Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Scarcity and Anxiety

Harvard Magazine report's Sendhil Mullainathan's work on the psychology of scarcity. Conventional wisdom has it that people are poor because they've made bad decisions. Mullainathan argues that poverty creates a scarcity mindset that leads to bad decisions because it saps people's ability to think.
...scarcity steals mental capacity wherever it occurs—from the hungry, to the lonely, to the time-strapped, to the poor.

That’s a phenomenon well-documented by psychologists: if the mind is focused on one thing, other abilities and skills—attention, self-control, and long-term planning—often suffer. Like a computer running multiple programs, Mullainathan and Shafir explain, our mental processors begin to slow down. We don’t lose any inherent capacities, just the ability to access the full complement ordinarily available for use.

But what’s most striking—and in some circles, controversial—about their work is not what they reveal about the effects of scarcity. It’s their assertion that scarcity affects anyone in its grip. Their argument: qualities often considered part of someone’s basic character—impulsive behavior, poor performance in school, poor financial decisions—may in fact be the products of a pervasive feeling of scarcity. And when that feeling is constant, as it is for people mired in poverty, it captures and compromises the mind.
And the effects appear in brain chemistry:
DURING THE LAST HALF-CENTURY, the effects of stress and distraction on attention and self-control have been well explored by social scientists: psychologists like Roy Baumeister of the University of Florida (formerly of Case Western Reserve University) have done extensive work on willpower and mental depletion, for example, showing that people who had forced themselves to eat radishes instead of tempting chocolates quit working on unsolvable puzzles sooner than those who had not. At Stanford, another study on decisionmaking found that subjects asked to memorize long strings of numbers had a harder time choosing healthy snacks over sweets than subjects asked to remember just two or three digits.

It’s a phenomenon scientists can see even in the chemistry of the brain: during periods of stress and tough self-control tasks, glucose levels plummet in the frontal cortex (the region associated with attention, planning, and motivation). Low blood sugar can deplete physical capacities; a struggling mind can create similar chemistry in the brain, and trigger the same debilitating results.
H/t 3QD.

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