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The Best Ways to Reverse Scarcity Mindset, According to Researchers Who Study It
Scarcity fears, whether endemic or temporary, have a very real effect on our well-being
Worry about resources — most often, money and time — can weaken self-control and compromise decision-making, scientists agree. This “scarcity mindset” consumes precious attention, making it difficult to attend to anything but the thing we feel we lack. Often it’s triggered by external circumstances, like a legitimate fear of losing your job or not making rent. Or it can come from predicaments you have manufactured yourself, by taking on too much, or failing to plan wisely.
Anyone who has ever left for work midway through a fight with their partner, or spent the day worrying about a sick child, knows that even relatively small distractions can quickly drain your focus, says behavioral scientist Eldar Shafir, co-author of Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives. “The brain has a very limited cognitive capacity,” he says. “If you ask a person to walk around remembering seven digits, their brain is basically full.”
This limited capacity means that scarcity fears, whether endemic or temporary, have a very real effect on our well-being. In 2013, Shafir and the economist Sendhil Mullainathan found that when low-income respondents were asked to think about a hypothetical $1,500 car repair, it temporarily lowered their performance on an IQ test by 13 points, the same level of impairment as pulling an all-nighter.
They found similarly deleterious effects on cognition when people are strapped for time or on a diet, and other scientists have found that loneliness can induce a scarcity mindset. Being narrowly focused on what we don’t have erodes our capacity to make choices that serve us long-term. This often leads to a nasty cycle: Caught in the grip of scarcity, we end up committing time we can’t spare and spending money we don’t have.
Luckily, researchers who study the cognitive downsides of a scarcity mindset have devised strategies to guard against it.
And, although closely entwined, scarcity and stress are not the same, Shafir warns. Stress can actually make us more efficient and productive, under the right circumstances. Many people work most efficiently to meet a deadline, for example, and research has shown that the second half of a meeting is the most productive, once time is running out.
A scarcity mindset, in contrast, rarely enhances our performance. Preoccupation with scarcity often prevents us from seeing our way out of a predicament, a phenomenon called “tunneling.” This can make us neglect other important priorities, from our health to our social lives, and can also lead to “a down-on-yourself attitude that erodes your motivation,” says Christopher Cannon, a marketing researcher at Northwestern University who studies the effects of scarcity on consumer behavior. Internalizing those negative feelings is a fast track to failure — because it prods you toward unhelpful self-soothing behaviors such as impulse shopping, which may only sink you further into debt, he adds.
Researchers who study the cognitive downsides of a scarcity mindset have devised some strategies to guard against it. Cannon suggests first confirming that your feeling of scarcity is worth your attentional real estate — that it has to do with something you truly value, and not, say, jealousy. If you’re doing fine financially but still compare yourself to a wealthier friend, for example, “recognize where the feeling is coming from, and let it wash away.”
But if the uncomfortable feeling of lack is rooted in something deeper, recognizing it can spur important life changes. But, you’ll need a plan.
First, don’t panic
Addressing real-life scarcity is rarely a quick fix, so your first task is to avoid digging a deeper hole. If a surprise expense buries you in credit card debt, for example, it can be easy to spin your wheels panicking, which only burns through the mental resources you need to solve the problem, and can lead to bad decision-making, Shafir says. Being distracted by financial scarcity makes us more vulnerable to predatory lending practices, for example, so it’s a good idea to first seek help from a financial counselor or someone you trust to help you see the big picture.
Then, Cannon advises, break the plan into manageable increments. “The trick is to recognize that resolving scarcity will take a lot of time,” he says.
Reduce your mental load
To reduce the drain of scarcity mindset, make sure each of those steps requires as little thought as possible, Shafir says: “You can’t increase your cognitive capacity, but you can cut out things that are taking up mental space.” Setting up automatic payments and reminders is a good start.
In challenging moments, Shafir recommends leaning on routine in areas of your life that might typically require vigilance, just as we create morning routines to get us through the necessary tasks of preparing for our day.
And look at where you are spending your time and energy when you’re not worrying about the problem. Cutting down on other activities you feel obliged to anxiously monitor (social media, for example) can go a long way towards restoring mental bandwidth, by reducing the number of tasks your brain has to juggle.
Don’t provoke a scarcity mindset
Avoid activities that trigger a feeling of scarcity. If trawling Instagram photos of stunning vacations, toned bodies, or delicious home-cooked meals provokes feelings of inadequacy, stay away from the platform, or curate your feed with more relatable accounts.
Counting calories on a diet is a classic example of a task that takes up mental bandwidth and can induce a counterproductive, scarcity-driven mindset. It not only requires constant vigilance but sets you up for disappointment, because “every day is a new opportunity to fail,” Cannon says.
If you’re working on eating better, a less mentally taxing alternative might be to prepare healthy meals for the week in advance, suggest Mullainathan and Shafir.
Keep it in perspective
For intangible resources like social status, time, or friendship, it’s important to remember that our perception of scarcity is subjective and ever-changing, says Cannon. It depends partly on mood: One morning you may wake up feeling confident, and then a curve ball at work throws your plans, and time-management, into disarray. Similarly, a tight deadline can sometimes inspire leaps of productivity or creativity.
That’s why it’s so important to check whether or not your feeling of scarcity is based in reality. Those temporary deadline-bestowed superpowers can come at the cost of creating a sustainable and sane life. As stress over lack of time adds up, performance suffers. We make mistakes and take shortcuts.
And the effects can ripple out beyond work: We neglect a necessary car repair, skip a routine medical checkup. We drop out of the activities we love and lose touch with friends.
To interrupt the cycle, Shaffir suggests an experiment: Insert one or two 30-minute chunks of free time into your daily schedule, the same way you might set aside cash for emergencies. They’re a great way to create a buffer in case your day goes off-schedule, and a helpful reminder that time is a societal construct.
And if you find yourself skipping yet another family dinner or workout, and wondering where things went wrong, Cannon says, “Ask, does this really matter to me? If it does, then make a plan.”