Why You Make Worse Decisions When You Want Something

The ache of not having "enough" affects our intelligence and decision making. Here's how to fix it.

empty pie pan
Travis Rathbone for Reader’s Digest

Recently, I’d planned a day of fun with my young son. However, I also had a deadline to meet. I thought I could juggle the two, but of course, it didn’t work out. After some halfhearted playground trips, too much TV, and a rushed bedtime story—along with plenty of tantrums—I slumped at the kitchen table to send yet more e-mails, rebuking myself for the fact that, once again, I hadn’t phoned my elderly grandfather or paid all my bills.

Ordinarily, I’d be the first to kick myself for mismanaging time, but 
the day before, I had read a book that made me realize I wasn’t just a harried mother nor neglectful by nature. I was operating under the “scarcity mind-set.”

In Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, social scientists Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan explain that whenever we perceive a lack of something—be it food, money, or, in my case, time—we become so absorbed by it that our thinking is altered. The impact is far greater than simple worry or stress: “Scarcity captures the mind,” they write. “The mind orients automatically, powerfully, toward unfilled needs.”

Shafir and Mullainathan found that in all kinds of circumstances, the psychological effect of scarcity was remarkably similar: a kind of tunnel vision that can help us focus on the immediate need (I met my deadline) but that can also have negative long-term consequences, both in terms 
of ignoring other important areas of our lives and not making good decisions for the future.

“Think of driving on a stormy night,” Shafir says. “You’re focusing on the road ahead of you, and you are driving carefully and well. But at the same time, you become largely oblivious to the periphery: You’re less likely to notice billboards or what your passengers are saying. And you may even neglect closely related concerns, such as a car approaching from the intersection on the right.”

In other words, the scarcity mind-set can make anyone prone to the adage “Lose the forest for the trees.” Shafir hopes his work will help seemingly different groups of people find common ground. “The poor often seem exotic, strange, and ill behaved to those who are not financially disadvantaged,” he says. “If we can show that the same psychology is at work for people poor in money and those poor in time, it provides an empathy bridge.”

Here are Shafir and Mullainathan’s insights into the surprising ways the scarcity mind-set affects our lives—and ways to outsmart it.

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