Psychological Responses to Scarcity
- Jiaying ZhaoJiaying ZhaoDepartment of Psychology, Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia
- and Brandon M. TommBrandon M. TommDepartment of Psychology, University of British Columbia
Scarcity is the condition of having insufficient resources to cope with demands. This condition presents significant challenges to the human cognitive system. For example, having limited financial resources requires the meticulous calculation of expenses with respect to a budget. Likewise, having limited time requires the stringent management of schedules with respect to a deadline. As such, scarcity consumes cognitive resources such as attention, working memory, and executive control and elicits a range of systematic and even counter-productive cognitive and behavioral responses as a result. Specifically, scarcity induces an attentional focus on the problem at hand, which facilitates performance by enhancing cognitive processing of information relevant to the problem, increasing the efficiency of resource use, and stabilizing the perception of value. Such prioritization of the problem at hand may seem advantageous, but it can produce undesirable consequences. For example, scarcity causes myopic and impulsive behavior, prioritizing short-term gains over long-term gains. Ironically, scarcity can also result in a failure to notice beneficial information in the environment that alleviates the condition of scarcity. More detrimentally, scarcity directly impairs cognitive function, which can lead to suboptimal decisions and choices that exacerbate the condition of scarcity. Thus, scarcity means not only a shortage of physical resources (e.g., money or time) but also a deficit of cognitive resources (e.g., attention, executive control). The cognitive deficits under scarcity are particularly problematic because they impair performance and lead to counter-productive behaviors that deepen the cycle of scarcity. In addition, people under financial scarcity suffer from stigmas and stereotypes associated with poverty. These social perceptions of poverty further burden the mind by consuming cognitive resources, weakening performance in the poor. Understanding the cognitive and behavioral responses to scarcity provides new insights into why the poor remain poor, identifying the psychological causes of scarcity, and illuminating potential interventions to stop the cycle of scarcity. These insights have important implications for the design and the implementation of policies and services targeting the populations under scarcity.