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How Scarcity Impacts our Brain, Relationships, & Mental Health

Needs that are ignored or unable to be met due to lack of resources do not go away – instead, they often become all-consuming until there is no space for us to focus on tasks, plan, organize, parent, or take good care of ourselves.

Scarcity and the brain.

What Is Scarcity?

While capable of many things, the brain has a capacity, especially when it’s lacking what it needs to function. 

Scarcity refers to halving little or no essential resources. When humans don’t get basic needs met (sleep, calories, connection with other humans, etc) our brains move into what researchers call a “scarcity mindset.” A brain in scarcity mode can’t think clearly because it’s hyper focused on finding those lacking resources.

Scarcity mindset is like cognitive tunnel vision.

The Impact of Scarcity

Consider these two scenarios: 

1) You are working from home with children around. A TV is on, there is general noise from the children playing, and possibly small hands reaching for you. 

2) You are working in a quiet office, where the loudest noise is the hum of electricity. 

Which scenario do you think would allow for the most successful cognitive functioning?

It is no question that a quiet, calm environment – versus a chaotic and constantly changing environment  – would allow the brain to function more easily. This goes for more than just working from home versus an office. Research shows that anything keeping our brains from getting their basic needs met can create a scarcity mindset: dieting, loneliness, poverty, etc. 

When scarcity is experienced, short-term solutions are the focus: whatever can meet that basic needs in the moment. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs aids in deeper understanding here: basic needs will always come first, which push us – in moments of scarcity – into primal functioning. However, short-term behaviors do not help reach long-term goals, and so when we’re motivated by scarcity, we often fail (sometimes epicly) to be mindful of our long term goals. 

The one way to combat this? Researchers suggest creating slack in your life. Slack looks like moments of pause – whether life allows a full day (or week) of time, or just a minute here and there  each day. Having time to shift focus to a neutral space allows the brain the ability to rest and recalibrate. 

TL;DR

Whether self-imposed (like dieting or working your way into vocational burnout) or external (like housing instability, job loss, or not getting core emotional needs met), scarcity changes how we think and make decisions. Interestingly, researchers note that brains in scarcity-mode often make need-based decisions that backfire because these brains are not able to value long term outcomes over immediate relief.

To learn more about scarcity and the brain, check out NPR’s  @hiddenbrain podcast.

 Other resources to learn more: Research study on scarcity; NPR article; Harvard article #1; Harvard article #2; APA article on scarcity;

Image description for screen readers:
The doodle is of two hand drawn brains. 

The brain on the left is titled, “Brain with needs sufficiently met.” The brain has squares, circles, and rectangles neatly arranged within it. There is an arrow from text written below, pointing back up to the brain. The text reads, “Able to balance and shift focus from needs, tasks, goals, creativity, empathy, etc.”

The brain on the right is titled, “Brain experiencing scarcity in response to an unmet need.” The brain has a comic-style action bubble in the middle of it that says, “NEED.” There are squares, circles, and rectangles shooting out of the brain. There is an arrow from text written below, pointing back up to the brain. The text reads, “Task, goals, etc. cannot be focused on. Need is central and consuming.”

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