It’s scientifically proven – we develop a taste for luxury at the age of six
Researchers at the University of Warwick in the UK found that children favoured rarer objects over abundant ones, especially when faced with competition from others.
What is it about precious items, rare editions or limited-run models that set our pulses racing? Is it gilt and glitter that sparks desire? Or the very idea that the items are scarce, and therefore more covetable? Apparently, it’s the latter. And it’s hardwired in us. Perhaps more surprisingly, it’s a habit that we pick up at the age of six.
This is according to a team of researchers at the University of Warwick in the UK. The researchers arrived at this conclusion after studying the behaviour of more than 60 children aged four to six. The test subjects also included 16 chimpanzees, humanity’s closest primate relatives. Unusual as this may seem, it was to ascertain whether this behaviour is a uniquely human trait, or something that evolved during our shared evolutionary past.
Asked what prompted the study, Alicia Melis, Associate Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School told CNA Luxury: “We know that people (meaning adults) are very attracted to scarce goods. Simply calling something ‘rare’, or ‘limited edition’, or offering it for a ‘limited time only’ or ‘in limited quantities’ can increase demand. So we were interested in exactly when this preference emerges.”
Previous studies (such as Brown, 2001) showed that scarcity has intrinsic value, and that simply owning and using a limited edition car or handbag can provide pleasure in itself. This can be for social reasons, as in displaying social standing. Flaunting a Bugatti Chiron when only 500 exist says something about its owner. But it can also be simply for personal reasons – owning an Hermes Birkin in Niloticus crocodile skin can provide pleasure to its owner, even if she never shows it to anyone else.
Studies conducted in the 1980s and 1990s also suggested that humans have a fundamental desire to be unique, and that ownership of scarce products contributes to this sense of distinction.
In the 2018 study, the children – 32 four-year-olds and 32 six-year-olds, recruited from daycare centres and primary schools in Leipzig, Germany, with their parents’ consent – hailed from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. This age range was chosen because they would not yet be familiar with prices, nor the laws of supply and demand.
According to the paper, “The preference for scarcity: A developmental and comparative perspective” published by Psychology & Marketing in Aug 2018, the researchers presented the children and chimpanzees with a choice between scarce (only a single item) and abundant (five) items, which they could keep.
“We know that people (meaning adults) are very attracted to scarce goods. Simply calling something ‘rare’, or ‘limited edition’, or offering it for a ‘limited time only’ or ‘in limited quantities’ can increase demand."
The items were things like food (for the chimps) and stickers and cards (for the children). In both experiments, competitive and noncompetitive scenarios were used.
“In the noncompetitive condition, the experimenter simply offered the participant a choice between the scarce and abundant reward,” read the paper. “In the competitive condition, participants chose in the presence of two social partners who would be choosing immediately after them.
“Our prediction was that the competitive context would increase the urgency of choosing the lone (scarce) item so that scarcity preference due to the third explanation, ‘variety seeking and fear of missing out’ would emerge more easily in the presence of competitors.”
In other words, they were trying to prove if FOMO arises when there are others around.
Turns out, it does.
“Younger children showed no scarcity preference, whereas older ones did. Specifically, the six-year-olds exhibited a preference for the novel and scarce rewards in the presence of competitors. There was no scarcity preference in chimpanzees. Our results suggest supply-based scarcity does not affect value attribution in chimpanzees, but it does in young children beginning at around school age and especially in competitive situations.”
The children that took part in the experiment were primarily of German nationality, with no further breakdown of ethnicity given. Would a global study involving children of different nationalities and/or ethnicities yield similar results, we wonder.
“We expect the answer would be yes,” Melis replied. “The exact timing might differ from culture to culture, depending on the nature of children’s exposure to economic ideas and their social relationships, but it will develop at some point during childhood. But more research would be needed to give a full picture of preferences for scarcity and how it can be developed.”
No further studies are planned at the moment, said Daniel Read, Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School. “But if we have a good idea (and funding) we would definitely be interested in following it up,” he added.
For now, parents could put the results of this study to good use. Said Read: “Children react at quite a young age [six] to cues of uniqueness, and this seems to have an effect on their choices, especially in a competitive set-up when they risk losing the opportunity to obtain the scarce item. This could potentially be exploited by parents who want to nudge their children into making the right choices [e.g. choosing the healthier food item], by framing those good things as the scarce ones, or the last opportunity to get them.”
As for marketers of luxury brands, Read said that the value of luxury goods will be associated with perceived scarcity. “It is vital for luxury brands not to allow their goods to be seen as too widely accessible, because then they will be treated as less valuable.
“Moreover, one of our results is that competitiveness heightens the sense of scarcity, and luxury brands might want to ensure that their consumers feel that if they don’t adopt their goods, another consumer might. We suspect luxury brand marketers know this already, but we offer some experimental evidence.”
“It is vital for luxury brands not to allow their goods to be seen as too widely accessible, because then they will be treated as less valuable."