Scarcity is defined in the Miriam Webster’s dictionary as: “the quality or state of being scarce“. Scarcity is often used in Social Engineering contexts to create a feeling of urgency in a decision making context. This urgency can often lead 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 scarcity and how it is used. He suggests in his book that if a person perceives that something is limited edition, almost out of stock or no longer made it takes on greater value even if before the item didn’t hold much value.
The use of scarcity in the sales context is best known with the catch phrase “Act now! Supplies are limited!”. Other techniques are the common “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. Once these products became easy to find, few consumers were interested in them any longer.
Many times social events can appear to be more exclusive if scarcity is introduced. The perceived social benefit of attending these events often goes up in these circumstances. In advertising, this point is driven home with ads for music events that point out how the last concerts the artist gave were sold out.
Many popular restaurants have been known to close off sections of the restaurant to appear busier than they really are. The perception that they are that popular can often trigger a heightened desire to eat at that establishment. Notice how this ad actually mentions the use of scarcity in promoting a good 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 the value is perceived to be. This can be reflected in monetary policy and fights against inflation. When there is too much money on the market at a given time, the perceived value of the money goes down and the cost of objects go up as the objects still retain their same relative value. To bring inflation down, money is removed from the market, making it scarcer.
The basics of economics is made up of the allocation of resources that have alternative uses. This allocation is drive 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.
Scarcity can be introduced into social situations in an attempt to make something one has, go up in value. For instance, one might act like they are very busy on a regular basis, and free time is hard to come by. This action may excuse them from not spending time with someone they may have an obligation to spend time with, and at the same time make time that is spent seem that much more valuable.
Attention can be manipulated through the use of scarcity as well. Think of how many people complain about sales people bothering them in a store when there is no scarcity of sales people’s attention, yet they are just as upset when they are ignored by sales people when their attention is scarce. On a whole, people are driven to desire that which is hard to obtain, as it is viewed 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 all taken and therefore creating a sense of value with that. 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.