New Scarcity: Losing rights feels worse than gaining them feels good


Image from NBC

People are naturally loss averse.1,2,3 It feels worse to lose $1,000 than it does to not win $1,000. It feels worse to have your house foreclosed on than to not be able to buy one.  It feels worse to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. So when it comes to civil rights, it isn’t surprising that people are more disturbed by new scarcity than they are by scarcity. Scarcity is so alluring it is one Robert Cialdini’s 6 principles of persuasion AND one of the most common sales techniques used to sell holiday themed sweater sets on QVC.4 Companies can utilize scarcity in all sorts of ways, from offering limited editions to selling one-of-a-kind products. They can even use new scarcity, by doing things like making products that were once available year-round only available seasonally. This creates an even larger demand than having something be scarce in the first place. Once people have had it and they can’t get it anymore, they want it more than ever.

In the wake of the November 8th election, protestors have gathered in cities all over America. Many are confused about the exact point of the protests. But the threat of new scarcity can go a long way to explaining the way people behave when they get a glimpse of what could be, only to face the threat (or reality) of being pushed back into what was. In my course on consumer psychology, I emphasize the significance of new scarcity through 1990s sitcoms. When older millennials were growing up in the 1990s, there were several mainstream television shows on major networks that featured all African-American casts. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Cosby Show, Family Matters, Hanging with Mr. Cooper, Sister, Sister…these were shows most people in America watched. They featured black families who were filthy rich, they featured black families who were highly educated, they featured black families with male role models who were police officers and educators.


Image from Mental Floss

As the 2000s, and now the 2010s, march on, we have seen less and less of this kind of television. Yes, there are more shows available and less people watch the major networks when Netflix and Amazon are churning out some of the most popular shows these days. But at the same time, when we look at the networks, we have seen a return to “diverse” casts like Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy composed of at least half white actors, and we have also seen a return to stereotypical portrayals of Black Americans as gang members, rappers and good dancers in shows like Empire, where many of the main characters have served time in jail. It’s new scarcity in action. And it’s crap.*

These days, TV executives doubt the viability of shows with all minority casts, arguing that white viewers don’t want to watch those shows. Aziz Ansari’s Master of None even tackles this issue specifically in an episode entitled Indians on TV. One wonders if these TV execs lived through the ‘90s, or if they witnessed America’s love for Bill Cosby prior to recent revelations about his serious failings as a person, TV dad and Jell-O salesman (how could you, Dr. Huxtable?). There used to be little doubt that Americans would watch a show with an all-Black cast. Now, we wonder if it’s “realistic” to cast African-American actors in all sorts of roles. It’s not a coincidence that the Ghostbusters remake features 3 white scientists and a black MTA worker. It’s a noticeable return to stereotyping African-Americans in the media that has come at the same time as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained steam.

I am not arguing in any way, shape or form that the fact that shows like Family Matters are no longer on air is the reason for the activism of the black community. But I am arguing that Black Americans have glimpsed the future many times in America only to lose it to the march of time. In 1870, congress passed the 15th Amendment guaranteeing American citizens of all races the right to vote. In 2016, black voter suppression has made a serious comeback, prompting one judge to say that black voters were being targeted in North Carolina “with almost surgical precision.” In 1994, Carl Winslow tells off some colleagues after they racially profile his son with no evidence in an episode of Family Matters called Good Cop, Bad Cop that highlights racial bias in the police force. In 2016, Terence Crutcher is killed by a police officer in Tulsa after his car breaks down for looking like a “bad dude.” The national conversation has rolled backwards. We have moved from a primetime television show casting a white cop as the villain, to having people say Black Lives Matter is a hate group, and having our President-elect endorse stop and frisk in Black neighborhoods. New scarcity is on the rise.


Image from Mental Floss

For many Americans, the threat is losing rights they have already gained. LGBT Americans are worried about losing their right to marry, guaranteed in the Obergefell Supreme Court decision, or Trans kids’ right to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender at their public school, guaranteed by Obama’s executive orders. Many women are worried about losing their right to control their bodies and their medical decisions, guaranteed by Roe v. Wade, something Mike Pence wants to see “consigned to the ash heap of history.” Many immigrants are worried about what will happen to family members who were protected as “Dreamers” under the Obama administration. New scarcity is scary, and rightfully so. Losing feels worse in magnitude than gaining feels good. And Americans have proven they won’t remain silent about it.


*Empire is an excellent show! As are Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy! I only use these as examples of newer shows that feature significant amounts of black cast members.

  1. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1991). Loss aversion in riskless choice: A reference-dependent model. The quarterly journal of economics, 1039-1061.
  2. Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J. L., & Thaler, R. H. (1991). Anomalies: The endowment effect, loss aversion, and status quo bias. The journal of economic perspectives5(1), 193-206.
  3. Thaler, R. H., Tversky, A., Kahneman, D., & Schwartz, A. (1997). The effect of myopia and loss aversion on risk taking: An experimental test. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 647-661.
  4. Cialdini, R. B. (1987). Influence(Vol. 3). A. Michel.

Unpacking Ello

Ello's minimalist design

Ello’s minimalist design (Screenshot of Mallory’s first sign-in to Ello)

Yesterday, I saw a status on Facebook about a new invite-only “anti-facebook” social network: Ello. FOMO ensued. What was this minimalist social network? Why had I never heard of it? What was I missing?! I had to know, so I asked the friend for an invite to see what the fuss was about. I signed up and…it’s definitely minimal. Having launched beta-testing this past July, Ello is meant to be ad-free. Which equals no ads, or the fancy interfaces they pay for. But also, no signing onto this social network wondering how they know you’ve been waiting for those sweet high-top Missoni Chuck Taylor’s to go on sale (story of my life). So why has Ello blown up recently? Yesterday, CNET reported that they have 35,000 sign-ups an hour. The social psychologist in me wonders what’s making Ello the new up-and-coming social network, and why. Here are some hypotheses:

  1. There’s an increasing desire for a social network that isn’t manipulative.

We all know what those ads pay for (i.e. cool features and sleek design), and what they cost (i.e. your data and your privacy). With the recent uproar over the Facebook mood contagion experiment, social media users are calling for the ability to network without any “secret algorithms” or tracking cookies following them all over the web. A study by Debatin et al found that users who experienced privacy violations were more likely to change their privacy settings than were users who only heard about privacy violations (1). Almost 700,000 Facebook users timelines were manipulated, which left many users wondering if they were in the sample and feeling distrustful.

  1. People love exclusivity.

The $10,000+ Hermes Birkin Bag is infamous for its waitlist, people were still waiting in line for over two weeks to be among the first to own the new iPhone 6 (now in its 5th generation), and elite New Yorkers duke it out for months over a small number of pre-school spots for their kids, costing as much as a year of college tuition. All of these examples share a common element: Scarcity, a well-known persuasion tactic. A classic study by Worchel et al found that participants valued cookies more highly when they were in a near-empty or rapidly-emptying jar, than when they were in a full or rapidly-filling jar (3). Indeed, scarcity is so powerful it is one of Cialdini’s 6 principles of persuasion.

  1. Brand authenticity is especially hot right now.

Craft breweries are raking in the big bucks, with some marketers suggesting that it’s due to their masterful upstart narratives. Unlike Bud Lite, when you crack open a 21st Amendment Fireside Chat, you know where the beer was made and you feel like you’re supporting some bearded young man with a fermentation tank and a dream. Creating this kind of subculture may be one way brands achieve authenticity. Research by Leigh et al found that MG car owners derived a sense of authenticity from belonging to the MG subculture (2). Participating in a subversive subculture like Ello may have the added allure of the perceived authenticity of the community in light of anti-establish statements, like their manifesto.

The verdict is still out on whether or not Ello will succeed, but there may be strong social forces at work in its burgeoning popularity.

  1. Debatin, B., Lovejoy, J.P., Horn, A.K., & Hughes, B.N. (2009). Facebook and online privacy: Attitudes, behaviors, and unintended consequences. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12(1), 83-108.
  1. Leigh, T.W., Peters, C., & Shelton, J. (2006). The consumer quest for authenticity: The multiplicity of meanings within the MG subculture of consumption. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 34(4), 481-493.
  1. Worchel, S., Lee, J., Adewole, A. (1975). Effects of supply and demand on rating of object value. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32(5), 906-914.