Scarcity captures the mind.
The experience of living with scarcity doesn’t just affect the decisions we make, it actually alters the way we think in time frames much, much faster than it takes for conscious thought. Scarcity isn’t something we can overcome with willpower; scarcity captures the mind.
Scarcity consumes bandwidth in the brain, reprogramming it with a kind of tunnel vision on what is scarce in our life. While that ultrafocus has benefits in the very short term, over the middle and the long term it has very high costs to the individual who is living with scarcity.
That’s the argument made by Sendhil Mullainatham and Eldar Shafir in their book Scarcity; Why Having Too Little Means So Much. Using experiments in the social sciences, they reveal how scarcity captures the brain, changing the unconscious actions we make in every moment.
For me, this work is as revelatory as William Dragoin’s work on gynemimetic shamans in clarifying why I am the way I am. While I have other and profound areas of scarcity in my life, the experience of scarcity is common to all stigmatized and marginalized people, which very much includes people with a transgender nature.
Scarcity explains why I have always been very good at what I am very good at and have been very bad at what I am very bad at. The findings in Mullainatham & Shafir’s book throw a huge spotlight onto all my actions in the world.
I have been blessed with a big mind and that mind was captured by scarcity from the first moments it came into conscious awareness.
To her dying day, my mother believed in scarcity in the world and the Aspergers which drove her into narcissism and despair made her attention and affection very scarce for her children from the beginning.
As I began to understand my trans desires, which happened before the age of five for me as it does for so many, I quickly learned that affirmation for the call of my heart would be incredibly scarce. Instead of being supported, my actions were stigmatized, causing negative and painful responses from those around me.
I knew clearly, from a very early age, that I was called to denial of my own heart, because support of trans nature was less than scarce, it was deliberately and systematically purged in the culture. The scraps I got had to support me through long, lonely and very difficult times.
Scarcity reveals why all of the apparently smart rules about making better choices to help us be more effective in the world are not effective. The effects scarcity capturing the mind happens far before we get to making conscious choices.
It doesn’t matter much what is scarce; money, time, food, the available calories in today’s diet plan, attention, affection, etc. The mind responds to scarcity in the same way.
The participants in a WWII study that required volunteers to be denied food to almost the point of malnutrition, for example, started collecting recipes and dreaming about opening restaurants.
None of these kind of choices made any rational sense in helping them cope with their ferocious hunger and they probably knew that, but living with severe scarcity of food captured their minds before conscious thought and involuntarily made food almost the only thing their brain could focus on.
For me, the effects of how scarcity captures the mind are written into my history and even my biology, as scarcity based tunnelling left me neglecting my health. I have written about scarcity before, but always about how it affected my understanding of the world and my conscious choices, not about how scarcity captured my mind, changing the way I experienced in the world before I was even aware of it.
Co-workers have said that if they went to war, they would want me next to them. I scan for possibilities, integrate the information and act on it very, very quickly, always searching for what is possible.
When the right buttons on both of my sister’s mice failed recently, I searched hard for software faults, then came up with a workaround that involved switching the mouse buttons and using the context menu key on the keyboard. I suspect that most people would just have done what I did next, go to BigLot and spend $6 on another mouse.
My sister does the same. Her phone was on the hood as she drove away. Her boss thought that was a good opportunity to buy an iPhone, but when my sister picked it up she brushed off the tiny splinters and kept using the cracked glass as she had with another phone. We replaced it with another used android at less than the cost of replacing the faceplate.
We grew up with scarcity, which keeps us committed, focused and trying to make the best.
Where we fail, though, is having a sense of hope, that life can be better, that there is a way out of scarcity. Scarcity has captured my mind so much that I don’t trust abundance, fear welcoming even the thought of it into my life. I am too prepared for the third gotcha and for the stinky silence when I make what I think is a good joke to feel safe with any bigger dream.
Scarcity has captured my life. All of it. It has made me focused and sharp, effective at making the most of what is in front of me, and it has eaten up my bandwidth and left me with tunnel vision, unable to make choices that could have maximized my work, my relationships and my life.
And scarcity did that without me ever having a conscious choice about it before it just up and captured my mind.