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The Scarcity Trap: Why We Keep Digging When We're Stuck In A Hole

Scarcity can make it difficult for us to focus on anything other than the problem right in front of us.
Gary Waters
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Getty Images/Ikon Images

Have you ever noticed that when something important is missing in your life, your brain can only seem to focus on that missing thing?

Two researchers have dubbed this phenomenon scarcity, and they say it touches on many aspects of our lives.

"It leads you to take certain behaviors that in the short term help you to manage scarcity, but in the long term only make matters worse," says Sendhil Mullainathan, an economics professor at Harvard University.

Several years ago, he and Eldar Shafir, a psychology professor at Princeton, started researching this idea. Their theory was this: When you're really desperate for something, you can focus on it so obsessively there's no room for anything else. The time-starved spend much of their mental energy juggling time. People with little money worry constantly about making ends meet.

Scarcity takes a huge toll. It robs people of insight. And it helps to explain why, when we're in a hole, we sometimes dig ourselves even deeper.

This week on Hidden Brain, we'll explore the concept of scarcity and how it affects people across the globe — from sugar cane farmers in India to time-starved physicians in the United States.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, and Laura Kwerel. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.
Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.