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Discipline and the Scarcity Principle

Posted by on August 4, 2011

I recently finished reading “Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert, B. Cialdini, PhD. It’s mostly about detecting persuasive tricks by propagandists, compliance agents, salesmen, and marketers. However, toward the end there is a bit about the scarcity principle that’s relevant to parents.

The idea of the scarcity principle is that we instinctively desire scarce items or conditions solely because they are scarce. The fear of missing out on an advantageous opportunity circumvents logic and reason. Furthermore, newly experienced scarcity – that is, after a period of relative abundance – can produce a much stronger demand for the scarce item or condition than prolonged scarcity would. This applies to parenting as the scarcity principle applies to consistent discipline.

“The idea that newly experienced scarcity is the more powerful kind applies to situations well beyond the bounds of the [previously described] cookie study. For example, social scientists have determined that such scarcity is the primary cause of political turmoil and violence….[We] are most likely to find revolutions where a period of improving economic and social conditions is followed by a short, sharp reversal in those conditions. Thus it is not the traditionally most downtrodden people – who have come to see their deprivation as part of the natural order of things – who are especially liable to revolt. Instead, revolutionaries are more likely to be those who have been given at least some taste of a better life. When the economic and social improvements they have experienced and come to expect suddenly become less available, they desire them more than ever and often ride up violently to secure them…Freedoms once granted will not be relinquished without a fight.”

That seems like the start of a pretty reasonable explanation for rise of the Tea Party, but how does it apply to parenting?

“The lesson applies as well to the politics of family as country. The parent who grants privileges or enforces rules erratically invites rebelliousness by unwittingly establishing freedoms for the child. The parent who only sometimes prohibits between-meal sweets may create for the child the freedom to have such snacks. At that point, enforcing the rule becomes a much more difficult and explosive matter because the child is no longer merely lacking a never-possessed right but is losing an established one. As we have seen in the case of political freedoms…people see a thing as more desirable when it has recently become less available than when it has bee scarce all along. We should not be surprised, then, when research shows that parents who enforce discipline inconsistently produce generally rebellious children.”

So, however permissive or restrictive you are, be consistent. Inconsistency invites rebellion. You already knew that, though, right? 😉