The perception of scarcity is shown to be not a hindrance but rather a spur to creativity. 

When it comes to creativity, less can be more. That’s the finding of a study by Johns Hopkins Carey Business School Associate Professor Meng Zhu.

Co-authored by Assistant Professor Ravi Mehta of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and published in the Journal of Consumer Research, the study, “Creating When You Have Less: The Impact of Resource Scarcity on Product Use Creativity,” explores the relationship between two modern truths: More resources are available to consumers than ever before, and the value of creativity in many aspects of society is rising.

This leads to the question whether a proliferation of resources has produced a more creative world.

The answer is maybe not, according to the study. Instead, it suggests the emergence of a surprising dichotomy – namely, that creativity thrives on the perception of scarcity.

“Contrary to common belief, abundant resources may have a negative effect on creativity. We found that scarcity forces consumers to think beyond the traditional function of a given product and enhances creativity.”

“Contrary to common belief, abundant resources may have a negative effect on creativity,” Zhu and Mehta write in the study. “We found that scarcity forces consumers to think beyond the traditional function of a given product and enhances creativity.”

The study hinges on a key distinction about the perception of resources available to a consumer.

Building on existing research that suggests actual scarcity of resources can lead to more creative outcomes, the two co-authors’ research suggests that people’s perception about the scarcity or abundance of resources – as opposed to the actual availability of resources – has a strong influence on creative output.

Exploring perception is important, they say, because “consumers are frequently exposed to scarcity cues in daily decision environments, and these encounters could impact their mindset and carry over to subsequent events where creativity may be called for,” Zhu and Mehta state.

They conducted six experiments for the study. The participants were randomly divided into three groups based on their outlooks as observed within the experiments. These were a scarcity mindset, an abundance mindset, and a control group.

The mindsets were determined by the participants’ engagement in activities such as writing essays or doing Internet searches explicitly about either scarcity or abundance of resources immediately before they took part in a creative task. (People in the control group were immediately directed to the creative tasks.)

These tasks ranged from constructing a candle holder out of a box of tacks to a toy-building competition with Lego-like building pieces to developing a series of creative uses for a brick.

In each experiment, the participants who had been exposed to a scarcity mindset were repeatedly judged – by both subjective, independent judges and objective measures – to have developed the more novel products and solutions.

“These findings have important implications for industries that thrive on the creativity of their employees and consumers, such as home décor or fashion,” the authors conclude.

They add, “More broadly, the findings pose a significant cultural question: as societies become more abundant, do average creativity levels decrease? Thinking ‘inside the box’ could come at a considerable cost.”   – Luke Lavoie