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Are You Trapped in the Tunnel of Scarcity?

By Shlomo Maital

   Are you trapped in the tunnel of scarcity?   If you are, you may not be aware of it.

   In his wonderful National Public Radio podcast “Hidden Brain”, Shankar Vedantam discusses the “tunnel of scarcity” – a situation in which we invest so much mental energy in one thing, there is too little left for other essential things (family, rest, relaxation).

   Princeton University Professor Eldar Shafir and colleagues showed in 2013 and 2014 (in Science journal) how being poor affects negatively our cognitive functioning. [1]   If you are poor, you focus on your immediate needs, with little thought or energy left to plan for the long run. Ability to defer gratification, to acquire human and financial capital, is thus impaired. They find:

   A person’s cognitive function is diminished by the constant and all-consuming effort of coping   with the immediate effects of having little money, such as scrounging to pay bills and cut costs. Thusly, a person is left with fewer “mental resources” to focus on complicated, indirectly related matters such as education, job training and even managing their time.

   Vedantam expands on this phenomenon, and describes the “tunnel of scarcity”. If there is something that you feel you need very badly, your brain focuses on it exclusively, and crowds out other things that may be important. He interviews a former medical resident, who focused obsessively on excelling in her residency, and burned out.

   I co-host a course on Entrepreneurship at my university. I invited a former very senior Intel executive to share his life lessons, in a life filled with innovation. He began his “10 Lessons” with Lesson #1 – Family, and described the heavy toll that high-tech can take. He cautioned students to be aware of it, lest it consume their family life.  

   In evolution, 25,000 years ago, humans who entered the tunnel of scarcity and focused single-mindedly on immediate needs – food, water, shelter – tended to survive, and reproduce, more than those lacking it. So evolution has equipped our brains with “tunnel of scarcity” capability.

   But in modern life, unless we are keenly aware and mindful of it, and if our friends and family fail to alert us to it, we can all of us fall victim to entering a tunnel of obsessive focus – and destroy without intention things of value. And when we awake to the situation, it may be too late. A brain trapped inside the tunnel may struggle to escape.

     Are you in such a tunnel? Is there sufficient light at the end of it, to guide you out of it?

. . . .

p.s. In 1972/3, 45 years ago, my wife Sharone, a psychologist, and I submitted an article to the American Economic Review. In it we argued that because the poor are not proficient at deferring gratification, to build future income, poverty tends to be transmitted from generation to generation. The editor of the journal rejected our submission out of hand, quipping glibly that “in fact the poor are expert at deferred gratification – they do it every day”. Eventually we did publish the article. But it has taken decades for psychology to invade, and perhaps even capture, mainstream economics.

   Sharone Maital and Shlomo Maital, “Time preference, delay of gratification and the intergenerational transmission of economic inequality”. In Orley Ashenfelter and Wallace Oates, editors, Essays in Labor Market Analysis, (Halsted Press/John Wiley & Sons, New York: 1978, 179-199).

 

[1] “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function” Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir, Jiaying Zhao. 30 Science   AUGUST 2013.

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Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
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