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Feeling Deprived Can Lead to Some Illogical Behavior

Five ways to overcome a misguided mindset.

When we experience emotional deprivation in childhood, this feeling of not being important or lovable enough can persist into adulthood as a “deprivation mindset.” We may never feel as if we have enough of the things we need. This sense of insecurity can harm our close relationships. We may expect our loved ones to let us down, never express our needs directly, or choose romantic partners who are avoidant of intimacy.

Making Ourselves Scarce

Feeling deprived of important resources—love, food, money, time—can lead to anxiety or anger. We may obsess about the thing we've been deprived of. Or we may begin to feel that we need to operate in emergency mode—penny-pinching or scheduling every second of our days. New theories and research about the psychology of scarcity provide some insights into how perceiving scarcity negatively impacts our brains and behavior.

The topic of scarcity fascinates me because I never feel as if I have time. Perhaps, one therapist friend suggested, it's because I was born premature—like Macduff, described in Macbeth as "from his mother's womb untimely ripped." More likely it’s because I’m a busy working mom trying to run a therapy practice and write a book proposal. When I wake up, I never feel as if I have had enough sleep, and I have to pull myself away from all the interesting things I want to do to get to bed at night. I am bad at time management and have to rely on good traffic flow to arrive anywhere on time. (This is not a good strategy in Marin County, with its fleets of slow drivers.)

And I don’t know where the years went: I still feel 25 inside, despite the apparent sagging and wrinkling. I double-schedule appointments and then have to waste time changing them, and I am notorious for paying my credit cards a day late and then wasting time calling to ask the banks to drop the late fee.

I’m not the only Ph.D. who is incompetent at managing time. I was delighted to read that Harvard economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan, author of Scarcity and winner of a MacArthur "genius" grant, had the same issues: Not only did he double-book his time and overcommit, he also regularly allowed his car registration to expire, then had to waste time avoiding traffic cops. But rather than just being sheepish about it, like me, he turned the experience into a new theory of scarcity, which he developed with Eldar Shafir of Princeton. It turns out, they discovered, that people living in poverty make similarly poor decisions about money but that this is not their fault—it's a result of how our brains naturally react to scarcity.

How Scarcity Affects Our Thinking

A scarcity mindset narrows our time frame, causing us to make impulsive, short-term decisions that increase our difficulties in the long-term, like putting off paying credit card bills or not opening bills, hoping they will magically disappear. Poor farmers in India actually perform better on cognitive tests at the end of the harvest season, when they are flush, than at the beginning, when they are running low on money. The effect? The equivalent of a 13-point drop in IQ.

Dealing with extremely limited resources increases the problems and barriers we have to deal with, resulting in mental fatigue and cognitive overload. Other studies show that being lonely, or deprived of food, results in an unhealthy obsession, hyperfocus, and overvaluing of the thing we don't have. Ironically, the nature of scarcity itself impedes our coping efforts.

Stress and anxiety associated with scarcity interfere with motivation, causing us to be more vulnerable to temptation. Do you notice how people buy stuff they don’t need at after-holiday sales when they’ve already spent most of their money? Perceiving scarcity, we’re unable to resist the time-limited super-bargain. Similarly, crash diets make us more likely to binge eat—not to mention the physiological effects of hunger on thinking and performance. Lonely people see themselves and others more negatively and may counterproductively avoid joining group gatherings and activities for fear of rejection.

What To Do

How do we overcome this scarcity mindset without going too far and becoming complacent? The following suggestions may help:

  1. Practice gratitude. Deliberately focus your mind on what is good about your life, including the people who support you, the sense of community in your neighborhood, your achievements, or your fitness and healthy lifestyle. This can stop you from magnifying the importance of any one scarce resource like time or money.
  2. Don’t compare yourself with others. You will always be exposed to people who have more time, money, or possessions, and may experience envy. But in reality, you don’t know what it’s like to walk in that person’s shoes. As the saying goes, “Don’t compare your inside to everybody else’s outside.” Your struggles may have created inner strengths you don’t fully appreciate.
  3. Stop obsessing. It's easy to get caught up in mental scripts about all the wrong decisions you made or worries about “what if.” Breaking these cycles requires a lot of effort and preparation. Make a plan for what you will do if you catch yourself ruminating. Getting up and getting active can activate the left side of your brain, which breaks the depressive emotional focus. So, take a walk, call a friend, tidy your closet, or read a book.
  4. Take preemptive measures. Make a list when you go to the supermarket, or program automatic appointment reminders and deposits into savings accounts. Don't take your credit card to the mall—take a frugal friend instead. Put the cookies on the top shelf or give them away before starting your healthy living plan.
  5. Don’t be greedy. When resources are scarce, people get competitive because they think that more for somebody else means less for you. In fact, when you help somebody else grow their business, they may be more likely to refer extra business to you. Being helpful to others can lead to deeper friendships, gaining respect and reputation, creative bartering, or new allies.

I am a clinical psychologist and an expert on mindfulness, managing anxiety, depression, and more; visit my website or follow me on Twitter @drmelanieg.


SCARCITY: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. Copyright © 2013 by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir.

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