Scarcity and Lack

In my last blog post, I discussed the topic of Choice after listening to an episode of The Hidden Brain podcast titled The Choices Before Us. I have been inspired to write by another post, this time on the topic of scarcity, from an earlier episode called Too Little, Too Much. The episode leans heavily on the scholarship of Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, who in 2013, published a book on the subject. Their main thesis, published in the premier journal Science, was that poverty impedes cognitive function. ‘Poverty’ is most often defined materially (i.e., as a lack of physical or financial resources) but may also be extended to a perceived lack of any obtainable resource, be it time, energy, social support, health, self-determination etc. This more general notion is referred to as scarcity.

Drs. Mullainathan and Shafir argue that conditions of scarcity produce effects–that is, these conditions change the way we think and behave. They specifically note that we tend to respond to conditions of scarcity by going into a cognitive tunnel whereby short-term goals (i.e., immediate needs and wants) become far more salient than longer-term goals (i.e., investments for the future). This may lead some people to disproportionately spend what little they do have on relieving short-term desires instead of investing and planning for future needs. The authors also cite the term bandwidth to refer to the neurocognitive processes (i.e., fluid intelligence, executive control) that we need to plan ahead, problem-solve and apply knowledge from one context to another. With the narrowing of this ‘mental bandwidth’, we progressively fall prey to our faulty mental processes and may suffer further consequences that may viciously lead to even more scarcity. Interestingly, this deficit-pattern of cognitive changes bears similarities to neurocognitive functions in people with depression (which may itself result from resource scarcity), although some anecdotal evidence (Terry Levitt, personal communication) suggests that the self-reported deficit may be greater than what is actual or observed.However, the authors also note that under milder and temporary conditions of scarcity e.g., a time deadline, our ability to think short-term and ‘tunnel’ in on that goal will actually lead to better outcomes.

It is worth considering the adaptive value of having a ‘scarcity response-set’ of motivations, behaviors and patterns of thinking. Individuals who respond adaptively to scarcity might be said to be focused (i.e., tunnel-visioned), efficient (making do with less) and decisive (redistributing available resources). But if taken to extreme degrees, these states–like any others–can insidiously become maladaptive. Extreme focus can result in rigid thinking and compulsive behaviors (e.g., buying 5 value-packs of toilet paper during a public health crisis). Efficiency can reverse into penuriousness, withdrawing from the world and others to conserve one’s energy and resources. Extreme decisiveness (i.e., without concomitant caution, critical thinking) can flip into impulsivity. From the polarities may emerge a spectrum of psychopathology: depression, anxious-obsessive behaviors, addictive/externalizing behavior. Of course, states are multifactorial (i.e., determined by multiple factors) and may vary not only by scarcity but also by personality, stressors, availability of supports, coping mechanisms etc. However, as a concept that can be adapted for education and research, I offer the following model (Figure 1.) which I call the Tunnel of Lack. This tunnel illustrates the relationship between scarcity and functioning. As one goes further down the tunnel into severe forms of scarcity, previously adaptive functioning can resemble psychopathological ways of coping.

Figure 1. Tunnel of Lack

To better discern the adaptive and maladaptive contexts of scarcity, I propose that we differentiate between scarcity that is short-term, situational and self-determined and scarcity that is more long-term, global and other-determined. We may retain the term scarcity for the former category, which may may refer to such problems as a scarcity of time, solitude, and sleep. These scarcities can often be remedied through using psychological interventions such as time management, relaxation training, sleep hygiene strategies. The latter is much more problematic to treat and can be denoted as true lack. Lack, in this sense, can be defined as problems that have multiple determinants that are more structural in nature; examples may include a lack of financial resources, housing, security, personal supports. It is difficult, after all, to educate or therapize an individual to become less poor, homeless, unsafe or lonely.

Although the book contends that scarcity and lack have similar (and reversible) neurocognitive impacts, they also present evidence that mistakes made in conditions of lack are more consequential–i.e., damaging and difficult to recover from–than mistakes made in conditions of simple scarcity. To better understand the systemic challenges faced by those in conditions of true lack, we may turn to anti-poverty education, which offers a visual metaphor of two escalators, one for the middle/upper class and another for those in economic poverty. Imagine those in the first elevator getting an easy ride to the top. Without doing much of anything, they can invest their wealth and compound interest and equity. Even a little bit of initiative is often highly rewarded. Now imagine being on the other escalator, the Escalator of Poverty, which is actually moving in the opposite direction, towards further scarcity and into the tunnel of lack. Even if one is striving to inch forward, one can still slide further and further downwards into despair. Bad decisions and miscalculations are severely punished here, whereas on the first escalator, there are ample opportunities to recover ground and perhaps catch up with one’s peers. For certain forms of lack, particularly concerning economic and social capital, one may be fighting not only against the effects of entering the Tunnel of Lack but also the Escalator of Poverty.

There exist 3 classes of interventions to address this particularly nefarious combination of circumstances, ranging from individual interventions to structural/policy redevelopment.

  1. Individual-type interventions: Ranging from education, counseling, evaluation and even incarceration, these interventions are often corrective and designed to alter individual behaviors and responses to their environmental circumstances. In essence, these interventions aim to increase adaptive responses to scarcity and decrease maladaptive responses. Drs. Mullainathan and Shafir refer to this strategy as increasing an individual’s ‘bandwidth’. As earlier mentioned, these interventions may have most traction when the scarcity is relatively short-term, situational and self-determined. Metaphorically, the aim is to help people climb faster up the escalator of poverty.
  2. Context-type interventions: Drs. Mullainathan and Shafir refer to this set of interventions as “scarcity-proofing” or making the environment more “fault-tolerant“. This involves designing social policies and programs to account or budget for faulty decision-making that is predicted when individuals enter the Tunnel of Lack. Examples may include simplifying application forms or switching participants from opt-in to opt-out defaults on renewal applications to social programs. These interventions largely draw from work developed by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein on nudge theory. The idea is to essentially free up available bandwidth by making the environment less taxing. Metaphorically, it would be akin to slowing down the downward speed of the escalator.
  3. Equity-based interventions: The most radical and far-reaching of the interventions. Equity practices aim to address the systemic reasons for why particular groups of individuals are most susceptible to certain forms of lack. My own research explores such practices in the context of health discrepancies between African Americans and White Americans. Here, lack can be defined in terms of health and also access to environmental amenities (i.e., nature, self-determined spaces). By addressing the systems that create such lack, we often go beyond the site of apparent lack (e.g., health) and explore the types of reformations that health-adjacent institutions (e.g., criminal justice, education, media, urban planning, local government) may need to consider to truly offer all individuals a fair opportunity towards healthy outcomes. The metaphorical shift here would be to simultaneously lower the privileged escalator and raise the escalator of poverty so both are on an equal trajectory and moving at the same speed in the same direction.

In summary, scarcity is a condition that may precipitate certain cognitive, behavioral and even personality changes. Some of these changes may be adaptive, especially if the scarcity short-term, situational and self-determined. But in situations were the lack is longer-term, global and other-determined, the effects may be more pernicious and damaging. Various strategies may be wielded towards combating forms of lack and sensitivity should be not only on remedying the changes accompanying scarcity but the conditions that result in scarcity itself.

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