As soon as a deal goes up on Groupon, a deal-of-the-day coupon website, it is listed with the words “Limited time remaining.” An hourglass shows how much time is left before the deal disappears from the site while other banners remind you of the “Limited Quantity Available.”
Why all the reminders about the limited time and quantity? They serve to remind consumers that this deal could disappear forever at any instant. Each one is an asteroid headed straight for the deal. And that fear of losing the ability to get a deal - even if it’s for an average Italian dinner or trip that customers doesn’t really want to go on - drives people snatch them up before the asteroid strikes.
This is the idea behind psychological reactance theory, the premise of which is that people hate losing freedoms and opportunities. The theory predicts that people will value threatened freedoms and opportunities more due to their perilous status and will act to preserve them.
Over and over again, market research has found this to be the case, even if the “freedom” that is threatened is just the opportunity to buy 2 bags of chips for the price of one.
A famous example is the banning of laundry detergent containing phosphates in Miami. Due to the law, Miami residents rated the banned detergents as “gentler,” “more powerful on stains,” and easier to pour. They even set up “soap caravans” to smuggle in the detergents from counties where it was still available. A ban on a product that few people cared about suddenly resulted in it being seen as superior and people going to great lengths to purchase it.
While marketers use this principle to overwhelm people with “limited time only” offers, it has many applications. One potential use is to help you score an important meeting.
Let’s say that you are trying to meet with someone prominent in your field who you either do not know or do not know well. You’ve tried before, but the individual has noted that it is a busy time, not responded, or otherwise been evasive. How can you better your odds?
Following reactance theory, you can make it clear that there is a narrow time window for this meeting to happen. Let the professor you respect know that the deadline to decide on a graduate school is May 1, and that you would value receiving their advice before then. Or say (preferably truthfully) that you are only in town for a few days, or that you hope to discuss your product before it ships on x date.
It may not work. The luminary could still be too busy, or he or she may not care.
But if they have any inclination to meet - whether to hear about developments in their field or to feel good about helping young members of their discipline - it will raise the value of meeting in their eyes. According to psychological reactance theory, they will be motivated not to lose the opportunity, however small, presented by that meeting.
And that may be the difference between benefitting from their advice and gazing longingly at your inbox for a reply.