Scarcity — The “Psychological Phenomenon” that Can Kill Your Long-Term Goals

Ian Philpot
Mar 23, 2017 · 3 min read

This morning, I heard a story on the radio from Shankar Vedantam (known for the Hidden Brain podcast) about a study that an Economics professor at Harvard and a Psychology professor at Princeton were working on that focused on the idea of scarcity.

Scarcity, as it pertains here, is a “psychological phenomenon” that occurs when someone is lacking something that is seen as so important that it causes them to focus so much on acquiring something in the short-term that it can leave them worse off in the long-term.

Here’s an explanation from Shankar:

When you really want something, you start to focus on it obsessively. When you are hungry, it’s hard to think of anything other than food. When you are desperately poor, you constantly worry about making ends meet. Scarcity produces a kind of tunnel vision. And it explains why, when we’re in a hole, we often lose sight of long-term priorities and often dig ourselves even deeper.

As the study goes on, it explains that scarcity can so strongly envelop the brain’s ability to focus that it can change cognitive capacity and even lower IQ rates.

This is scary. But it makes sense.

Thousands of years ago, it made sense for a human in need of something important to focus on just that one thing (like shoes, clothes, a lifestyle, etc.). It’s easy to assume that the focus would have been on food, but it’s also possible for the scarcity to be a missing family member or reproductive partner. It was easier for them to make short-term decisions, because the long-term repercussions were usually very narrow in scope. The scarcity in those scenarios was key to the survival of our ancestors.

But in today’s world, scarcity goes far beyond food, family, or sex.

Today, scarcity can be loneliness, the want for the latest Apple product, or even coveting what someone else has. And those are all things our brains will pursue obsessively out of instinct.

But we are not those early humans. Scarcity isn’t always a matter of life and death.

So how can we get around scarcity?

Connectedness. When we have others in our lives, they can help us to stay focused on what’s important when we lose sight of it. My wife and I have a good scarcity-balance — when one of us is operating out of scarcity, the other will point it out and make reassurances about long-term goals.

Mindfulness. By being aware of our current state of mind, we can catch ourselves when our brain acts out of scarcity. Meditation can help you keep a good perspective. So can volunteering.

Contentedness. Though we can’t control all circumstances where scarcity might occur, we can choose to be content with what we have to reassure our minds that we don’t want for anything.

Reminders. If you can set up some sort of reminder in your life to alert you of scarcity-creep, then you can overcome it. It could be a picture pinned to your car’s visor or a PostIt note stuck to your bathroom mirror. My boss writes his long-term goals into the front of every notebook he uses, so, whenever he looks at notes, he can see his long-term goals there on the first page.

Ian Philpot

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Ian Philpot is a digital marketer and a writer.