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A guide to reducing the effects of scarcity with simplification, timing and salience

13 December 2018

Government policies and services can be hard to navigate for people who are already under pressure. By understanding the effects of scarcity, we can make these easier to access for the people who need them. We developed an easy-to-use guide to provide more practical tips and strategies to understand and reduce the effects of scarcity.

BIU Scarcity

Think back to a time when you were stressed or had too much to do and not enough time to do it.

Perhaps you procrastinated, assuming you’d get it done quickly when the deadline rolled around, or maybe you neglected other things while you worked, like healthy eating and exercise? If so, you might have had a brief look into the scarcity mindset.

When we feel that we don’t have enough resources to cover our needs (such as time or money), we use a significant amount of mental energy making trade-offs. The problem is, we only have so much mental energy to use. This is called a scarcity mindset.

People experiencing a scarcity mindset make more biased decisions and mistakes, tunnel on pressing issues, and perform comparatively worse on tests. One study found that a scarcity mindset in shoppers completing cognitive tasks actually resulted in the equivalent of a 13-point dip in IQ, or the loss of an entire night’s sleep!

It is important for policy makers to understand the effects of scarcity because public services can be hard to navigate for people who are already under pressure. They often require people to make decisions that prioritise long-term future benefits over costs experienced in the present – think education or superannuation. This can be especially hard for those experiencing scarcity.

The good news is that negative effects of scarcity can be reduced by using simple behavioural insights tools.

Applying behavioural insights to reduce the effects of scarcity

In October, the Behavioural Insights Unit hosted researchers from the Australian National University, Professor Nicholas Biddle and Dr Katherine Curchin, to unpack the evidence underpinning the Scarcity mindset and the lessons for Government. You can watch the full event here.  

To provide more practical tips and strategies to understand and reduce the effects of scarcity, we developed Behavioural Insights in Action: Scarcity. An easy-to-use guide which explains how to:

  • Simplify steps to reduce the effort required for people to engage with our services
  • Target our services when people are most receptive, and have the capacity to engage
  • Make our messages clear, relevant and memorable, so that people get the information they need to make informed decisions

By understanding the effects of scarcity, we - as policy makers, program designers and front line workers - can make our services easier to access for the people who need them the most, and for all citizens of NSW.