Miriam Webster’s dictionary defines scarcity as: “the quality or state of being scarce”. Social Engineers may use scarcity to create a feeling of urgency in a decision making context. This urgency can often lead to the manipulation of the decision making process, allowing the social engineer to control the information provided to the victim.

In his book “The Psychology of Influence of Persuasion” Dr. Robert Cialdini talks extensively about  the use of scarcity.  He suggests that if a person perceives  something as rare, almost out of stock, or no longer in production, its value increases.



The catch phrase “Act now! Supplies are limited! illustrates the use of scarcity in the sales context. Other common techniques are, “The first X callers get a free XXX”, or an intentional short supply of a popular product. In recent times, this was most popularly alleged with the Nintendo Wii: “But I think [Nintendo] intentionally dried up supply because they made their numbers for the year. The new year starts April 1, and I think we’re going to see supply flowing.”

Other famous examples are Beanie Babies, Tickle Me Elmo, and Cabbage Patch Kids. Consumers lost interest in these items when they were no longer difficult to find.

Social Events

Social events may appear more exclusive by introducing scarcity to the event. Indeed, the perceived social benefit of attending these events often goes up in these circumstances. For example, ads for music events saying the previous concert sold out, increases the value of attending.

Additionally,  restaurants will sometimes close off seating sections to appear busier than they really are. The perception that they are extremely popular often triggers a heightened desire to eat at that establishment. Notice how this ad actually mentions the use of scarcity in promoting an event.

Monetary Interaction (Economics)

Monetary systems (economics) are built upon a socially agreed upon object that is scarce. The scarcer the object is, the higher its value. Monetary policy and fights about inflation reflect this. When there is too much money on the market at a given time, the perceived value of the money goes down. In addition, the cost of objects go up as the objects still retain their same relative value. To lower inflation the market removes money, making it scarcer.

Allocating resources that have alternative uses is the basics of economics. This allocation is driven by the scarcity of the objects that are being allocated. The more rare the resource is, the higher perceived value the object retains. This is why gold is worth more than salt, which is worth more than clay.

Social Interaction

Social situations also use scarcity to make something one has, go up in value. For instance, a person might act like they are very busy on a regular basis, and free time is hard to come by. Doing so excuses them from  spending time with someone they may have an obligation to. While at the same time making the time they do spend appear more valuable.

Scarcity can manipulate attention as well. Indeed, people complain about sales people bothering them in a store when there is no scarcity of sales people’s. However,  they are upset when they do not receive attention by sales people when they are scarce. To sum up, people are driven to desire what is hard to obtain, because they view it as having more value. This holds true for attention as well.

From a Security Standpoint

As we discussed, scarcity is a belief that something is in short supply or almost gone. Therefore increasing its sense of value. This can be used from a social engineering standpoint in a security test in many ways. Creating a feeling that yourself, service, or document is going to be unavailable unless they accept it now can be a powerful tool in manipulating people into taking the action you want them to take.

Scarcity is closely linked with commitment and consistency.