discreetly
marked with a code that corresponded to their identifica-
tion number. During the experiment, participants were
asked to indicate their donation decision on the computer
and, upon completing the experiment, those who wished to
donate were instructed to leave $1 in the envelope at their
workstation. If they chose not to donate, participants were
instructed to simply leave the empty envelope at their
workstation.
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Finally, participants completed a variety of filler scales
assessing their feelings and attitudes towards the charity
(e.g., “I think that this is a worthwhile cause”), before com-
pleting a measure of competitive orientation. Participants
indicated their agreement with five items taken from the
Hypercompetitive Attitude Scale (Ryckman et al. 1990)
that assess competitive tendencies (e.g., “Competition in-
spires me to excel” and “If I can disturb my opponent
in some way in order to get the edge in competition, I will
do so;” scale: 1 ¼Strongly disagree to 5 ¼Strongly
agree). The scores on these five items were averaged to ob-
tain a competitive orientation index (a¼.63). These items
were chosen because none of them mentioned attitudes to-
ward retaining or gaining money, thus limiting the likeli-
hood of any unintended direct associations between the
proposed mediator and the dependent variable (i.e. donat-
ing money).
Results and Discussion
Chi-square analysis revealed that participants in the
scarcity condition were significantly more likely to retain
the money (i.e., not donate), as compared to participants in
the control condition. Specifically, participants exposed to
reminders of resource scarcity chose to retain the $1 at a
higher rate (47.4%) than participants in the control condi-
tion (21.2%; v
2
(1) ¼3.87; p¼.05; d¼.57), suggesting that
scarcity increased participants’ likelihood of engaging in
behavior that advanced their own welfare (here, retaining
the money for themselves). Note, no effect of the scarcity
manipulation was observed on any of the filler scales
(ps>.2).
We then tested whether reminders of resource scarcity
increased participants’ competitive orientation. An analysis
of variance revealed that participants in the scarcity condi-
tion reported a higher competitive orientation (M¼3.71;
SD ¼.77) as compared to participants in the control condi-
tion (M¼3.14; SD ¼.72; F(1, 51) ¼7.37; p¼.01;
n2
p¼.13).
To test whether a competitive orientation mediated the
effect of the scarcity manipulation on donation, we ran a
mediation analysis using the bootstrapping technique sug-
gested by Preacher and Hayes (2008). The results, based
on 5,000 bootstrapped samples, indicated that reminders of
resource scarcity had a significant positive effect on the
competitive orientation measure (b¼.58; SE ¼.21;
t¼2.71; p¼.01) and that a higher score on this measure
had a significant negative effect on the donation rate
(b¼1.04; SE ¼.49; Z¼2.11; p¼.03). Moreover,
while the main effect of scarcity on donation was signifi-
cant (b¼1.21; SE ¼.63; p¼.05), the direct effect was
not (b¼.72; SE ¼.69; p>.2). Because the 95% bias cor-
rected confidence interval for the indirect effect did not
include 0 (95% CI ¼[2.03; .03]), the mediation was
significant (Preacher and Hayes 2008). A competitive ori-
entation therefore fully mediated the relationship between
exposure to reminders of resource scarcity and behavior,
thus providing evidence for our proposed psychological
mechanism, consistent with the results observed in experi-
ment 1.
EXPERIMENT 3: SCARCITY PROMPTS
CONSUMERS TO ADVANCE THEIR OWN
WELFARE
Thus far we have demonstrated that consumers who
were exposed to reminders of resource scarcity experi-
enced a heightened competitive orientation (experiments
1 and 2), which increased behavior that advanced their
own welfare (retaining the money, as opposed to donating
it; experiment 2). In order to provide convergent evidence
that reminders of resource scarcity shift consumers’ pref-
erences toward options that advance their own welfare
and away from those that advance the welfare of others,
in experiment 3 we utilized the Triple-Dominance
Measure (TDM; Van Lange et al. 2007;Van Lange et al.
1997), which assesses the extent to which an individual is
willing to sacrifice personal gains in order to benefit
others.
Method
Sixty-nine undergraduate students (30.4% male;
M
age
¼19.9; SD ¼1.2) participated in a laboratory session
in exchange for a small monetary compensation.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of two experi-
mental conditions where exposure to reminders of re-
source scarcity (vs. a control condition) was the
manipulated factor. Participants first completed an episo-
dic recall task, adapted from Rucker, Dubois, and
FIGURE 1
EXPERIMENT 2: A COMPETITIVE ORIENTATION MEDIATES
THE EFFECT OF SCARCITY ON DONATION
-.72NS (-1.21*)
Scarcity
Competitive
Orientation
Donation
.58***
-1.04**
NOTE.—–* indicates p<.1; ** indicates p<.05; *** indicates p<.01; NS indi-
cates not significant
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Galinsky (2011). Specifically, in the scarcity condition,
participants were asked to recall an episode in which they
experienced a sense of scarcity, that is, a situation in
which they felt that resources were scarce. They were in-
structed to take a moment to vividly recall what happened
and what it felt like to be in the situation, and were then
asked to describe the episode in detail. In the control con-
dition, participants were asked to recall an episode in
which they went to the grocery store and provided with
the same instructions.
After completing the manipulation, participants com-
pleted the 9-item Triple-Dominance Measure (Van Lange
et al. 2007;Van Lange et al. 1997; see online appendix
for stimuli). The TDM is based on a series of decomposed
games, wherein participants are asked to allocate points
between themselves and an unknown, anonymous other
(Messick and McClintock 1968;Van Lange et al. 2007;
Van Lange and Kuhlman 1994;Van Lange et al. 1997).
For each game, respondents were asked to choose one of
three possible allocations: one allocation option offering
the greatest overall gain for both parties (i.e., joint out-
come maximization), one offering the greatest personal
gain in absolute terms (i.e., absolute outcome maximiza-
tion), and one offering the greatest relative gain for the
self over the gain earned by the other party (i.e., relative
outcome maximization; Van Lange and Kuhlman 1994;
Van Lange et al. 1997). As an example, one item gave
participants the choice between an option of allocating 80
points for self and 80 points for other (providing the larg-
est joint outcome), an option of allocating 92 points for
self and 40 points for other (providing the greatest
personal gain in absolute terms), and an option of allocat-
ing 80 points for self and 0 points for other (providing
the greatest relative gain for the self over the gain
earned by the other party; Van Lange et al. 2007). The or-
der in which the options were presented was varied across
items.
Allocation options that increase one’s absolute or rela-
tive gains demonstrate a greater drive to advance one’s
own welfare as compared to the welfare of others, whereas
allocation options that offer the largest joint outcome dem-
onstrate a drive to advance others’ welfare as well as one’s
own. Thus, we expected that participants in the scarcity
condition would express allocation preferences that were
less consistent with joint outcome maximization and more
consistent with absolute and relative outcome maximiza-
tion as compared to the control condition, due to a height-
ened competitive orientation.
Following the measure’s instructions (Murphy,
Ackermann, and Handgraaf 2011;Van Lange et al. 1997),
prior to making their point-allocation decisions, partici-
pants were asked to imagine that the points had value to
themselves as well as to the other person. The other was
said to be someone whom participants did not know,
whom they would never knowingly meet in the future, and
whom would also make choices.
Results and Discussion
The repeated nature of the data has led researchers using
the TDM to simplify their analyses by creating scoring
rules (Murphy et al. 2011;Van Lange et al. 1997). These
scoring rules entail counting the number of joint, absolute
and relative outcome maximizing allocations each partici-
pant selects. If the participant chooses six or more alloca-
tions from a particular category (e.g., joint outcome
maximizing), then she is designated as being of that “type”
(e.g., a joint outcome maximizer). If a participant does not
choose at least six options from one category, then she is
not categorized (i.e., coded as missing data). The data is
thus reduced to one categorical variable, and the analyses
are then conducted on that categorical variable, with obser-
vations that cannot be classified being excluded from the
analysis.
However, in order to account for the repeated nature of
the measure, and preserve the richness of the data by re-
taining all observations, we instead chose to perform a hi-
erarchical multinomial logistic regression on the
disaggregated data (see online appendix for the regression
model and coefficients). Using the nine choices per partici-
pant, the model empirically assumes that the probability
that each participant makes relative (/
1
), absolute (/
2
),
and joint (1-/
1-
/
2
; baseline category) outcome maximiz-
ing allocations is unobserved and must be estimated.
The model then uses two equations and our manipulation
of scarcity (vs. control) to predict 1) the probability that
each participant is making relative outcome maximizing al-
locations (/
1
; over joint), and 2) the probability that each
participant is making absolute outcome maximizing alloca-
tions (/
2
; over joint).
Results show that when participants were exposed to re-
minders of resource scarcity their preferences shifted away
from joint outcome maximizing allocations and toward
both absolute (b¼1.69; SE ¼.74; t(67) ¼2.28; p¼.03)
and relative (b¼2.40; SE ¼1.07; t(67) ¼2.25; p¼.03)
outcome maximizing allocations, as compared to the con-
trol condition. Specifically, while the proportion of joint
outcome maximizing allocations (62.0%) was higher than
the proportion of both absolute (29%; b¼-1.04; SE ¼.46;
t(67) ¼2.24; p¼.03) and relative (9.1%; b¼-3.33;
SE ¼.73; t(67) ¼4.54; p<.001) outcome maximizing allo-
cations in the control condition, this result shifted in the
scarcity condition. Indeed, there was no difference between
the proportion of joint and absolute outcome maximizing
allocations (37.7% vs. 42.3% respectively; b¼.64;
SE ¼.58; t(67) ¼1.12; p>. 2), or between the joint and
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relative outcome maximizing allocations (37.7% vs. 20.1%
respectively; b¼.92; SE ¼.78; t(67) ¼1.19; p>.2)
among those who were exposed to reminders of resource
scarcity.
In summary, the distribution of the different types of al-
locations was significantly skewed toward joint outcome
maximizing allocations in the control condition. However,
it shifted toward allocations that focused on one’s own
welfare (absolute and relative outcome maximizing) in the
scarcity condition. Hence, consistent with the results of ex-
periment 2, reminders of resource scarcity shifted individ-
uals’ preferences toward outcomes that advance their own
welfare, and away from outcomes that advance the welfare
of others.
Our theoretical framework suggests that the shift in pref-
erences observed in experiment 3 can be explained by an
underlying shift in competitive orientation, with reminders
of resource scarcity increasing preferences for outcomes
that advance one’s own welfare due to an increase in one’s
competitive orientation (experiments 1 and 2). Having
shown support for this, the next experiment tests for a theo-
retically relevant boundary condition to the observed ef-
fects, people’s prosocial or selfish tendencies, in order to
provide further convergence on our theory. Additionally,
experiment 4 utilizes a different means to manipulate expo-
sure to reminders of resource scarcity and tests for conver-
gence with prior results.
EXPERIMENT 4: PROSOCIAL VERSUS
SELFISH TENDENCIES MODERATE THE
EFFECT OF SCARCITY ON BEHAVIOR
Prior research has demonstrated that individual differ-
ences exist in the extent to which people value the welfare
of others in relation to their own (Messick and McClintock
1968), a preference typically referred to as social value ori-
entation (SVO). Individuals that exhibit a proself orienta-
tion have a tendency to make decisions that maximize their
own gains, showing less concern for others’ gains and
losses. In contrast, individuals that exhibit a prosocial ori-
entation have a tendency to consider not only their own
gains but also others’ gains and losses when making deci-
sions (Murphy et al. 2011;Van Lange et al. 2007).
The goal of experiment 4 is to provide convergence on
our theoretical account by testing whether individual dif-
ferences in SVO moderate the effect of reminders of re-
source scarcity on behavior. If, as we argue, reminders of
resource scarcity motivate people to engage in behaviors
that benefit the self, this effect should be particularly pro-
nounced among individuals who are predisposed to priori-
tize their own welfare over that of others. Thus, we expect
that selfish behavior in response to a scarcity prime will be
accentuated for individuals that exhibit a proself orienta-
tion, and attenuated for individuals that exhibit a prosocial
orientation (Giacomantonio et al. 2010). We base this
FIGURE 2
EXPERIMENT 3: OUTCOME MAXIMIZING ALLOCATIONS AS A FUNCTION OF SCARCITY
62.0
37.7
29.0
42.3
9.1
20.1
0.0
10.0
20.0
30.0
40.0
50.0
60.0
70.0
80.0
Control Scarcity
Allocation Choices (%)
Condition
Joint Absolute Relative
NOTE.—–Error bars represent þ/1 standard error.
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prediction on prior work demonstrating that motivational
orientations are often most effectively primed among indi-
viduals for whom the orientation (e.g., competitiveness) is
more cognitively accessible (e.g., Bargh 1989;Lisjak,
Molden, and Lee 2012).
Method
One hundred and fifty-seven individuals (41.4% male;
M
age
¼35.4, SD ¼12.4) recruited from Amazon
Mechanical Turk participated in a series of experiments in
exchange for a small monetary compensation. In order to
activate cognitions related to scarcity, participants in the
scarcity condition were sequentially shown five different
resources (gasoline, sugar, water, wheat and electricity)
and asked to list three things they would not be able to do
if those resources were unavailable. In the control condi-
tion, participants were sequentially shown the same five re-
sources and asked to list three things they could do with
each resource.
This manipulation allowed us to expose participants to
reminders of resource scarcity while keeping the content of
the manipulation broadly consistent across conditions. A
separate pre-test conducted on a different sample of partici-
pants drawn from Amazon Mechanical Turk (n¼41;
36.6% male; M
age
¼31.2, SD ¼12.7), confirmed that par-
ticipants indeed listed similar activities in both conditions.
To illustrate, the top three responses to “sugar” (i.e., sweet-
ening food or drinks, baking or cooking, and enjoying
food) represented about 86% of all responses and did not
significantly differ between conditions (ps>.6).
To test whether the listing task activated thoughts related
to resource scarcity, another separate sample of different
participants drawn from Amazon Mechanical Turk
(n¼196; 61.2% male; M
age
¼31.2, SD ¼10.8) was ex-
posed to the manipulation used in the main study and then
asked to indicate the extent to which they agreed with the
following statements: “My resources are scarce,” “I don’t
have enough resources,” “I need to protect the resources I
have,” and “I need to acquire more resources” (scale:
1¼Strongly disagree to 7 ¼Strongly agree). Responses to
these items were averaged to form an index of experienced
scarcity (a¼.85). Participants in the scarcity condition
provided higher ratings on the experienced scarcity index
(M¼4.32; SD ¼1.33) than those in the control condition
(M¼3.85; SD ¼1.50; F(1,195) ¼5.19, p¼.02; n2
p¼.02),
thus providing evidence that the manipulation was
effective.
After completing the scarcity manipulation, participants
played a simulated dictator game. They were instructed to
imagine that they were about to play a game on the com-
puter with another anonymous individual. The goal of the
game was for them to allocate US$5 between themselves
and the other player. These instructions were based on
standard instructions used in the literature (Camerer and
Thaler 1995). All participants used a scale anchored at $0
and $5 (in $1 increments) to indicate the amount of money
they were willing to allocate to the other person.
Participants then completed an unrelated study lasting
approximately 5 minutes before completing the Social
Value Orientation Slider Measure (Murphy et al. 2011), a
six-item measure designed to assess individual differences
in resources allocation preferences between oneself and an-
other person. This measure uses a series of decomposed
games (Messick and McClintock 1968) that involve mak-
ing choices between different combinations of outcomes
for oneself and for a hypothetical other. Specifically, each
item gives participants a choice among nine alternatives,
each corresponding to different resource allocation choices
over a defined continuum of joint payoffs (see online ap-
pendix for stimuli; Murphy et al. 2011). Outcomes were
presented in terms of points and participants were asked to
imagine that the points had value to themselves as well as
to the other person. The other person was said to be some-
one whom participants did not know, whom they would
never knowingly meet in the future, and whom would also
make choices, which framed the choice situations as ones
involving some interdependence between the participant
and the other (Murphy et al. 2011).
Results and Discussion
An analysis of variance testing for the effect of the scar-
city manipulation on allocation behavior revealed that, af-
ter being exposed to reminders of resource scarcity,
participants allocated less money to the other player
(M¼$2.86; SD ¼1.25) than participants in the control
condition (M¼$3.24; SD ¼1.01; F(1, 156) ¼4.46;
p¼.04; n2
p¼.03). This pattern replicates the results ob-
served in experiments 2 and 3 by demonstrating that expo-
sure to reminders of resource scarcity can promote
behavior that advances one’s own welfare at the expense of
others.
A SVO score was then computed for each participant
following the procedure specified in Murphy et al. (2011),
where lower scores indicate a more proself orientation and
higher scores indicate a more prosocial orientation.
Because the SVO measure was administered at the end of
the same experimental session, we first examined whether
the initial scarcity manipulation had any effect on this mea-
sure, using an analysis of variance. The results confirmed
that the scarcity manipulation did not produce any signifi-
cant effect on the SVO measure (p>.3), which therefore
was used as a moderator in the subsequent analysis.
To test for the moderating effect of social value orienta-
tion on the effect of reminders of resource scarcity on allo-
cation behavior, we regressed the amount of money
allocated to the other player on (i) scarcity (dummy coded:
-1 ¼control, 1 ¼scarcity), (ii) SVO (continuous measure),
and their interaction (Hayes and Matthes 2009). The results
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showed a significant main effect of scarcity on the amount
of money allocated to the other player (b¼-.38; SE ¼.14;
t¼2.83; p¼.005), which suggests that, overall, partici-
pants exposed to reminders of resource scarcity subse-
quently allocated less money to the other player compared
to participants in the control condition. This main effect
replicates the results documented in studies 2 and 3.
Moreover, the results showed a significant effect of SVO
on the amount of money allocated to the other player
(b¼.02; SE ¼.005; t¼4.07; p<.001), which suggests
that the more participants exhibited a prosocial orientation,
the more money they allocated to the other player. Most
importantly, there was a significant interaction between the
scarcity manipulation and SVO on the allocation measure
(b¼.01; SE ¼.005; t¼2.12; p¼.04), as predicted.
We conducted two additional steps to further examine
this interaction. First, we tested for the effect of scarcity on
monetary allocations at the mean value of the SVO. Here,
we observed a marginally significant effect of scarcity
(b¼.16; SE ¼.08; t¼1.90; p¼.06) revealing that par-
ticipants exposed to reminders of resource scarcity allo-
cated less money to the other player (M¼$2.90) compared
to participants in the control condition (M¼$3.22), at the
mean value of SVO. Next, a floodlight analysis (Spiller
et al. 2013) was performed to decompose the interaction.
Specifically, we used the Johnson-Neyman technique to
identify the range(s) of SVO for which the simple effect of
the scarcity manipulation was significant (Hayes 2013).
This analysis revealed that there was a significant negative
effect of the scarcity manipulation on the amount of
dollars allocated to the other player for any value of SVO
less than 21.27 (b¼.17; SE ¼.08; t¼1.97; p¼.05), but
not for any value of SVO greater than 21.27 (see online
appendix).
Finally, we examined the slope of SVO at each level of
the scarcity manipulation (Aiken and West 1991). The
slope of SVO was significant in the scarcity condition
(b¼.03; SE ¼.007; t¼4.52; p<.001), but not in the con-
trol condition (b¼.009; SE ¼.007; t¼1.33; p>.1), sug-
gesting that allocations differed by SVO in the scarcity but
not the control conditions.
Taken together, these results provide additional support
for our theoretical account, by demonstrating that individual
differences in proself versus prosocial orientations moderate
the effect of reminders of resource scarcity on behavior.
Specifically, we find that reminders of resource scarcity gen-
erally increased selfishness. However, this effect was partic-
ularly pronounced among participants who were
predisposed toward behaving more selfishly, and was not
observed among those who were predisposed toward being
prosocial. This suggests that even though exposure to re-
minders of resource scarcity generally promotes the desire
to advance one’s own welfare across individuals, there may
be contexts in which selfish outcomes are not always pur-
sued as a result, such as cultures that are characterized by a
prosocial orientation (Markus and Kitayama 1991).
Having demonstrated robust support for the prediction
that reminders of resource scarcity promote a competitive
orientation (experiments 1 and 2), which increases behav-
iors that advance one’s own welfare (experiments 2, 3 and
FIGURE 3
EXPERIMENT 4: AMOUNT OF MONEY ALLOCATED TO THE OTHER PLAYER AS A FUNCTION OF SCARCITY AND SVO
0.00
0.50
1.00
1.50
2.00
2.50
3.00
3.50
4.00
4.50
Proself . Prosocial
)$(reyalPrehtOehtotdetacollAyenoM
Social Value Orientation
Control Scarcity
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4), experiment 5 next addresses the important question of
whether there are conditions under which reminders of re-
source scarcity can promote behaviors that are not exclu-
sively selfish. Specifically, we test if there are conditions
under which reminders of resource scarcity can signifi-
cantly increase generosity, as compared to a control condi-
tion. Through testing this, experiment 5 provides
convergence on the underlying psychological mechanism
and suggests important policy implications as to how gov-
ernmental and non-governmental organizations may be
able to promote behavior in the interest of the greater good
(e.g., pooling resources) in contexts where reminders of re-
source scarcity might be particularly salient (e.g., times of
economic recession or commodity shortages).
EXPERIMENT 5: WHEN SCARCITY
PROMOTES SELFISH VERSUS
GENEROUS BEHAVIOR
The goal of experiment 5 is to test the proposition that re-
minders of resource scarcity can lead to both selfish and
generous behavior, under different conditions. We test this
hypothesis in the context of charitable giving, because chari-
table giving is, by definition, a generous act; however, it can
also be associated with benefits to the self (Harbaugh, Mayr,
and Burghart 2007). In experiment 2, we observed that
when faced with a private and anonymous donation deci-
sion, participants who had been exposed to reminders of re-
sources scarcity were less likely to donate a portion of their
payment to charity, as compared to those in the control con-
dition. We have argued that this occurred because in this
context (i.e., a private decision), retaining the money for
oneself offers the most direct means to advance one’s own
welfare. However, prior research also suggests that when
one’s decisions are observable by an immediate audience
(e.g., the cashiers and other customers waiting in line at a
cash register), individuals who are motivated to advance
their own welfare (e.g., gain status) are often more likely to
engage in costly altruism (e.g., spend money on goods that
benefit others), due to the associated social signaling bene-
fits (Griskevicius et al. 2010). This suggests that the nature
of the decision context (public vs. private) should moderate
the previously observed effect of reminders of resource scar-
city on charitable donation intentions.
In experiment 5, we test this prediction by manipulating
whether or not participants were exposed to reminders of
resource scarcity in addition to manipulating whether or
not a charitable donation decision was described as public
versus private. We propose that reminders of resource scar-
city should decrease charitable donation intentions when
the donation decision is private, replicating the results of
experiment 2, yet increase charitable donation intentions
when the donation decision is public and thus can yield so-
cial signaling benefits.
Method
Three hundred and sixty undergraduate students (28.3%
male; M
age
¼22.7; SD ¼4.9) participated in the experi-
ment. Participants either completed the experiment as part
of a laboratory session in exchange for US$6 (46.9% of the
sample), or completed the experiment as part of an online
experimental session in exchange for a chance to win
US$25 (53.1% of the sample). The nature of their partici-
pation (in the laboratory vs. online) did not affect any of
the statistical outcomes described subsequently and hence
this variable is not discussed further.
This experiment used a 2 (prime: scarcity vs. control) x
2 (decision context: private vs. public) between-partici-
pants design. All participants first completed the episodic
recall task described in experiment 1. Next, all participants
read the following scenario about charitable giving:
“Imagine that you have started a new job. Your new com-
pany has a donation program, where they encourage em-
ployees to donate to charity. When you arrive, they ask you
whether you would be interested in making a donation. You
can choose any charitable cause to donate to and you can
donate as much or as little money as you would like. There
will be no work-related consequences based on whether or
not you choose to donate and/or how much you give.”
In the private decision context condition, participants
then read: “Donations are entirely anonymous; no one in
the company will be able to know whether you made a do-
nation or not.” In the public decision context condition,
participants instead read: “However, your name, picture
and the amount of money you donated will be posted on
the ‘Donation Page’ of your company’s newsletter the fol-
lowing month, if you do give.” The main dependent vari-
able was participants likelihood of making a donation
(scale: 1 ¼Very unlikely to 7 ¼Very likely).
Finally, two items were embedded within the demo-
graphics questions at the end of the experiment in order to
measure participants’ general attitudes and behaviors to-
wards charitable giving (i.e., “Donating to charity is impor-
tant to me” and “I regularly make donations to charitable
organizations I care about;” scale: 1 ¼Strongly disagree to
7¼Strongly agree). These items were averaged to form a
predisposition toward charitable giving index (a¼.82),
which was used as a covariate in the analyses in order to
control for participants’ baseline charitable donation pref-
erences, in line with previous work (Kleber et al. 2013;
LaTour and Manrai 1989; see online appendix for the anal-
yses without this covariate).
Results and Discussion
We conducted a 2 (prime: scarcity vs. control) x 2 (deci-
sion context: private vs. public) ANCOVA to predict dona-
tion intentions, including predisposition toward charitable
giving as a covariate (Kleber et al. 2013;LaTour and
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Manrai 1989). Consistent with our predictions, the results
showed a significant interaction between the scarcity and
decision context manipulations (F(1, 359) ¼14.38;
p<.001; n2
p¼.04). Pairwise comparisons revealed that,
when charitable giving did not offer a means to advance
one’s own welfare, because the donation decision was pri-
vate, participants who were exposed to reminders of re-
sources scarcity reported being less likely to donate
(M¼4.08; SE ¼.16) than those in the control condition
(M¼4.84; SE ¼.16; F(1, 359) ¼10.86; p¼.001;
n2
p¼.03), providing a conceptual replication of the results
of experiment 2, and showing convergence with the results
of experiments 3 and 4. Conversely, when one’s own wel-
fare could be advanced through the act of charitable giving,
because the donation decision was public, participants who
were exposed to reminders of resource scarcity reported
being more likely to donate (M¼4.50; SE ¼.17)
than those in the control condition (M¼4.05; SE ¼.14;
F(1, 359) ¼4.14; p¼.04; n2
p¼.01). Hence, when one’s
own welfare could be advanced through the act of charita-
ble giving, exposure to reminders of resource scarcity in-
creased generosity.
Neither the scarcity manipulation nor the decision con-
text manipulation produced a significant main effect on the
donation intention measure (ps>.2). As expected, the ef-
fect of the covariate (predisposition toward charitable giv-
ing) had a significant positive effect on donation intensions
(F(1, 359) ¼147.55; p<.001; n2
p¼.29). Importantly, how-
ever, there was no effect of the scarcity manipulation
(p>.9), the decision context manipulation (p>.5) or their
interaction (p>.7) on the predisposition measure.
These results thus offer one possible explanation as to
why, under certain conditions, individuals lacking re-
sources may be more likely to engage in generous behav-
ior, as compared to those whose resources are more
abundant (Kraus et al. 2012;Piff et al. 2010). When re-
sources are scarce, people may be dependent on others for
valuable commodities (Kraus et al. 2012). As a result, they
may behave in a seemingly generous way in order to ulti-
mately advance their own welfare (Aarøe and Petersen
2013). Indeed, in an additional study (see online appendix),
we found that exposure to reminders of resource scarcity
increased generosity in gift-giving (i.e., gift-giving inten-
tions and willingness to spend on a gift), as compared to a
control condition, when the personal benefits associated
with gift-giving (i.e., securing future favors from the gift
recipient) were made salient (vs. not).
Although not central to our prediction, it is interesting to
note that, in this experiment, participants in the control con-
dition expressed lower donation intentions in the public (vs.
private) decision context condition. Certain prior findings
have shown that charitable giving increases when one’s be-
havior is publically observable (Ariely, Bracha, and Meier
2009;Karlan and McConnell 2014), a finding that appears
to be in contrast with our results. However, other researchers
have qualified these results, by illustrating important condi-
tions under which this effect is attenuated or reversed (e.g.,
Ariely et al. 2009;Griskevicius et al. 2010), consistent with
what we observe. In particular, work by Griskevicius and
colleagues (2010) demonstrated that consumers are more
motivated to engage in costly prosocial behaviors in a public
(vs. private) decision context only when a self-enhancement
goal, such as gaining status, is active. In the absence of the
self-enhancement goal, the authors observed that this effect
reversed, similar to what we observed in the control condi-
tion. These findings may be explained in part by the fact
that consumers often refrain from engaging in public proso-
cial behavior (e.g. donating money to charity when the do-
nation is visible), when this behavior could be perceived as
being motivated by self-interest (i.e. publicly donating
money to show off and/or gain status), rather than altruism
(Ariely et al. 2009;Newman and Cain 2014).
GENERAL DISCUSSION
The current research contributes to advancing the under-
standing of the psychological processes instantiated by re-
minders of resource scarcity. Specifically, we show that
exposure to scarcity-related cues prompts consumers to en-
gage in behaviors that advance their own welfare, through
the activation of a competitive orientation. In support of
our theoretical account, experiment 1 provides evidence
for a cognitive association between scarcity and competi-
tion. Next, experiment 2 shows that reminders of resource
scarcity can have implications for consumer decision mak-
ing, through a shift in competitive orientation. This com-
petitive orientation manifests in an increased desire to
advance one’s own welfare, which can produce behaviors
that prioritize benefits to the self over benefits to others
(e.g., selfish behaviors, experiments 2 and 3). Consistent
with this account, experiment 4 shows that this tendency
toward selfish behavior following exposure to reminders of
resource scarcity occurs across individuals, and is particu-
larly pronounced among individuals with a proself (versus
prosocial) orientation. Finally, experiment 5 builds on
these results by showing that this competitive orientation
need not exclusively produce selfish outcomes. Reminders
of resource scarcity can in fact promote generous behaviors
when the connection between such behaviors and advanc-
ing one’s own welfare is made salient.
In doing so, the current research provides three impor-
tant theoretical contributions. First, it offers a novel theo-
retical account that may help reconcile prior conflicting
findings regarding how scarcity-related cues affect social
behavior. Prior research has provided mixed evidence as to
whether reminders of resource scarcity induce individuals
to become more selfish (Holland et al. 2012;Sasson et al.
2012), or more generous towards others (Kraus et al. 2012;
Piff et al. 2010). Our research suggests that when
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consumers are exposed to reminders of resource scarcity,
they adopt a competitive orientation. This competitive ori-
entation promotes the advancement of one’s own welfare,
a motive that can manifest either in increased selfishness
or in increased generosity as a function of the associated
benefits to the self. Thus, the current findings offer a first
step towards understanding why scarcity-related cues may
promote different behavioral responses in different
contexts.
Second, the present research adds to the existing litera-
ture on scarcity and competition (Fu¨lo¨p 2004;Griskevicius
et al. 2009;Grossman and Mendoza 2003;Keller 1992).
Prior research has widely acknowledged that resource scar-
city increases competition for the resource that is scarce.
However, less is known about whether mere reminders of
resources scarcity can activate a competitive orientation
that is more general, and thus capable of producing subse-
quent behavioral consequences with respect to resources
that are not actually scarce. The current research is the first
to our knowledge to provide evidence that reminders of re-
source scarcity (e.g., listing things one could not do with-
out gasoline, sugar, water, etc.) can cognitively activate a
more general competitive orientation, which then affects
subsequent decision making (e.g., charitable giving) in be-
havioral contexts that are not explicitly linked to the re-
source that was described as scarce.
Finally, the current research makes related contributions
to the growing literature on scarcity (e.g., Mullainathan
and Shafir 2013). Prior work in this area has demonstrated
(i) that resource scarcity shifts one’s attentional focus to-
ward the resource that is scarce (e.g., a poor individual’s
mind will be more occupied by money-related thoughts
than a rich individual; Shah, Mullainathan, and Shafir
2012) and (ii) that resource scarcity increases the value as-
sociated with the resource that is scarce (e.g., money will
be more valuable to a poor individual; Shah, Shafir, and
Mullainathan 2015; Spiller 2011). As described, we pro-
vide evidence demonstrating that resource scarcity can
have implications for judgments and decisions that are not
directly linked to the resource that is scarce, through the
activation of a competitive orientation. In doing so, we ex-
tend this work by demonstrating that resource scarcity can
have more general and further reaching behavioral conse-
quences than previously considered.
In addition to offering evidence for our predicted effect
and our proposed process, the current data also addresses
certain possible alternative explanations for the results.
First, one might argue that these results could have oc-
curred because reminders of resource scarcity increased
negative affect and/or negative mood, which could have
explained the ensuing behavioral consequences. Although
it might be logical to assume that reminders of resource
scarcity would increase negative mood, we observe that a
shift in negative affect/mood cannot account for any of the
observed results (see online appendix).
A second alternate account for the observed results might
suggest that exposure to reminders of resources scarcity in-
creased one’s focus on the present as opposed to the future,
which shifted preferences toward outcomes offering the
most direct benefit to the self. However, this account is not
supported by the results of experiment 5 (public decision
context), which revealed that participants in the scarcity
condition were willing to sacrifice more resources in the
present (i.e., higher donation intentions) than those in the
control condition in order to accrue a self-benefit that would
only be reaped in the future (i.e., social signaling rewards).
This suggests that reminders of resource scarcity might in-
duce a strategic and forward-looking response to resource
constraint, which is not strictly present-focused.
A third and final alternate account for our findings might
suggest that reminders of resource scarcity increased one’s
focus on the self as opposed to others, which drove the ob-
served shift in preferences. However, the results of experi-
ments 5 (public decision context) again demonstrate that
consumers who are exposed to reminders of resource scar-
city strategically considered how others would react to
their decisions (i.e., likelihood of valuing the social signal)
when forming their preferences. This suggests that re-
minders of resource scarcity may favor a focus both on the
self as well as on others, in order to facilitate the identifica-
tion of behaviors that allow for the advancement of one’s
own welfare.
Limitations and Future Research Directions
Despite the robustness of the results presented in this ar-
ticle, this research has limitations that offer fruitful oppor-
tunities for further research. First, future research might
extend the marketing implications of this work by testing if
scarcity marketing tactics (e.g., promotions that emphasize
how few items are left or how little time remains to buy
them; Cialdini 2009;Inman, Peter, and Raghubir 1997)
might produce parallel behavioral effects to the more gen-
eralized cues of resource-scarcity used in the present ex-
periments. Although the two types of scarcity cues differ
qualitatively in terms of whether they are attached to a spe-
cific object (scarcity marketing) or not (generalized scar-
city cues), researchers have yet to examine whether these
different types of scarcity might effectively instantiate the
same psychological processes. Through testing these ef-
fects, one could form a more general framework for under-
standing the relationship between different types of
scarcity and a competitive orientation.
Further, having observed that exposure to reminders of
resource scarcity promotes behavior that advances one’s
own welfare through the activation of a competitive orien-
tation, another interesting extension of this work would be
to compare the effects of abundance-related cues on similar
dependent measures. This is particularly interesting to con-
sider given that throughout history, periods of recession
ROUX ET AL. 627
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and scarcity have typically alternated with periods of eco-
nomic expansion and abundance (Chakravarthy and Booth
2004;Griskevicius et al. 2013). While some research has
investigated how being raised in environments of depriva-
tion versus abundance affects choice patterns later in life
(e.g., Griskevicius et al. 2013;Laran and Salerno 2013),
little is known about the psychological processes that are
instantiated in response to abundance-related cues and
what effects they might have on decision making. Future
research might examine this by contrasting how cues of re-
source abundance versus cues of resource scarcity affect
consumer decision making.
Finally, another interesting extension of this work might
be to test if reminders that others experience resource
scarcity instantiate similar or different psychological pro-
cesses as compared scarcity cues that are relevant to the
self. On the one hand, being reminded that others experi-
ence scarcity could cause consumers to mentally simulate
themselves experiencing scarcity, and thus the two manip-
ulations may promote similar results. On the other hand,
reminders that others experience scarcity could cause con-
sumers to consider their own (relative) abundance, which
might instantiate different psychological processes.
Practical Implications
The current research suggests several important practical
implications. First, our results offer implications for policy
makers designing communications intended to promote
communal behaviors in service of the greater good. For ex-
ample, in contexts where scarcity-related cues are present
(e.g., times of recession or commodity shortages) commu-
nications should emphasize the personal benefits associ-
ated with contributing to the greater good (e.g., paying
taxes) in an effort to promote compliance. For instance,
paying taxes might be framed as a means to demonstrate
one’s economic success. The same recommendation ex-
tends to contexts where cognitions related to scarcity may
be situationally triggered, such as the workplace (e.g., due
to time constraints). Here, in order to promote communally
oriented behaviors (e.g., assisting colleagues), a manager
may wish to offer personally rewarding incentives for do-
ing so, in order to cater to the desire to advance one’s own
welfare that is triggered by reminders of scarcity.
Our results also suggest implications for marketers of
products that are positioned around prosocial benefits, such
as “green” products (i.e., environmentally sustainable
goods) or charitable giving. Despite the fact that people of-
ten express support for prosocial causes, products with pro-
social benefits are often unsuccessful in the marketplace
(Devinney, Auger, and Eckhardt 2010). We argue that one
reason this may be is that such products are often designed
to address scarcity-related concerns. To illustrate, hybrid au-
tomobiles were designed in part to address concerns about
the limited supply of oil. To the extent that these products
are associated with scarcity or scarcity-related concerns, it is
possible that such items could activate cognitions related to
scarcity in the mind of the consumer (Lang, Bradley, and
Cuthbert 1998) and, as a result, activate a competitive orien-
tation. If so, marketing communications that highlight the
prosocial benefits of the product (e.g., reduced greenhouse
gas emissions) may be less effective than communications
emphasizing the personal benefits one can accrue through
purchase (e.g., saving money at the pump).
In summary, the findings presented here advance our un-
derstanding of how being exposed to scarcity-related cues
affects consumers’ motivational orientation and, as a con-
sequence, subsequent behavior. Across five studies, we
demonstrate that reminders of resource scarcity induce a
shift in competitive orientation, which in turn motivates
people to advance their own welfare. Although further re-
search is necessary to fully understand the boundaries of
these effects, this research provides an important step to-
wards a better understanding of the psychology of scarcity.
DATA COLLECTION INFORMATION
The first author supervised the collection of data for the
first experiment by research assistants at the Northwestern
University Kellogg School of Management Behavioral
Research Lab in the spring of 2013 and analyzed these
data. The first and second authors jointly managed the col-
lection of data for the second experiment by research assis-
tants at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of
Management Behavioral Research Lab in the spring of
2012. The first and second authors jointly analyzed these
data. The third author managed the collection of data for
the third experiment by research assistants at the New
York University Stern School of Business Center for
Behavioral Research in the spring of 2013. These data
were analyzed by the first author with the support of two
other marketing professors at Northwestern University.
The second author conducted the collection of data for the
fourth experiment using Amazon Mechanical Turk, as de-
scribed in the methods section, in the fall of 2011. The first
author analyzed these data. The first and third authors man-
aged the collection of data for the fifth experiment. The
first author supervised the collection of data by research as-
sistants at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of
Management Behavioral Research Lab, and the third au-
thor conducted the collection of data using the New York
University Stern School of Business Center for Behavioral
Research’s online panel, in the winter of 2015. The first au-
thor analyzed these data.
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... Therefore, across two studies, we tested whether trait (Study 1) and state (Study 2) envy play a role in women's intrasexually competitive attitudes when primed with resource scarcity. In both studies, we employed a well-validated resource availability priming manipulation (Roux et al., 2015) to test whether women primed with resource scarcity would report more intrasexual rivalry by way of greater rival derogation and self-promotion attitudes. ...
... Following Roux et al. (2015), participants in the control condition read the following instructions: "Briefly describe three or four things that you did in the past week. They can be activities, interactions you had with other people, or anything else that first comes to mind." ...
... The same experimental procedure used in Study 1, where participants were asked to think and write about a time when they felt that resources were scarce (experimental condition) or activities and interactions they had with other people (control condition; see Roux et al., 2015 for detailed description of experimental procedure) was also used in Study 2. 1 To assess the validity of the experimental manipulation for resource scarcity, we used the 4-item measure created by Roux et al. (2015). Using a Likert response scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), participants were asked to report their level of agreement with the following statements: (1) "My resources are scarce," (2) "I don't have enough resources," (3) "I need to protect the resources that I have," and (4) "I need to acquire more resources." ...
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Researchers studying non-human females have highlighted the role of intrasexual resource competition. Here, we considered women’s intrasexual competitive attitudes toward rival derogation and self-promotion as a function of resource availability. Further, we tested the overarching hypothesis that both trait and state envy are complicit in the motivation to compete with intrasexual rivals in the face of resource scarcity. Using a resource availability prime, in Study 1 (N = 167), Canadian heterosexual young adult women in the resource scarcity condition held greater derogatory attitudes toward rivals when they were average or high in dispositional envy. However, contrary to our prediction for self-promotion, the interaction demonstrated that the resource scarcity prime was only effective among women low in envy. In Study 2 (N = 132), there were indirect effects for heightened state envy on the link between resource scarcity with stronger attitudes toward rival derogation. These findings highlight that resource availability exerts an important influence on women’s intrasexual rivalry, which appears to be driven, in part, by envy experienced in the face of perceived resource scarcity. At the trait level, high envy women might compete for scarcer resources by derogating rivals, whereas low envy women might do so via self-promotion.
... Considering a more social dimension, previous findings have led to contrasting conclusions: some authors have suggested that resource scarcity increases generosity toward others (Piff et al., 2010;Kraus et al., 2012), whilst others claim that it promotes selfish, or even antisocial, behaviors (Holland et al., 2012;Petersen et al., 2014;Prediger et al., 2014). Other findings have suggested that being reminded of resource scarcity promotes a competitive orientation, and a scarcity mindset can lead to behaviors that are not uniquely individualistic: in fact, it was suggested that the competitive orientation to ensure one's own well-being could manifest itself in both increased selfishness and increased generosity, depending on the benefits associated with the self (Roux et al., 2015). ...
... Research on the effects of scarcity usually involves comparing people with varying levels of access to resources, either as observed in the real world (rich vs. poor) (e.g., Mani et al., 2013;Prediger et al., 2014), or by experimentally manipulating people's availability of resources or their perception of it (e.g., Durante et al., 2015;Roux et al., 2015;Huijsmans et al., 2019;see Cannon et al., 2019 for a review). Both approaches present their own issues: real-world investigations do not allow researchers to disentangle the effect of scarcity from other variables often associated with scarcity and poverty, such as chronic stress and mental ill-health (Lupien et al., 2001;Anand and Lea, 2011); laboratory manipulations, albeit allowing for more precise controls of confounds, may not accurately represent reallife consequences. ...
... In the current study, PGG scenarios have probably failed to elicit a strong affective response, and therefore TEI was not involved in decisionmaking. It is also worth noting that perceived scarcity might not have been related to negative affect, since not all studies in the literature report this relationship (e.g., Roux et al., 2015). ...
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Both material resources (jobs, healthcare), and socio-psychological resources (social contact) decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic. We investigated whether individual differences in perceived material and socio-psychological scarcity experienced during the pandemic predicted preference for cooperation, measured using two Public Good Games (PGGs), where participants contributed money or time (i.e., hours indoors contributed to shorten the lockdown). Material scarcity had no relationship with cooperation. Increased perceived scarcity of socio-psychological wellbeing (e.g., connecting with family) predicted increased preference for cooperation, suggesting that missing social contact fosters prosociality, whilst perceived scarcity of freedom (e.g., limited movement) predicted decreased willingness to spend time indoors to shorten the lockdown. The importance of considering individual differences in scarcity perception to best promote norm compliance is discussed.
... What is crucial is that manipulations bring to mind whatever concept (in this case, scarcity) is of interest, thereby allowing this concept to shape how subsequent stimuli are perceived. Thus, social psychological research on scarcity has been able to use incidental manipulations of scarcity without issue (e.g., Roux et al., 2015). ...
... To manipulate scarcity, we had people recall a time they experienced scarcity (cf. Roux et al., 2015;Mani et al., 2013). To measure preference for familiarity, participants rated how much they liked both familiar and unfamiliar given names and surnames (cf. ...
... Participants were randomly assigned to a scarcity or control condition. In the scarcity condition, participants wrote about a time they felt their resources were scarce (i.e., did not meet their needs; taken from Roux et al., 2015). We expected writing about an experience of scarcity to be affectively unpleasant and threatening and, thus, different from most dayto-day experiences. ...
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As economic inequality increases in the United States and around the world, psychologists have begun to study how the psychological experience of scarcity impacts people's decision making. Recent work in psychology suggests that scarcity—the experience of having insufficient resources to accomplish a goal—makes people more strongly prefer what they already like relative to what they already dislike or like less. That is, scarcity may polarize preferences. One common preference is the preference for familiarity: the systematic liking of more often experienced stimuli, compared to less often experienced stimuli. Across four studies—three experiments and one cross- sectional survey (all pre-registered; see https://osf.io/7zyfr/)—we investigated whether scarcity polarizes the preference for familiarity. Despite consistently replicating people's preference for the familiar, we consistently failed to show that scarcity increased the degree to which people preferred the familiar to the unfamiliar. We discuss these results in light of recent failures to replicate famous findings in the scarcity literature.
... Scarcity manipulation We used a recall imagination task (adapted from Roux et al., 2015) to induce participants' scarcity mindset. In the scarcity condition, participants were shown three kinds of resources (water, electricity, and money) in a consecutive order. ...
... In both conditions, after completing the manipulation, participants rated seven items (α = 0.792) as a manipulation check (adapted from Roux et al., 2015); for example, "My resources are scarce" and "I cannot fulfil all my needs and desires" (1 = completely disagree, 7 = completely agree). The scores were averaged across the seven items to calculate the mean score for scarcity mindset. ...
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This study explored the relationship between scarcity mindset and envy and the possible mediating mechanisms. We induced participants’ scarcity mindset. Resource-scarce individuals experienced more envy and generated more malicious motivation and less benign motivation to improve themselves after upward social comparison as compared to their counterparts. The relationship between scarcity mindset and envy was mediated by sense of control. Improving resource-scarce participants’ sense of control significantly reduced their envy and malicious motivation and significantly enhanced their benign motivation. Resource-scarce individuals should be encouraged to improve themselves and bridge the poverty gap through their own efforts, instead of destroying others’ advantages. Overall, this study found that individuals with a scarcity mindset were more envious of others after upward social comparison, and this phenomenon was significantly improved by manipulating their sense of control.
... LOP is a reflective construct that captures a multifaceted phenomenon (Morris, 2020;Roux et al., 2015;Shah et al., 2015). We focused on two major dimensions of LOP that represent unique aspects of living in poverty, namely, "experienced scarcity" and "nonbusiness distractions." ...
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Plain English Summary How poverty conditions affect a person’s ability to start a successful business. Creating a successful business can be difficult for anyone, but especially for those who come from poverty circumstances. This study demonstrates how ventures created by poverty entrepreneurs tend to be more fragile or subject to serious decline or failure when the inevitable threat or unexpected setback occurs. Two key aspects of poverty, experienced scarcity and significant nonbusiness distractions, combine to lead entrepreneurs to create more fragile businesses. However, when a low-income individual demonstrates more entrepreneurial alertness, a variable associated with venture success, the negative effect of poverty-related variables is reduced. The findings suggest that, for entrepreneurship to be a viable pathway out of poverty, public policies and community-based programs should focus on reducing the fragility of these ventures and enhancing the opportunity recognition skills of these entrepreneurs.
... The effects of product scarcity (Zhu and Ratner 2015) and resource scarcity (e.g. Hamilton et al., 2014;Mehta and Zhu 2016;Roux et al., 2015;Shah et al., 2015) on consumer behavioural responses have been already addressed. Previous studies have declared that consumers' perceived scarcity changes their evaluations of scarce products and stockpiling behaviour (Pan et al., 2020;Sterman and Doğan, 2015), and when consumers perceive that the products they want are scarce, they change their behavioural responses and may embark on panic buying and hoarding behaviours (Gupta and Gentry 2016;Mittal and Griskevicius, 2014;Zhu and Ratner 2015). ...
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Covid-19 pandemic has a significant effect on consumer behaviours. This study examines four types of consumer behavioral responses with a new conceptual model of panic buying behaviour. The study investigated the influence of perceived scarcity, perceived threat and Covid-19 situational variables on consumers' brand switching, product trial, purchase acceleration and stockpiling behaviours during the early times of pandemic. Using an online survey, the data were obtained from 262 Turkish consumers. The findings revealed that consumers' perceived threat during the pandemic has significantly correlated with brand switching, product trial, purchase acceleration and stockpiling behaviours, whereas the perceived scarcity has only influenced the product trial behaviours. Finally, situational variables were found to have a statistically significant influence on brand switching and product trial behaviours. The results acknowledge the importance of preparation of the brands and retailers for effective and quick responses to consumers in the face of an extraordinary social situation such as pandemic.
... However, those threatening cues may lead to different reactions rather than visual pattern-seeking behaviour. For example, previous research shows that threats to resources lead consumers to engage in selfish behaviour (e.g. a decrease in donations; Roux, Goldsmith, and Bonezzi 2015) and high-calorie consumption (Briers and Laporte 2013). When it comes to visual pattern-seeking behaviour, we contend that threats to control play a critical role. ...
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Infectious diseases, such as COVID-19, cause disruptions to normal lives and thus trigger various adaptive reactions. We provide evidence that visual pattern-seeking, which brings perceived control in such disruptions, is one of the adaptive responses. Across five studies, consumers primed with the perceived threat of COVID-19 increase their evaluations of visually patterned advertising images and behavioural intentions to follow visually patterned messages designed to reduce the spread of the virus. The underlying process for this effect is that visual pattern-seeking helps consumers regain control that is threatened by the perceived threat of the pandemic. These findings shed light on the role of visual patterns as an effective source of communication in the COVID-19 era.
... This is an important extension for the windfall gains literature. If the same principle applies to monetary gains, people might be less likely to spend their windfall money on hedonic products when they encounter reminders of resource scarcity (Roux, Goldsmith, and Bonezzi 2015). ...
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Questions as to the fairest way of allocating resources arise in all social activities, and the way these ubiquitious questions are answered can have critical, widereaching impact on the individuals concerned and on society in general. The profundity of such questions comes into clear focus when the supply of resources in question is inadequate to meet all claims. Examples range from seemingly ordinary matters of allocating journal pages to authors (Latané, 1979) or deciding which little leaguers will get to play baseball, through more far-reaching concerns of how gasoline will be rationed (Pauly & Walcott, 1979) or whether veterans should be given preferences for civil service hiring (Labich, LaBrecque, & Camper, 1979). Consider also the tragic choices of who will be drafted into the armed services (U.S. National Advisory Commission on Selective Service, 1967), which women should bear children (Berelson, 1974), or who will be given access to hemodialysis machines and other scarce medical resources (Katz, 1973; “Scarce Medical Resources,” 1969).
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