• Jiwoo Jeong

The Burden of Scarcity: How Having Too Little Weighs on Your Mental Bandwidth

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Many of us who grew up with the Canadian education system may have encountered the infamous needs vs. wants categorization in schooling prior to post-secondary. I remember how my home-education teacher stressed the notion that needs are things that one cannot live without — basic necessities. For someone of high income bracket, they may list something of high value as a necessity whereas someone of low income bracket would see that as a privilege. How one perceives scarcity and abundance is the reflection of the individual’s privilege and their socio-economic status. It is possible that as one climbs up the socio-economic ladder into higher status, they may take things others consider as privileges for granted. While someone of high status may not have to worry about their financial situation, for those of the lower status, their financial scarcity is constantly looming over their head, diverting their thought to their inadequacy.

On the November 6th, 2013 edition of The Current, Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed Princeton psychology professor Eldar Shafir — co-author of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much — on how scarcity affects the mind and our lives. As the title of his book suggests, Shafir claims that scarcity imposes a heavy burden on an individual. When an individual is preoccupied with scarcity, “they spend so much of their focus on juggling their finances — there is just less mind left for other things”. This leads Shafir to define this as limited bandwidth: “limited capacity at any moment to juggle things we are aware of and thinking about”. He goes onto say that when people of low income are concerned with their finances, they score lower on the same IQ test when facing financial scarcity. To put into perspective how serious this limitation is, he says that an increase in 13 or 14 IQ points (the rough amount of change) can bring an individual from average to borderline gifted whereas a decrease can bring them to borderline deficient[1]. Thus, it is clear that when an individual is encumbered by scarcity, they drain their attention on it, being less attentive to other things.

During the onset of the interview, Shafir had defined scarcity as “a psychology that comes with feeling like you just don’t have enough of the things you feel you need”. Tremonti then followed up to that definition, questioning if it is more of a perception of what you have versus what you do not. Not surprisingly, he mentions that data suggests that “perception correlates very highly with actually not having enough in the place and time in which you live — below the norm”[2]. These feelings of inadequacy and scarcity are induced by societal pressure and how “commercials, billboards and comparisons to the people around us that we don’t have what we need to be happy, healthy and secure”[3]. Billy Maddalon supports this view by conveying that “we spend amazing amounts of time comparing our lives to unattainable versions of perfection, or holding up our current reality against our own fictional account of how great someone else has it”[4]. Therefore, it is evident that those with low income exhaust their limited bandwidth worrying about their financial scarcity whereas the rich do not feel the same financial distress if faced with the same circumstance. Shafir describes this as “luxury that comes with not having [financial] scarcity … [the] luxury of not having such strong juggling stresses”[5].

Shafir stresses that when we talk about scarcity, the time and place in which the people fancing financial scarcity live are crucial. He mentions a possible scenario wherein a person could question “what do you mean they are poor?” How we perceive poor in Canada and the States may be different from what defines poor in India — thus, introducing the idea of the subjectivity of needs vs. wants and what our definition of scarcity truly means. Cultural influences need to be taken into consideration where perceptions of scarcity and the prioritization of resources differ. Michèle Lamont, a professor of sociology and of African and African American studies has shown in her research that “people in the United States are more likely to measure value against economic criteria, while in France, civic solidarity and aesthetics are important factors”[6].

As the interview comes to an end, Shafir disproves the misconception of poverty inducing bad behaviours: bad behaviors have nothing to do with exclusively poor people. He emphasizes that “if you take somebody and put them where there’s scarcity they start acting poor, they start messing things up and forgetting and neglecting and if you take the same person and put them in circumstances more benign, they shine and do a lot better”[7]. It is not directly the income that induces bad behaviours — rather, it is the strain on one’s mentality imposed by scarcity that does.

To wrap it up, Tremonti proposes a question: “I’m wondering what the implications of your work might be on public policy?” Shafir answers this question by referring back to the concept of bandwidth and how this should be taken in the substantial consideration for policy makers. He asserts that the last thing you want to do as a policy maker is to give people struggling with financial scarcity “large complicated forms to fill … imposing on their bandwidth … just what they don’t have enough of”[8].

American Thanksgiving has just passed, giving us another reason to be thankful and grateful for the privileges that we might take for granted. Talking about scarcity truly sheds light on the value of things we consider as basic necessities. Things such as a roof over our heads, the safe drinking water and clothing are privileges that we do not give significant value to may be scarce for others.


[1] "Why Scarcity Shapes Our Lives in Profound Ways - Nov 6, 2013." CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 28 Nov. 2017. <http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2416234389>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] In the Spirit The Rev. Matt Willis-Goode. "In The Spirit: A Holiday of Abundance and Gratitude." The Daily News of Newburyport. N.p., 25 Nov. 2017. Web. 28 Nov. 2017. <http://www.newburyportnews.com/news/religion/in-the-spirit-a-holiday-of-abundance-and-gratitude/article_538fb6d5-839d-5e87-9b6d-994aa6ebe14c.html>.

[4] Maddalon - Contributing Editor, Observer Editorial Board, Billy. "What We Truly Should Be Thankful for." Charlotteobserver. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2017. <http://www.charlotteobserver.com/opinion/editorials/article186061438.html>.

[5] "Why Scarcity Shapes Our Lives in Profound Ways - Nov 6, 2013." CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 28 Nov. 2017. <http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2416234389>.

[6] Cifar_news. "Poverty, Ethics and Discrimination: How Culture Plays into Cognitive Research." EurekAlert! N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2017. <https://eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-11/cifa-pea112317.php>.

[7] "Why Scarcity Shapes Our Lives in Profound Ways - Nov 6, 2013." CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 6 Nov. 2013. Web. 28 Nov. 2017. <http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2416234389>.

[8] Ibid.

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