The Scarcity Trap: Why We Keep Digging When We're Stuck In A Hole When you really need something — whether it's money, food, or even time — it can be hard to focus on anything else. Researchers call this scarcity, and say it can affect many aspects of our lives.
NPR logo The Scarcity Trap: Why We Keep Digging When We're Stuck In A Hole

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

Gary Waters/Getty Images/Ikon Images
Businessman at desk in an hourglass.
Gary Waters/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 Mullaianathan, 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 Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, and Renee Klahr. Our intern is Chloe Connelly and 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.