Semester 1, Optional: Questions in Psychology.

Blog: “Why do we want what we cannot have?”

Julie Donaldson



Why do we want what we cannot have?

When some thing or someone becomes unavailable, we seem to want them or it more. Why is this? Whether it is that slice of cake we are forbidden from eating in order to fit into a certain outfit, our dream house, that new sports car or that shirt we just simply cannot afford. At one point or another we have all wanted something which we know we cannot have. Why do we do this to ourselves as human beings? We almost psychologically torture ourselves by focussing on the things we cannot have instead of focussing on the things we do have or can have. According to recent Psychological evidence there are many perfect explanations as to why we desire things we cannot have.

Pauline Wallin a psychologist in Camp Hill believes there are three main reasons why we want what we cannot have. These are as follows:

1. Heightened Attention

2. Perceived Scarcity

3. Psychological Reactance


Heightened attention:

When something is hard to get (or forbidden) you immediately pay more attention to it. Notice that when you are on a restricted diet you sometimes get too focused on what you “can’t” eat. This heightened attention — which can escalate into obsession — makes the forbidden food seem very important. Your inner brat takes advantage of this, and tries to convince you that you MUST have that chocolate or pizza.”

I decided (once again) to try and lose a few pounds and stick to a low carb, high protein diet. After completing my research from many diet books and friends who have tried this already I came to a basic conclusion of what I could and couldn’t eat. The high protein foods in which I could indulge in consisted of fish, eggs, red meat, chicken, nuts, cheese and green vegetables. The foods I had to completely avoid consisted of bread, potatoes, chocolate, fruit, cereal, rice and desserts. The avoidance food list seems small but do not underestimate it. Rule out any toast, sandwiches, pies, cakes, chips, cereal, fruit, non-green veg and pizza. Being a student with two jobs, a house, dog and family and friends to see regularly juggling all this caused me and my busy lifestyle to grab food “on the go” which yes, is filled with the enemy food.. Carbs. After figuring out a diet plan I seemed to focus on the foods I could not have. I thought about it ten times more than I thought about the things I could eat. Realistically if I focussed more on what I could have had I would have had a higher chance of succeeding. Instead I found myself dreaming of buttery toast or suddenly noticing the new bakery that just opened down the road. My inner brat screamed “give me carbs!” Had I not been on this diet I wouldn’t have even noticed the fact a new bakery had opened. My mind went into over drive and suddenly I started to crave anything of high carb intake. I knew I couldn’t have it so it made me want it more! It makes me wonder, would people have a higher chance of succeeding in diets if their avoidance foods were fruit and vegetables and indulgence foods were crisps and chocolate?


Perceived scarcity:

“When something is scarce or in short supply, its perceived value increases. You want it more because you think other people also want it. If you’ve ever bid at auctions or on eBay, you know the experience of that last-minute excitement as you watch the bids spiral upward. The more people who bid, the more you’re willing to pay for the item. Your inner brat wants it at any price.”

An effective study was carried out that looked at “The effects of perceived scarcity on customers’ processing price information.” It was carried out by Rajneesh Suri, Chiranjeev Kohli and Kent B. Monroe.  It was published online 23rd of February 2007. The researchers carried out the test by examining if lowly valued priced product would be perceived as high value if it was put under sacrifice conditions. The hypotheses for the experiment are as follows:

Hypothesis1a: When motivation to process information is high, for a relatively high (low) product price, consumers’ perceptions of quality will be higher (lower) in conditions of scarcity than when scarcity is absent.


Hypothesis1b: When motivation to process information is high, for a relatively high (low) product price, consumers’ perceptions of sacrifice will be lower (higher) in conditions of scarcity, than when scarcity is absent. Low motivation condition our conceptualization also suggests that when consumers have low motivation to process information, they are likely to process information heuristically.


Hypothesis2a: When motivation to process information is low, for a relatively high (low) product price, consumers’ perceptions of quality will be lower (higher) in conditions of scarcity than when scarcity is absent.


Hypothesis2b: When motivation to process information is low, for a relatively high (low) product price, consumers’ perceptions of sacrifice will be higher (lower) in conditions of scarcity than when scarcity is absent.


The study also suggests that scarcity will lead to a systematic processing in such things as college acceptance places and medical decisions. Scarcity is a lot more common than people think and as results showed can lead to a lot of unnecessary purchasing and “panic buying” in certain situations.

In relation to this study I have a personal confession to make… Just over a week ago I opened an EBay and PayPal account and have purchased numerous unnecessary items. I did not need them in the slightest and to be honest most of the items purchased are complete junk so to speak. I want to blame it on EBay for having the low prices and time limit for the item to be removed closely linked beside the item picture, but I cannot blame anyone other than myself. I fell into the scarcity trap and have the junk to prove it. Many of us have most likely fallen into a scarcity trap whether its “buy 1 get 1 free” or “half price” … Ask yourself this, had these items not been on a special offer or sale would you have even picked them up in the first place? People think that they are saving money when in fact they are actually spending more by purchasing items on half price that they would never normally purchase!

Something to think about next time you see a “special offer” next time on your weekly food shop in Tesco.



Psychological Reactance:

“People don’t like to be told they can’t have or can’t do something. It’s related to not wanting to be controlled by others, especially if the situation feels unfair or arbitrary. The “reactance” is both emotional and behavioural. The emotional part is your inner brat saying, “Oh yeah? I can’t have what I want? Just try and stop me!” The behavioural component is what you do about it, which usually involves some type of rebellious reaction. You see this with teenagers whose parents have forbidden them to date certain people. Reactance also explains why a “Wet Paint” sign always invites unwanted fingerprints on the newly painted surface.”

Having someone boss you around, or tell you what to do makes you automatically want to rebel. I can personally think of many times I have been told not to do something, and the fact that person has told me I can’t or shouldn’t instantly makes me want to. Almost any person could admit to doing something they shouldn’t have when someone has specifically told them not to.  This behaviour is commonly seen in young children. One of the most frequently recurring situations regarding this applies to most mothers whilst getting their weekly shopping. The moment when your trolley approaches the treats isle is a moment feared by many mothers. The young child runs over to the biggest bag of sweets in the store with a sparkle in his or her eye and holds it up to his mother whilst begging for it. If the mother objects to this purchase many a children have been known to take the biggest tempers known. If you look closely at a child before this happens you can almost hear them think “Oh… You won’t buy me these sweets? I can’t have them? We’ll see…” First is the upset and shocked looked from the young one and sinking in of the rejection. Next comes the crying and begging. The more the mother says no to the purchase the more the child’s temper, bad mood and need for the sweets develops. When the child is firmly told “No, put it back now!” is sometimes when you see the bag of sweets getting thrown across the store, or the child throwing themselves on the ground refusing to walk alongside his mother or do what she tells him. They will scream and wriggle on that ground and make sure everyone can see him. Most of the time the mother gets so embarrassed that she will eventually give in to the child. Not that I am disagreeing with this, I believe it is easy to judge a situation until you are in it yourself. If any child was to challenge me in a shop I would happily give them my soul (never mind a sweet) to prevent screaming!


Marshmallow Experiment:

In 1972 Walter Mischel of Stanford University conducted a study which tested the control of hungry four year old children.  The test in delayed gratification involved more than 300 children. The test was carried out for over 6 years and has been repeated by many researchers to this day. The child is placed in a room by themself and sat on a chair in front of a table. A marshmallow is placed in front of the child. The child is then told they can eat the marshmallow straight away or they can wait 15 minutes and be rewarded with a second marshmallow.  The children took one of three approaches to the test. Some children would instantly eat the marshmallow without hesitation or care for the possibility of being rewarded with a second one. Others picked or played with the marshmallow for the 15 minutes. This involved tearing bits off and eating it hoping the researcher wouldn’t notice, sniffing the marshmallow, licking the marshmallow and staring at it almost mesmerised. The third approach found children not affected by the presence of the marshmallow. They waited patiently not affected and were then rewarded as promised with the second one.


Years later the researcher went on to find out how the participants were getting on in high school and in life. Results showed that those children who were able to wait the 15 minutes for the second marshmallow had a higher succession rate in succeeding in life. They were less likely to have problems with behaviour and less likely to be obese and have drug problems. There exam results were not as good as the children who were able to resist temptation of the first marshmallow. Those who were able to wait for the second marshmallow were less likely to drop out of college and less likely to go to prison.

This makes me as the question; do we have a better chance of succeeding in life if we do not give in and take what we “cannot have”?

See for yourself..

A more recent take on this study is the Haribo television advert. The advert indicates that the Haribo sweets are just too good to resist and almost all children who attempt to resist it for the amount of time given fail. A sentence spoke in the advert is “The evidence shows that Haribo is just too good.”



A valid conclusion can be drawn from this study, that wanting what we cannot have is a lifetime issue faced by almost every single one of us. It can range from many things but all results in the same feelings.  As I have shown there have been many studies and examples which have involved the topic choice. Many of them have given reasonable explanations as to why we want what we cannot have. However, being given these explanations will not psychologically change how we feel when we are faced with something we want but cannot have. The only suggestion I could give is to add a little bit of reverse psychology into the situation. “I didn’t want it anyway” … Showing you don’t want something may make the person revaluate and suddenly when your desire for it folds so does the availability. Just a suggestion.

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