Persuasive Patterns: Influence

Scarcity Bias

We value something more when it is in short supply

Illustration of Scarcity Bias
Run a Scarcity Bias play

Cognitive Bias

Also called: Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

This persuasive pattern is part of the Persuasive Patterns printed card deck.

The Persuasive Patterns Card Deck is a collection of 60 design patterns driven by psychology, presented in a manner easily referenced and used as a brainstorming tool.

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Scarcity refers to the psychological tendency where items perceived as rare or limited in availability are deemed more valuable or desirable.

Imagine walking into a local artisanal bakery. As you browse the display, you notice a sign next to a particularly delicious-looking pastry: “Limited Edition! Only a few left.” Even though you had no intention of buying that specific pastry when you entered, the idea that it’s scarce and might not be available tomorrow makes it suddenly more appealing. You decide to buy it, influenced by the scarcity of the item.

Consider an online shopping platform where you’re browsing for a new pair of shoes. As you hover over a particular design, a pop-up appears: “Only 3 pairs left in your size!” This immediate indication of scarcity prompts a sense of urgency. You might think, “If I don’t buy it now, it might be gone tomorrow.” So, instead of comparing it with other designs or thinking it over, you quickly add it to your cart and proceed to checkout.

The cookie jar experiment

In one of the most famous experiments addressing the scarcity principle, researchers presented participants with two jars of cookies. One jar held ten cookies, while the other held only two. Although the cookies in both jars were identical, participants consistently rated the cookies from the nearly empty jar as more desirable. This simple experiment provides compelling evidence of the power of scarcity: when something appears to be in short supply, its perceived value increases.

Worchel, S., Lee, J., & Adewole, A. (1975). Effects of supply and demand on ratings of object value. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(5), 906-914.

It was only in the 20th century, with the rise of consumer culture and the advent of marketing, that scarcity started being systematically studied as a psychological phenomenon. The studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly those by Cialdini, laid the foundation for understanding the modern applications of the scarcity principle in various domains, from retail to digital products.

At its core, the principle of scarcity leverages the fear of missing out. This fear is a basic human emotion, stemming from our evolutionary need not to miss opportunities that could be beneficial for our survival or well-being. When something is scarce or limited, it appears more valuable, and we feel an innate urge to secure it for ourselves before it’s gone.

When an item or opportunity is perceived as scarce, it often triggers a desire in individuals to obtain it, based on the notion that its limited nature inherently makes it more valuable. This heightened value perception can influence purchasing decisions, engagement, and even loyalty. While scarcity can be a genuine reflection of limited stock or time-sensitive offers, it’s essential to employ this technique responsibly to ensure consumer trust isn’t compromised.

Scarcity doesn’t just tap into the desire for limited items; it also leverages the fear of missing out. Loss aversion, the idea that people are more driven by the fear of loss than the potential for gain, can be used alongside scarcity to push users towards desired actions.

Designing products with the Scarcity Bias

Scarcity, as a concept, taps into the innate human desire for things that are rare or in limited supply – making your offerings seem more valuable by highlighting their exclusivity or limited availability. This doesn’t necessarily mean reducing the actual supply; rather, it’s about crafting a narrative around the product that suggests its high demand or unique value. The key is to strike a balance: you want users to feel the urgency to act without feeling undue pressure. This approach can enhance the perceived value and desirability of your product, driving engagement and conversions.

If a product or feature is genuinely limited in quantity or availability, highlighting this can create a sense of urgency among users. For instance, if an online educational platform has a limited number of slots for a particular course, indicating the few remaining seats can motivate users to enroll sooner. However, if the scarcity is not genuine, or if it’s contrived to manipulate users, it can erode trust once users see through the tactic. For example, repeatedly displaying a “Only 2 items left!” notification without any real fluctuation in stock can make users skeptical.

Another method of incorporating scarcity without compromising ethical considerations is by focusing on time. Limited-time offers or temporary access to certain features can create a sense of urgency. Software platforms can offer premium features for a limited trial period, allowing users to experience the benefits and, in turn, understand the value. But again, it’s essential to be clear about the duration and terms of such offers.

Visual cues can help enhance the application of scarcity. For instance, a visual countdown timer for a limited-time offer or a decreasing bar graph for dwindling stock can subtly convey scarcity without overwhelming users.

While the essence of scarcity remains constant – the sense of something being in short supply – its applications can be manifold:

  • Time-based Scarcity
    Time serves as a relentless marker. As it passes, opportunities can be missed and doors might close. Retailers are acutely aware of this dynamic. When you stumble upon holiday sales or limited-time offers, it’s the ticking clock that’s attempting to influence your decisions. These offers, with their fleeting nature, create a sense of urgency, propelling users to take action quickly. It’s this urgency that sometimes makes us leap without taking a long look, leading to decisions we might not have made under less time-pressured circumstances.
  • Stock Scarcity
    The tangible, quantifiable limitation of items is another direct way to invoke the scarcity principle. When a website displays that only a few pieces of an item are left in stock, it’s not just about informing the user. It’s about conveying the imminent possibility of missing out. Google’s launch strategy for Gmail is an iconic example of using stock scarcity to its advantage. By rolling out the service slowly, via invitation, they created an atmosphere of exclusivity. If you had an invite, you became part of an exclusive club, further promoting the service through a viral recommendation system.
  • Restrictions on Information
    While the digital age is often characterized by an abundance of information, the scarcity of specific pieces of information can be incredibly compelling. Banned or restricted information becomes a forbidden fruit, making us yearn for it even more. This type of scarcity taps into our inherent desire to challenge constraints and seek out the elusive. The mere act of banning or restricting access can make that information appear more valuable or credible. And intriguingly, even if the information isn’t strictly banned, merely suggesting its rarity can make it more persuasive.

There are various ways to introduce scarcity in design:

  • Limit the duration
    Restrict the availability of certain offers or actions to specific times. For instance, rewards could be available only at certain times, or options might disappear if not chosen within a set timeframe.
  • Introduce competition
    Show that many users are interested in the same limited resource. This can be achieved by displaying the number of orders placed or indicating a low stock level.
  • Limit availability
    If there’s only a limited amount of something available, it will inherently seem scarce. This can be applied to both tangible and intangible offerings.

The psychology behind scarcity is twofold: humans often equate hard-to-get items with higher quality and value, and they don’t want to lose out on opportunities they already have access to. By tapping into these psychological triggers, designers can prompt users to act more decisively.

Scarcity that’s recently introduced is more impactful. If an item or opportunity becomes less available than it was previously, it’s perceived as more desirable. Additionally, when the scarcity is driven by high demand (social demand), it’s even more powerful as it also introduces an element of competition among users.

Making something scarce will force users to make a choice within a limited timeframe. If users perceive they might miss out on an opportunity, they are more likely to act quickly. By emphasizing potential loss or limited availability, you can prioritize certain decisions over others.

Ethical recommendations

While it might be tempting to create a faux sense of scarcity, users are savvy, and if they feel manipulated, it can backfire and harm the brand’s reputation. If everything is labeled as “limited edition” or “scarce”, the effect can wear off, and users can become skeptical.

The principle of scarcity, while powerful, has the potential for misuse, especially when not anchored in genuine limitations or when it preys upon users’ vulnerabilities. One of the primary concerns is the creation of artificial scarcity. This is when designers or businesses intentionally limit the availability of a product or service, not due to genuine shortages, but purely to induce urgency and drive impulsive behaviors. Such tactics can lead users to make decisions they might later regret, especially if they feel pressured or rushed. Additionally, excessive use of scarcity can erode trust over time, especially if users start to perceive the tactic as a manipulative ploy rather than a genuine constraint.

Another potential area of misuse arises when scarcity tactics amplify users’ fear of missing out (FOMO). This can induce anxiety and stress, especially if the user feels compelled to act but is uncertain about the decision. The constant bombardment with scarcity-driven messages can also contribute to decision fatigue, where the user becomes overwhelmed with the need to continually make quick decisions.

To ensure that the scarcity principle is applied ethically and in a user-centric manner, designers should consider the following best practices:

  • Genuine limitations
    Only use scarcity where there is a genuine limitation, be it in terms of time, stock, or access. Avoid creating artificial scarcity purely as a persuasion tactic.
  • Communicate transparently
    Clearly communicate the reasons for the scarcity. If a product is limited in stock due to high demand, let the user know. If a discount is time-sensitive because of a special occasion, state it.
  • Provide alternatives
    Where possible, offer users alternatives. If a particular product is out of stock, suggest similar items. If a discount is ending, inform users of upcoming promotions or sales.
  • Respect user autonomy
    Ensure that users always have a clear and easy way to opt-out of time-sensitive decisions. This could mean providing a clear way to exit a transaction, delay a decision, or mute notifications about limited-time offers.



When Dropbox was initially launched, it wasn’t available to everyone. Users needed an invite to access the service. This invite-only approach created a buzz around the product, making people more eager to join once they got their invite.

Supreme Streetwear

The streetwear brand Supreme is notorious for its limited product drops. Items sell out within minutes, and the scarcity drives up demand and allows the brand to maintain a cult-like following.


Airbnb capitalizes on scarcity by highlighting unique and rare listings. When a treehouse or a castle becomes available, it’s not just a place to stay; it’s an experience that might not be available again soon.

Trigger Questions

  • How can we highlight the uniqueness or limited availability of our offering without misleading our users?
  • What aspects of our product or service can we genuinely present as scarce to enhance its perceived value?
  • Are we providing enough value for users to act upon the scarcity prompt?
  • How might we test the effectiveness of our scarcity prompts without compromising user trust?
  • In what ways can we balance scarcity with user experience to ensure users don't feel overly pressured?
  • Are we maintaining transparency and ethical considerations while applying the scarcity pattern?


Scarcity Bias + Social Proof

These two patterns can reinforce each other. When a product is scarce and, at the same time, has high social approval, its perceived value can significantly increase. A practical example is a product that displays both a limited stock (“Only 3 items left!”) and a high purchase rate (“500 people bought this today!”).

Illustration of Scarcity Bias
Scarcity Bias

We value something more when it is in short supply

Illustration of Social Proof
Social Proof

We assume the actions of others in new or unfamiliar situations

Scarcity Bias + Triggers

By pairing scarcity with triggers, such as notifications or reminders, you can prompt users to take immediate action. An example would be a mobile app sending a notification about a limited-time offer or event, urging the user to participate before it’s too late.

Illustration of Scarcity Bias
Scarcity Bias

We value something more when it is in short supply

Illustration of Triggers

Place cues on our regular paths to remind and motivate us to take action

Scarcity Bias + Rewards

Award users with something that’s inherently exclusive and hard to come by. For instance, an organization might manufacture a product that’s exclusively available to its top-tier loyalty program members. Alternatively, they could offer an invitation to a special event that’s held once a year. Such gestures, rare and inaccessible to the general populace, carry a unique allure. They don’t have to be expensive, but their restricted public supply inherently boosts their perceived value. By providing these scarce rewards, businesses can make their users feel exceptionally valued, fostering a deeper connection. In this strategy, the goal is to ensure that while the reward is scarce, it isn’t so out of reach as to be demotivating.

Illustration of Scarcity Bias
Scarcity Bias

We value something more when it is in short supply

Illustration of Rewards

Use rewards to encourage continuation of wanted behavior

Scarcity Bias +

Set Completion

Collections gain more value when certain items within them are challenging to acquire. Imagine a set of complementary products or a series of task-based badges that users must unlock. By purposefully restricting the supply of some items or making certain badges harder to achieve, a layer of friction is added to the collection process. This friction isn’t about hindrance but about enhancing the satisfaction derived from completion. It’s a delicate balance; the items shouldn’t be so scarce that they disincentivize participation. Instead, they should be just elusive enough to amplify the feelings of success and accomplishment when finally attained. Through this approach, businesses can not only promote exploration of new products but also cement a deeper sense of achievement among users.aaEnsure that the scarcity invoked is consistent with the other patterns you’re using. For example, if using social proof, the scarcity shouldn’t contradict the number of people who supposedly purchased the product.

Illustration of Scarcity Bias
Scarcity Bias

We value something more when it is in short supply

This persuasive pattern is part of the Persuasive Patterns printed card deck.

The Persuasive Patterns Card Deck is a collection of 60 design patterns driven by psychology, presented in a manner easily referenced and used as a brainstorming tool.

Get your deck!
  • Scarcity effects on desirability: Mediated by assumed expensiveness? by Lynn
  • Scarcity
  • The influence of quantity scarcity and time restrictions on consumer preference and purchase intention
  • (). Influence: Science and Practice (4th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  • (). Effects of supply and demand on ratings of object value. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(5), 906-914.
  • (). Scarcity effects on value: A quantitative review of the commodity theory literature. Psychology & Marketing, 8(1), 43-57.
  • (). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Science, 185(4157), 1124-1131.
  • (). Toward a positive theory of consumer choice. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 1(1), 39-60.
  • (). Implications of commodity theory for value change. Psychological Foundations of Attitudes, 1-2.
  • (). Creating When You Have Less: The Impact of Resource Scarcity on Product Use Creativity. Journal of Consumer Research, 42, 767-782.
  • (). Scarcity Appeals in Advertising: The Moderating Role of Expectation of Scarcity. Journal of Advertising, 45, 256-268.

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