Character  &  Context

Does thinking about scarcity make people more selfish or generous?

Image of businessman holding a sandwich made of money

By Caroline Roux

As a graduate student, I often felt that money was tight, time was insufficient, sleep was a rare commodity, and food was lacking in the house. Objectively, my stipend provided me with a decent living, I managed my time efficiently most days, I slept a decent amount of hours most nights, and I always had something to eat at home. Subjectively, however, I often thought about these resources in terms of scarcity, or “not having enough.”

People often think about, worry about, or discuss scarcity-related concerns, but relatively little is known about their impact on people’s thoughts, judgment and behavior. For instance, how did thinking in terms of scarcity (e.g., not having enough food in my refrigerator) impact my everyday behavior? This question is especially important since people from all walks of life and levels of socioeconomic status can experience resource scarcity; even bankers with a seven figure annual income.

One question my co-authors and I became particularly interested in was whether scarcity-related thoughts prompt people to behave in a more selfish or generous manner, since both behaviors intuitively make sense in a context of scarcity. Prior research provides conflicting answers to this question. While some prior work demonstrated that resource scarcity can increase generous behavior (e.g., donating a greater proportion of one’s income), other work has shown that resource scarcity can prompt selfish behavior (e.g., refusing to share financial resources with an anonymous other).

These conflicting findings led us to attempt to find a psychological mechanism that would help reconcile when and why perceived scarcity results in selfish or generous behavior. Based on the generally acknowledged finding that scarcity increases competition, we first predicted that merely thinking about scarcity would also prompt people to become more competitive. Further, based on work that conceptualized competition as advancing one’s own (as opposed to others’) welfare, we then predicted that thinking about scarcity would make people more likely to engage in behaviors that conferred benefits to the self. Consequently, thinking about scarcity should increase selfish behaviors, because such behaviors often confer the most direct benefit to the self, but they should likewise increase generous behaviors when such behaviors offer an indirect benefit to the self through helping others.

In a first study, we tested whether merely thinking about scarcity prompted people to become more competitive, and whether that resulted in more selfish behavior. We first asked undergraduate students to either recall recent experiences of scarcity (scarcity condition) or activities they did during the past week (control condition). They were then offered the opportunity to anonymously donate a portion ($1) of their compensation ($6) for participating in the study to a charitable organization. They finally completed a scale that measured their competitive orientation. Participants who were asked to think about scarcity were more likely to keep the $1, and thus behave in a manner that provided the most benefit to the self, than participants in the control condition. Participants in the scarcity condition further scored higher on the competitive orientation scale than those in the control condition. Finally, participants in the scarcity condition were less likely to donate money to charity because of this increase in competitive orientation. The results of this study thus provided evidence that merely thinking about scarcity does prompt people to become more competitive and act in a more selfish manner.

Building on these findings, we wanted to know whether thinking about scarcity would make people more likely to behave in a generous manner if doing so would provide them with an indirect benefit to the self. Participants were first asked to list things they would (not) be able to do if different resources were (un)available (e.g., water, gasoline, etc.). Participants then read a gift-giving scenario about recently having received help from an acquaintance regarding a difficult class assignment and whether they would thank that person with a gift. When the act of gift giving did not provide any benefit to the self, there were no differences in terms of gift-giving intentions or willingness to spend on the gift between the scarcity and the control conditions (perhaps due to the norm of reciprocity). However, when the gift was framed as a means to secure future help from the person, participants thinking about scarcity expressed greater intentions to give a gift and were willing to spend more on the gift than participants in the control condition. This study thus provides evidence that thinking about scarcity can increase generous behaviors when such behaviors also confer an indirect benefit to the self.

These studies help us better understand when and why thinking about scarcity, by making people focus on advancing their own welfare, can result in behaviors that appear either selfish or generous in different contexts. Although one’s own welfare may be advanced through selfish behaviors (e.g., keeping one’s money as opposed to donating to charity), it can also be achieved by behaving more generously toward others, when such behaviors also provide personal gains (e.g., giving to charity in order to gain status). Therefore, next time you want to ask a time constrained professor for help, you may want to emphasize what that person may gain by helping you, instead of trying to appeal to their altruistic self.

 

This research has been conditionally accepted at the Journal of Consumer Research. The most recent version of the paper can be accessed at http://ssrn.com/abstract=2147919.


Caroline Roux is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Concordia University. She holds a PhD in marketing from Northwestern University. Her research explores how reminders of resource scarcity affect consumers’ cognitions, judgment and behavior. More information about her research can be found athttp://www.concordia.ca/jmsb/faculty/caroline-roux.html.

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