Scarcity: The Quickest Way to Get Anyone to Say, “Yes”!

A lesson in persuasion from the story of Tom Sawyer

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily
Woman shaking hands in agreement
Social psychology studies show that if you ask someone for two favors, the answer that they give for the second is clearly influenced by the first—sometimes to a large degree. Photo By fizkes / Shutterstock

Which Technique Is Better?

The foot-in-the-door effect seems to require more time to be most effective. If you ask for a small favor and then immediately ask for the larger favor, the benefits of the technique are substantially smaller. Why? It’s related to scarcity.

The brain mechanism that supports this effect is based on a shift in one’s personal evaluation of how important some issue or person is. That takes time—ideally a few days. 

If you want to increase the number of “yes” responses in a single interaction with someone, then the door-in-the-face technique is the better one to choose. Studies of this technique demonstrate large effect sizes even when there is a delay of only a few seconds between the first and second request. Indeed, increasing that delay is likely to diffuse the tension that is created by the initial refusal of the first request.

In general, researchers in social psychology suggest experimenting with both to see which one works best for the particular kind of request that you are making. The one key point on which all researchers would agree is that we don’t evaluate particular requests in isolation. If you ask someone for two favors, the answer that they give for the second is clearly influenced by the first—sometimes to a large degree.

Tom Sawyer and Scarcity

You may have heard the story of Tom Sawyer whitewashing his Aunt Polly’s fence. Tom skips school one day to go swimming and has to whitewash the fence as a punishment. 

He doesn’t especially want to do this chore, but he is compelled to do so. In the events that follow, Mark Twain reveals a lesson in social psychology.

When one of the other neighborhood boys passes by, Tom pretends that he’s enjoying the painting task. The boy asks Tom if he can try it for a moment. 

Tom refuses, insisting that only very fortunate people can be lucky enough to do this task. Of course, the boy suddenly wants to get a chance to paint the fence. 

Tom ends up agreeing only to let people paint the fence—to let them do a task that he didn’t want to do in the first place—unless they are willing to trade various toys and trinkets for the opportunity. This example illustrates the principle of persuasion that Cialdini’s group often refers to as scarcity. 

Beyond Benefits

Most people think of the value of something—some product, service, or opportunity—as something that we can calculate based on the positive aspects of it. For example, you value your car because it can get you from point A to point B reliably. 

When you’re deciding whether or not to say yes or no to an offer of purchasing these things for a given price, a big part of that decision is based on an unconscious calculation about how rare the opportunity is. If you believe that the car you’re considering is only rarely available, then it will seem more attractive to you.

In the Tom Sawyer case, the item is something that actually has a negative value. Usually, people get paid for painting fences. 

By making the opportunity to paint seem to be a scarce resource, the value not only becomes less negative, but it also shifts to being something for which those neighborhood kids will trade things.

A variety of studies has shown that the amount people are willing to pay for items is heavily driven by their perception of how scarce the item is. If there are only 25 tickets left for an upcoming Kentucky basketball game, people will be willing to pay more than twice the amount—for exactly the same seats—as they will if there are more than 1,000 tickets remaining.

Salespeople know this well and have provided much data supporting the notion. When trying to sell a particular car, a salesperson will often arrange for two potential buyers to see it at the same time. 

If Person One chooses not to buy the car that day, then there is a clearer possibility that this particular car will be purchased by Person Two. The perceived value and the likelihood of a sale rise substantially.

This example illustrates a straightforward tip for persuasion. If you want to convince someone to say yes to your request, then you should go beyond describing the benefits of saying yes and evoke scarcity. 

If there are benefits, of course, you should convey them. However, be sure to mention the aspects of this particular opportunity that are relatively unique and special. 

You shouldn’t lie about these things, but in some cases, the opportunities that you offer people are subject to some scarcity. If you help someone see the potential loss associated with not saying yes, then it will tap directly into that subconscious estimation and decision-making system that is so important for our everyday behaviors.

Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.