I listened to an NPR podcast recently that explored the connection between poverty and the mental capacity for problem solving and planning for the future. On the one hand, the results of the research seem evident. After all, we all know that having money gives you the gift of not worrying about money.
On the other hand, the sheer magnitude of the effect was eye-opening. The researchers studied a particular group of sugar cane farmers in India that were “rich” for a few months after they received the annual payout for their efforts and destitute once the money inevitably ran out before the next harvest. The farmer’s impulse control and ability to plan for the long-term was measured and the results were striking. A lack of money literally makes it harder to think.
When the brain perceives scarcity, its focus narrows, much like how blood flow is shut off to the extremities in the case of an emergency situation. Decisions are made for the now, because short-term survival has to supersede any longer-term goals. The more evolved rational brain with its slower and more cautious processing is retired as the more primal and fast-acting limbic system takes center stage. As a result, actions are impulsive and although they may be advantageous in the moment, may cause the current scarcity situation to be lengthened.
A scarcity mindset and its impact on cognition are not limited to finances. When we’re short on time, we often fail to account for the moments we do have, focusing only on the lack of opportunities as the days fly by. When the cupboards are bare before the weekly grocery run, the creative impulse that could help to brainstorm options from the remaining food is dampened. And once the grocery trip is made, the emptiness of the belly may lead to poor choices in the store. The scarcity of words on the page causes writers’ minds to block. A perceived lack of available resources implicit in a short-term sale prompts the brain to jump at the first suggestion.
And after a break up, the scarcity of love and affection can result in an almost obsessive drive to find that intimacy again. Much like how those experiencing poverty may make poor decisions in regards to spending, those feeling a love deficit may make unhealthy choices when it comes to relationships. Anyone who shows attention and kindness is welcomed without regard as to the longer-term suitability and impact. It meets the needs of the moment, filling the void and postponing the sense of loneliness. Yet in the long term, those temporary fill-ins can cause more harm than good.
Since money, time, groceries, ideas, sale prices and love cannot be supplied upon demand, are we simply doomed to experience the cognitive weaknesses prompted by scarcity? In some ways, yes. We have evolved to prioritize the most important needs during times of drought. And when something is lacking, there is only so mental trickery we can do to pretend otherwise.
Yet we are not helpless in times of shortage. We can begin by recognizing what is lacking and also the extent of the impact on our initial reactions. Refrain from exaggerating the situation. Acknowledge what is needed and also be aware of what is still present. Balance the fear for what is missing with gratitude for what is not. Reflect on other times of scarcity and remember when the rains eventually came. Use external methods of providing structure and boundaries to help your reckless brain. If you are driven to make a poor choice, be kind to yourself and also strive to find a way to refrain from repeating the mistake.
Scarcity uses subterfuge to trick us into staying in a place of lack. It deceives us into making decisions that satisfy in the moment and starve us over time. Learn to recognize its pretense and be mindful before listening to its bidding.
Because nurturing new growth comes from watering what you have rather than focusing on the fear that you will never have.