ScarcityWhen I’m running close to a bunch of deadlines I trip over chair legs and run into cupboards. I miss appointments and credit card payments. I don’t hear people. It’s like I’ve suddenly become stupid.

I’ve been mentally captured by the condition of scarcity. In my case, it’s scarcity of time. The same principle applies to other kinds of scarcity: scarcity of money, scarcity of food, scarcity of health, scarcity of safety.

In their book Scarcity, The True Cost of Not Having Enough, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, eloquently set out a psychology of scarcity. It’s got a host of implications for anyone designing change efforts.

Their argument is simple:

“Scarcity captures our attention, and this provides a narrow benefit: we do a better job of managing pressing needs. But more broadly, it costs us: we neglect other concerns, and we become less effective in the rest of life.”

Scarcity and urgency do have positive effects: they “yield a focus dividend. In a box of expensive chocolates, we savor (and hoard) the last ones. We run around on the last days of a vacation to see every sight. We write more carefully, and to our surprise often better, when we have a tight word limit.”

Scarcity also has strong negative effects: “The power of focus is also the power to shut things out. Instead of saying that scarcity “focuses,” we could just as easily say that scarcity causes us to tunnel: to focus single-mindedly on managing the scarcity at hand.”

They offer two important ideas: BANDWIDTH and TUNNELING.

Our mental BANDWIDTH is reduced by scarcity: we have less willpower, less attention and less active intelligence. “One study revealed that simply raising monetary concerns for the poor erodes cognitive performance even more than being seriously sleep deprived: 13-14 IQ points!”

And we tend to focus exclusively on what’s IN THE TUNNEL of our immediate needs. Things outside the tunnel become harder to see clearly, easier to undervalue, and more likely to get left out.

“Because we are preoccupied by scarcity, because our minds constantly return to it, we have less mind to give to the rest of life. …we find that scarcity…makes us less insightful, less forward-thinking, less controlled. And the effects are large. It is not that the poor have less bandwidth as individuals. Rather, it is that the experience of poverty reduces anyone’s bandwidth. When we think of the poor, we naturally think of a shortage of money. When we think of the busy, or the lonely, we think of a shortage of time, or of friends. But our results suggest that scarcity of all varieties also leads to a shortage of bandwidth.

One idea they propose is a radical reconceptualization of poverty: “We understand that rent and food and school fees all form part of a household’s budget. Now, rather than looking at education, health, finance, and child care as separate problems, we must recognize that they all form part of a person’s bandwidth capacity. And just as a financial tax can wreak havoc in one’s budget, so can a bandwidth tax create failure in any of several domains to which a person must attend. Conversely, fixing some of those bottlenecks can have far-reaching consequences. Child care provides more than just child care, and the right financial product does much more than just create savings for a rainy day. Each of these can liberate bandwidth, boost IQ, firm up self- control, enhance clarity of thinking, and even improve sleep. Far-fetched? The data suggest not.”

They compare the highly prescriptive nature of modern welfare systems (like Centrelink) to “going to a juggler who is in need of help and tossing one more ball in the air for him to juggle.” Instead, welfare programs should be highly fault tolerant to fit the narrow, disrupted attentions of those under financial stress. “Strict deadlines and rules set stressed people up for failure. The low tolerance for mistakes practically guarantees missed appointments, missed classes…”. Instead of blaming welfare recipients, they suggest redesigning the system to match people’s bandwidth.

“The deeper lesson is the need to focus on managing and cultivating bandwidth, despite pressures to the contrary brought on by scarcity. Increasing work hours, working people harder, forgoing vacations, and so on are all tunneling responses, like borrowing at high interest. They ignore the long-term consequences. Psychiatrists report an increasing number of patients who show symptoms of acute stress “stretched to their limits and beyond with no margin, no room in their lives for rest, relaxation, and reflection.” There is nothing magical about working forty or fifty or sixty hours a week. But there is something important about letting your mind out for a jog – to maximize effective bandwidth rather than hours worked.”

For designers of change programs there is a big lesson: if scarcity is a 360 degree drain on people’s ability to make changes in their lives then tackling their sense of scarcity may be a critical preliminary to the successful spread of new behaviours.

Here are some insights for change makers:

– it’s possible to use scarcity or urgency to activate people. Programs with “limited numbers” or early closing dates grab people’s attention and willpower;

– try to target people’s self-perceived urgent problems, that way we are “in the tunnel” of their attention spans and motivation;

– buffers of free un-assigned time, or un-tied money and resources, produce tremendous pay-offs in bandwidth by liberating people’s attention, intelligence and motivation;

– the rush of daily life may make it practically impossible for people to think or plan, so aim to create special events and locations where people are free from distraction;

– make things super-simple to understand and do (the authors point to a study that randomly assigned participants to diets that differed in their rule complexity and concluded, “Perceived rule complexity was the strongest factor associated with increased risk of quitting the cognitively demanding weight management program.”);

– recognise that most people will never have the bandwidth to make low priority changes in their lives. Small business people are a classic example of this problem. They need someone to do it for them! So create a service;

– and for our own creativity, recognise that productivity, accountability and deadlines are corrosive forces. To be imaginative and innovative in our work, make times and places that are free from their malign influence.

More… here’s The Guardian review of the book.