"They become less exploratory. They focus on their leading option," said Rebecca Ratner, professor of marketing at the University of Maryland.

On the other hand, in situations of abundance when lots of each possible option are available, they spread out their selections, the findings showed.

For the study, the researchers conducted several experiments in which they asked people to choose among an array of goods,  typically in online surveys accompanied by photographs.

The choices they faced included different flavours of yogurt, different vegetables, different small candies, and different gift certificates.

In each case, there was the same pattern: When the items were presented as scarce, customers took more of their favourites, and they subjectively rated their favorite items higher.

The effect emerged whether the scarcity was 'real' or merely apparent.

"If you say that national parks are a scarce resource for the country, the implications of our finding are that that message might lead people to go to the national park that is most appealing to them," Ratner said.

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