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The Scarcity Mindset is Killing Us

December 4, 2014

 

yeats

 

Which world view dominates our collective mindset – one of scarcity or abundance?

Which world view dominates your personal mindset?

It’s an important question because this core world view is easily the mother-ship of most of the beliefs that shape our existence.

What you believe; what we believe, determines much of how we act. The world we inhabit today is the making of our collective beliefs.

When we look out there at the world what do we see?  How much do we connect what we believe to the results of our lives? What do we believe about human nature?

It strikes me that we are living in a time of perceived not enough-ness. More of everything is desired, needed, wanted. Not having is one of our greatest fears.

Ten years ago I came across the work of author and non-profit fundraiser, Lynne Twist.  Lynne’s book, The Soul of Money: Reclaiming the Wealth of our Inner Resources, is one of those books that ask some fundamental questions about the way we live in the world.

Twist’s work helps us to understand that our insidious sense of not-enough-ness is the greatest driver for more. “Even when the game’s going our way, we often feel a nagging disconnect, the gap between the way we imagine life should be and the way we are living it, under daily pressure to earn more, buy more, save more, get more, have more and be more.”

While humans have always measured their well-being by their neighbors’ – our neighbors are now the world.  We make comparisons of our worth and neediness to skewed representations presented on social media and a 24/7 news media industry financed by interests vested in stimulating continuous material consumption.

Living in the scarcity model, we often find ourselves living in the in-between.

We’re here, but we want to be there. The benchmark for our arrival there is often elusive – sometimes permanently. The scarcity assumption is built on two contradictory ideas; there’s not enough of what I want to go around and there’s more out there that I want but I don’t have it.

The emotional outcome of living in the scarcity mindset leaves us feeling frustrated, angry, anxious, jealous, resentful and exhausted.

In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey refers to this as the “scarcity mentality,” a zero-sum paradigm of life. As Covey suggests, these world views of life have been deeply scripted within us.

The voracious appetite of not-enough-ness extends far beyond material needs.  “The mantra of not enough, says Twist, carries the day and becomes a kind of default setting for our thinking about everything from the cash we have to the people we love or value of our own lives.”

Beyond money, our sense of not-enough-ness extends to everything:

·        time 

·        relationships

·        beauty

·        love

·        attention

·        rest/sleep

·        space

·        happiness

·        credentials/experience

·        power/connections

·        even the latest phenomenon FOMO – the fear of missing out

Is Scarcity a Cultural Construct?

Most scarcity assumptions are cultural constructs, as is race.

A New York University study showed that African-Americans are seen as “blacker” in a bad economy.  “The study’s findings point to a new challenge to discrimination reduction since perceptual effects appear to operate without a person’s awareness,” adds co-author Amy Krosch. People typically assume that what they see is an accurate representation of the world, so if their initial perceptions of race are actually distorted by economic factors, people may not even realize the potential for bias.”

While social constructs play a major role in shaping unconscious perceptions, real need and scarcity exists.  Too often understanding and addressing the needs of others are narrowly defined by our personal lenses on the world.  In an era of soaring income inequality, wage stagnation, climate instability, global food insecurity and a seeming escalation of world conflict, fear – the basis of all scarcity thinking – can overwhelm our cognitive resources.

We can find ourselves being manipulated by powerful external forces that trumpet messages intended to move us in one direction over another.

In their book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Harvard economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton professor of psychology Eldar Shafir introduce us to the new psychology of scarcity which shows that people living in scarcity actually experience changes in how the brain works that makes it difficult to solve the pressing problems that face humanity.  “Scarcity captures the mind. The mind orients automatically, powerfully, toward unfulfilled needs. Scarcity is more than just the displeasure of having very little. It changes how we think. It imposes itself on our minds.”

Because the primary organizing biologic imperative is survival, words and images constantly trigger our amygdala – the brain’s early warning detector and fear center.  Our unmitigated unconscious processes then measure incoming information with our beliefs.  Our threat responses are constantly filtering that information with comparisons, Can this happen to me?  Am I safe?

Since the mere perception of threat can compromise our cognitive capacities (Mullainathan and Shafir refer to this as a “bandwidth tax”) decisions and actions are constantly being generated from a mindset that’s leaning towards seeing resources as limited or pregnant with opportunities.

While we rarely attribute our choices to the external factors that shape them, systemic social and economic forces are highly potent influences on our scarcity/abundance mindsets.

The Roots of Economic Insecurity are Deep

To be sure, beliefs are formed and reinforced by the social systems in which we live.  In her erudite book, The Victorian City, Judith Flanders explains how attitudes towards London’s poorest residents changed during the explosive growth of the 1800’s. Early in that century there was “general acceptance of the poor some were good, some were bad, some lazy, some worked hard; just as with the wealthy.” The poor were viewed as unfortunate and worthy of receiving alms from the better-off.

Pressured by industrialists and developers, “Poor Laws” were introduced in the 1830’s and as a result regard for the needy plummeted. Dickens’ Oliver Twist was an outraged response to the new Poor Laws but even this empathetic author and social observer used words like “wild” and “voracious” to describe children now consigned to the new workhouses.

The question of how much is enough continues to challenge our imagination.   A 2011 study done at Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy surveyed those with a “net worth” of over $25 million asking –  how much was enough? Most gave figures, on average, 25 percent higher than their current assets.

Distorted ideas of scarcity and abundance take on new meaning in light of the realities of real need. In 2013 Oxfam International reported that the “$240 billion net income in 2012 of the richest 100 billionaires would be enough to make extreme poverty history four times over.”

But the ties that bind us to the scarcity mindset go deeper than any asset portfolio. They are rooted in our psyche where the scared places live. While the human psyche is incredibly complex, scarcity habits dictate a more simplistic black and white ideology of the world.

Scarcity Separates Us

Few would argue that feelings of abundance join us to others – taking us deeper into the world, with all of its challenges, joys and sorrows. Scarcity, however, is the great separator.  Scarcity binds us closer to smaller tribes of those we have identified as like us.

Scarcity mindsets pit us against each other and against the world. In the scarcity model, we cannot afford to restore the earth to balance because of economic interests. The contradictions of capitalism require us to believe on one hand that abundance is our birthright – that endless expansion based on cheap labor and natural resources is the inevitable, limitless progress of human nature. On the other, the message is clear, we can no longer afford to care for the earth or its citizenry – scarcity (aka austerity) is the only way to guarantee future economic prosperity.

Aligning ourselves with a model of the world based on abundance vs scarcity could make the difference between birthing a new age or battening down the hatches of an old one.

Is more for you, less for me?  That may be one of the most important questions we now face.

 

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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Related Article: We’re Up Against Our Mindsets

 

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. December 5, 2014 8:56 am

    Another excellent post and important topic Louise.

    Recently, the kids and I went to the theater and watched Interstellar starring Matthew McConaughey. It is a story based in the future where earth is being destroyed due to various issues such as over-population and destruction of precious resources, etc.

    Although this is a fictional film, it did cause me to think about over-population and whether or not we could run out of food and crops at some point in our future.

    However, I believe this is such a complex issue as a whole; one with many layers and perspectives and fluctuate dramatically between people as individuals, and where they happen to live in the world. We tend to view life through our own filters and lenses whether we like it or not, since that is based on our own lived experiences so it’s naturally challenging for any human being to be open to a reality or even conceive of some realities that may not have ever been experienced. i.e. sex abuse, or being born in a land of literal famine, etc

    From a different angle, I’m also reminded of a favorite story about the Mexican fisherman and the American business man.

    http://bemorewithless.com/the-story-of-the-mexican-fisherman/

    In America, there is often an assumption that wealthy people are naturally more abundant thinkers. And this story illustrates the fallacy of that and one I’ve found worth considering.

    We might view someone from another culture who lacks our wealth and possessions as being a people with a scarcity mindset and yet it could be just the opposite. They may, in reality, be the more abundant thinkers, because they are content with ‘enough’. In the case of this mexican fisherman, he knew and understood what ‘enough’ was for him as a man, and for his family. As long as they had enough to meet their needs, there was no need for ‘more’. Unlike the American business man who didn’t view the Mexican as being ‘enough’.

    And I’ve thought of how this translates in our culture here in America, and how this ‘not enough’ has impacted our own economy.

    Consider that it is partially due to people needing more and more and more ….more than the people who are content with LESS that have actually driven the cost of living through the roof! i.e. housing

    One person wants a 10+ bedroom mansion with multiple car garages and 1000 ft driveways and then complains they have to keep working 7 days a week just so they can afford all this ‘stuff’ and their lifestyle, while meanwhile, they look down on the person who doesn’t NEED or even WANT a 10+ bedroom house with multiple garages and a 1000 ft driveway and is considered to be LESS THAN…and yet the ‘desires’ of those less content have driven the price of housing up so much that those who are satisfied with less can’t even afford what LITTLE they were satisfied with to begin with!

    So in some ways, the scarcity mindset can exist in those who on the surface SEEM to have an abundance mindset, yet really don’t. Because they are never satisfied. Nothing is ever ‘enough’.

    Which impacts everyone else.

    Sharing and caring is a solution yet without the mindset to fuel it, the desire isn’t there. Some times we have less. Sometimes more. When we have abundance, this is when we can help our fellow humanity the most. (ideally)

    Thanks for another thought provoking post Louise!

    • December 5, 2014 12:49 pm

      HI SAMANTHA
      THANKS FOR THE FOOD FOR THOUGHT. WHAT FIRST STRUCK ME WHEN I READ LYNNE TWIST’S BOOK WAS HOW UNIVERSAL THESE THEMES WERE, YET HOW INFLUENCED THEY WERE BY THE CULTURES IN WHICH THEY WERE TAKING PLACE. THE MORE I LEARN THE MORE I SEE HOW THE ATTITUDES, DESIRES AND BEHAVIORS OF PEOPLE ARE CONSCIOUSLY MANIPULATED BY THE POWERS THAT BE IN THEIR CULTURES. THIS IS ESPECIALLY TRUE IN WESTERN CULTURES WHERE MARKET FORCES ARE CONSTANTLY BEING MANIPULATED BY INTERESTS THAT BENEFIT FROM CERTAIN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL POLICIES.
      NEEDING AND CRAVING MORE (WHETHER IT BE MONEY, LOVE OR TIME) IS BOTH AN INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL INTERPLAY OF FACTORS. TO MY MIND IT RAISES POWERFUL QUESTIONS ABOUT WHAT IS A SOCIETY? ISN’T IT A COLLECTIVE MINDSET IN ACTION?
      YOUR POINTS ABOUT THE MEXICAN FISHERMAN AND THE MARKET-DRIVEN MYTH THAT THE WEALTHY ARE MORE ABUNDANT THINKERS RAISES EVEN MORE INTERESTING QUESTIONS. AS I MENTIONED IN MY RECENT POST ON KINDNESS, SINCE THE WALL ST DRIVEN ’08 RECESSION, GIVING BY THE RICHEST HAS DECLINED, WHILE CHARITABLE GIVING BY THOSE LEAST “ABLE” IS ON THE RISE. ONE MIGHT VENTURE TO GUESS THIS HAS MORE TO DO WITH EMPATHY THAN ECONOMICS.
      iN FACT, MANY HAVE COMMENTED AT THE LACK OF OUTRAGE THE SO-CALLED 99% HAVE HAD IN LIGHT OF THE SOLID EVIDENCE OF GROWING AND UNPRECEDENTED INCOME INEQUALITY IN THE U.S. MANY OF US ARE STILL LONGING FOR THAT 10 BEDROOM HOUSE INSTEAD OF REALIZING THAT THE DIVIDES ARE NOT CAUSED SO MUCH BY LESS OR MORE ABUNDANT THINKING AS SPECIFIC POLICIES THAT RESULT IN CUTS IN WAGES, JOBS, EDUCATION AND SOCIAL PROGRAMS (THAT TRULY WERE THE THE DRIVING FORCES OF THE “AMERICAN DREAM”)
      AS WITH YOUR COMMENTS, THERE IS SO MUCH MORE TO BE EXPLORED IN THIS ISSUE.

      THANKS SO MUCH THINKING ABOUT WITH ME~
      LOUISE

  2. December 7, 2014 4:50 am

    Another rich post Louise, as usual. Also, I read this thinking you must be reading my mind again, with so much that you say here. I have been asking myself a lot, “Do I have enough?” and I have even begun using it as a kind of affirmation, if you like, when I’m out and about. When I do this, I always come up with the answer, “YES, absolutely.” Whizzing through a supermarket the other day ( and my use of big supermarkets is declining rapidly now that I’ve moved to a community where small local shops provide the things I need), I kept repeating it in my head. It is so easy in a world infused with marketing to fall into the trap of wanting more, feeling the pain of not having enough and buying crap I don’t need. I have to say that it helps…a little..to ask this question as I go up and down the aisles. Especially at this time of year with the Xmas carols pumping through their sound systems, “MORE” is hard to resist. One of the thoughts that springs to mind as I read your article is Milgram’s work, which resonates often with me. Other studies show that we will behave in ways that we would normally find repellant if we are in situations that encourage such repellant behaviour. Even though we may believe we have enough, it ‘s hard not to begin feeling abnormal or uncomfortable because we aren’t being “good enough consumers”. How many times I’ve come back from shops with things I didn’t set out to buy and actually don’t need. The awfulness that is Black Friday, a recent import from the US, provides faux shock “news stories” and we look down on the people who are clambering over each other for another flat screen telly that they don’t need. One quote I saw in response to a reporter’s question, “What are you looking to buy today?” was “I don’t know, anything really. Whatever is a good bargain: a telly, a games console, a tablet…” So the story is spun to make us look down our noses at such people but in fact, we are infected with the same capitalist/consumerist/marketing virus and we are no more inured to it that the greedy shopper on the news. We ARE that greedy shopper. “Look how much I’ve saved in Black Friday!” ….”NO, LOOK HOW MUCH YOU’VE JUST NEEDLESSLY SPENT!” Just one example of the “I don’t have enough” culture. And as you write, we don’t have enough of anything really, if the brainwashing is to be believed. However, take to the streets with others of a like mind and you are somehow an extremist, a trouble maker, anti-social. Which is more anti-social: the growing inequality you mention? or the people trying to make a point about the injustice of being turfed out of your home because your obscenely rich landlord is quadrupling your rent, as is happening in a community in East London? Dare to propose an alternative way of organising our societies, as the Post-Growth Institute does, and you are somehow advocating some kind of nutty utopia or even worse, trying to cause the breakdown of civilised society, rather than looking at how we can all live with ENOUGH in a way that it affordable. Terms like “enough” and “afford” need a re-boot, if you like, so that they come to mean something bigger. We have enough on this planet for all of us to live joyful, satisfying lives and we cannot afford to keep going the way we are. Thank you again for articulating this so beautifully, Louise.
    Warmly
    John

    • December 8, 2014 6:01 pm

      Dear John

      Delighted to receive your comments…

      I think you’ve captured the experience of so many people in your description. How humbling – we’re “aware” yet still caught in the vortex of these powerfully manipulative conditions we’re raised and live with. Too many of us have deep emotional holes to fill and the neediness screams at us in hundreds of ways. But as Lynne Twist says in her book, this goes way beyond money and material possessions. It is how the powerless feel themselves in the world – a world happy to oblige in so many warped and distorted ways.

      The more I see and understand my own false sense of powerlessness (and I declare happily – on this “front” there’s progress) the more I know it’s behind every bit of control, aggression, greed and violence I see in the world – this aching need, these holes that must be at least, temporarily plugged.

      As you say, from Milgram on, there’s plenty of science that shows that cultural (in the broadest and narrowest senses) influences can dramatically shape our behavior. This, I believe, speaks directly to our deepest desire to belong, to be seen and recognized for our unique selves. This, moving, side by side with fear as “survival” keeps being redefined.

      As we get closer to a world whose interdependency is felt more acutely (and I am fear that this will come sooner than ever imagined with the impact from climate disruption) vital choices
      will have to be made. Some of us are choosing to make them in advance as we re-imagine the “New Story.” The vision we have, for example, of the future of work is predicated on I am enough as its essential foundation. I am enough and I have enough is the platform from which power-sharing (and redefinition) will be made. I see a very different world from that place – I feel it in my personal life and I imagine it collectively.

      The resistance you refer to – the nay-sayers and defenders of the status-quo have little else to add except to fall back on old labels that lose their meaning every day. The system’s unsustainable and so are the arguments. I’m reminded of a quote from the inspiring poet and naturalist Wendell Berry, ““You can best serve civilization by being against what usually passes for it.”

      Warmly~
      Louise

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