Scarcity, A Good Motivator? Or, A Detriment To Our Mental Faculty?

“I work better under pressure.”  Such a sentiment resonates with many of us.  Scarcity of time, more commonly known as “deadline,” forces us to focus.  However, did you know that scarcity of money takes away a few IQ points?  This is according to Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Schafir.  You can find an excerpt from their latest book, Scarcity Changes How We Think” on  I don’t know of what I am in such profound shortage as to change my own thinking, but this title certainly made me pause and ponder.

Unfulfilled needs influence how we think and behave.  When I go beyond just hungry and actually feel the pangs, I am no longer picky about the first food source in sight.  I’ll take a fast food meal, or a bag of potato chips, at that point.  When someone feels lonely for a prolonged period, he is likely to undertake some activities he might not otherwise do, or recommend to others.  But when people feel financial scarcity, according to the authors, people’s mental faculties are slower in both “executive control” (our abilities to manage our impulses, planning, paying attention, etc.) and “fluid intelligence” (our abilities to think abstractly, or solve problems that aren’t immediately relevant to our lives).

The authors collaborated with other scholars on a study with sugarcane farmers.  These farmers received a lump sum for their harvest, and so were cash-abundant immediately after the harvest and cash-poor a few months before the harvest.  The researchers then measured the farmers’ performances on those two indices mentioned above.  The comparison was done on the individual’s own records for well-off and cash-strapped periods, and the performances were profoundly different.  The postharvest farmers outperformed themselves by 25% on the “fluid intelligence” index.

This is really disconcerting if the findings hold true over time and are verified by others.  It does make some intuitive sense.  When people feel strapped for cash, their worries magnify, especially if they have families to support.  This is bound to distract them from their work, their studies, or mundane matters, like, their driving.  Being a poor graduate student is probably a little different.  There is an end to that status, and hopefully, one’s life station improves upon receiving the degree.  And when push comes to shove, one’s family may come to rescue.

The authors also reported a study comparing people’s recall accuracy between those who were slightly hungry and those who were satiated.  The hungry group performed better, especially on recalling words associated with foods!  I’d modify the findings by pointing out important conditions:  1.  If a person experiences physical ills from hunger, that cannot be good for that person’s mental faculty.   2.  As a corollary, there would be profound differences between temporary hunger and perpetual and prolonged hunger.  So, children who are hungry often cannot focus in classrooms.

Back to the scarcity of time.  When we know we have plenty of time for a project before a deadline, we allow many other matters, important or not, to occupy our attention span.  The authors call this our “bandwidth.”  As deadline approaches, our bandwidth narrows, and our focus sharpens.  Of course, there are exceptions.  I have known quite a few people who seem to be able to plunge into projects of their passion at any time. Deadlines are incidental to them; or, deadlines associated with other projects they have to do become annoying distractions.

Whether scarcity truly changes our thinking, it certainly impacts our thinking and behavior.  The type of scarcity discussed so far is in the context of an individual’s internal goals, be they time, finances, relationships, or just getting enough to eat.  In the context of organizational issues, “scarcity” largely involves deadlines.  If everyone has several deadlines to meet, and their deadlines are contingent upon others’ deadlines, that’s when everything in the organization “needs to be done yesterday.”  Such “queuing” of deadlines get exacerbated when every matter needs to be attended to now.  This is the kind of organization that seems to hop from crisis to crisis.  I wonder if people’s IQ drops a few points in that kind of situation.  Certainly the organization’s collective intelligence suffers.

Finally, I want to make a distinction here.  I sometimes talk about deficit/scarcity mode of thinking, in the context of Appreciative Inquiry (AI).  In AI, deficit/scarcity modus operandi means “I need to beat my competitor in order to get a bigger share of the pie.”  In contrast, to appreciate is to inquire, and to build, such as, “I will do my best to contribute to increasing the pie.” Appreciative Inquiry is mostly used in the bettering of group and organizational dynamics, but individuals can use the same principles to augment their own development.  I wonder if those people whose passion guides their work are naturally AI practitioners; they are always building or creating something.

I welcome your feedback and input.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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