Fighting a Scarcity Mindset

Wow. When I decided, a few weeks ago, that I needed to know more about the general concept of scarcity, I didn’t know where to start. But Scarcity: Why Having So Little Can Mean So Much seemed like a pretty good place. Written by Ivy-League researchers, it promised a broad scope:

Drawing on cutting-edge research from behavioral science and economics, Mullainathan and Shafir show that scarcity creates a similar psychology for everyone struggling to manage with less than they need. Busy people fail to manage their time efficiently for the same reasons the poor and those maxed out on credit cards fail to manage their money. The dynamics of scarcity reveal why dieters find it hard to resist temptation, why students and busy executives mismanage their time, and why sugarcane farmers are smarter after harvest than before. Once we start thinking in terms of scarcity and the strategies it imposes, the problems of modern life come into sharper focus.

Almost right away the book gave me a new insight into the idea of scarcity, and it’s one that I suspect might surprise you, as well. We’re used to thinking of scarcity in purely economic terms, i.e., not having enough resources for your needs. We already know, though, that homo economicus is a myth; even economists don’t behave in a logically economical way. Thus the science of behavioral economics was created, to examine the way humans actually act as they acquire, allocate, and exchange resources. When the authors talk about scarcity, therefore, it’s not about the resources people actually have; instead, scarcity is defined as “the feeling that your resources are not enough for your needs.” The entire book is about what effect that feeling has on everyone.

Does It Help?

I’ve been listening to Scarcity via audiobook, and it’s something like listening to a horror story where you gradually realize that you, the reader, are the protagonist. That initial definition was the first game-changer for me; there’s a huge difference between “There’s never enough!” and “I feel like there’s never enough!” I have a limited capacity to fix the former, but I theoretically have complete control over the latter – assuming I can develop the skills to notice it.

My Sketchnotes for a section on the "Bandwidth Tax"
My Sketchnotes for a section on the “Bandwidth Tax”

For me, the book is both exquisite and frustrating. Exquisite because it’s helping me give a context to behaviors and habits that I’ve had for decades but never really understood. Unfortunately it’s also put one of the skills I pride myself on – the ability to accomplish a lot with very little – into the framework of yet another symptom of a disease I really was only vaguely aware of. And it’s frustrating because there’s no indication that by the end of the book there will be any strategies for overcoming the challenges presented by a scarcity mindset.

I’ve become a bit of an evangelist on scarcity as I listen to the book – complete with sketchnotes and the like – and while talking with my Middle Daughter about my growing understanding what scarcity does to the mind, she suddenly asked me: “Does it help?”

“What do you mean?”

“Does it help you to know about it?”

It was a good question. My answer at first was no; I’d had a bout with financial scarcity the weekend before, and even understanding concepts like “tunneling” (hyperfocus on the scarce resource) and “diminished executive control” (lack of self-discipline) I still reached a point where I wasn’t good for much more than sitting on the couch watching bad movies and eating ice cream.

However, in the midst of another “Scarcity Squall” right now, I have to revise my answer. It does help, a little. I still feel the hyperfocus, I still get the urge to binge, I still frenetically come up with “ways out of this” – but it’s more distant, like I’m observing myself doing these things. It still sucks, mind you – but yes, I have to say that knowing helps. I’m not falling into the G.I. Joe Fallacy – knowing is nowhere near half the battle – but at least I realize finally where the battle is, and what the enemy looks like.

It’s a start. I recommend the book regardless of whether you have a problem with scarcity or not; it deals with much more than money, and can give you perspective on a lot of the behaviors of your fellow humans.


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