Abundance vs Scarcity

I am a sucker for salt & vinegar chips. Even more so when the the chips have ridges. I’m not sure why – maybe something to do with the surface area and flavour concentration – but I have been a fan for as long as I can remember.

So, when Ruffles recently came out with a limited time only salt & vinegar flavour, I pounced. A few times.

Seeing the label limited time only unleashed a sense of urgency. There are only two other times in my life I recall having S&V Ruffles. And, let’s be honest, the folks at Ruffles know this time-limited offer will drive people to purchase the chips now.

All this to say, it got me thinking about scarcity and how it impacts human behaviour. Scarcity has significant implications on most aspects of our lives, including our health habits. The feeling of not having enough not only makes us want more, it also diminishes our cognitive abilities and can result in tunneling.

Scarcity & Cognitive Bandwidth

In the book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir explain how scarcity decreases our cognitive abilities. When we focus on how little of something we have, it decreases our mental bandwidth. And, it does not have to be real. Even perceived scarcity can negatively impact our functioning.

In one study, participants were asked to complete a test, but first had to consider a hypothetical scenario involving last minute car repairs. The participants were categorized into two groups based on income. When the imagined car repair was $150, there were no significant differences between the groups on the test. When the imagined car repair was $1500, the lower-income group did significantly worse on the test than the higher-income group. The change was equivalent to approximately 14 IQ points.

Scarcity & Tunneling

Tunneling is what happens when scarcity drives us to focus on what we don’t have. In some respects, this can be useful. Say, with an upcoming deadline, the lack of time left (scarcity) causes us to focus on the work that needs to be done. Focus is one thing. Tunneling is another. It’s focusing single-mindedly on managing the scarcity at hand and shutting other things out.

Think of tunnel vision. Scarcity can blind us to things outside our focus.

So, not only does scarcity decrease our cognitive abilities and possibly result in making poor decisions, but we also may ignore important things in our lives.

In one study, participants were asked to push a button when they saw a red dot on a screen. Sometimes an image would appear before the dot did. Non-dieters were not affected by the images. They noticed the red dot. But, dieters missed red dots that appeared after an image of food (e.g. cake). These dieters, experiencing a scarcity of calories, were distracted by the food and missed seeing the dot.

This may seem like a silly example, but it demonstrates the power of tunneling.

So What?

When we focus on what we don’t have or what we are lacking, it affects our decision-making and our outlook. The focus is on the negative – all the things you don’t have. We get caught up and feel anxiety about feeling like we do not have enough.

We need to work to change from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset. And it takes work. The default mode is usually negative, and our environment doesn’t help. We are constantly being told we aren’t enough and we need to buy more to feel better and be better. When we let ourselves believe this message, it is natural that we would focus on what we don’t have.

Or, if you are working on building healthier habits, you may be focusing only on what you can’t have (e.g. cake) or what you can’t do. Or maybe you feel like you need to “punish” yourself in order to make up for that big meal. These are all framed in the negative and emphasize scarcity.

Taking on an Abundance Mindset

Flipping the script and focusing on what you do have is not easy, but it is possible.

Focus on what you do have. 

Take stock. I’m willing to bet you have more than you think. And not just things (and I have no doubt those of us living in the western culture have many more “things” than necessary). I also mean relationships, talents, time, etc.

Focus on what you can have. 

When it comes to nutrition, there are some truly delicious AND nutritious foods out there. Sure, chips and cake and bread taste good – maybe even great – but they don’t have nearly the same amount of nutrition as other incredible tasting foods. Whether through spices, herbs, fats, sauces, etc, I regularly enjoy some genuinely amazing meals that also nourish my body. And there are so many to choose from. Also, for those of us in developed countries, we literally have an abundance of food. That means something.

Remind yourself that [insert indulgence] will still be around tomorrow. 

If you are like me, you have a few favourite treats from specific places. Ever notice the pull to buy said treat when you are close by? It feels special. This is something I can only get here. Or maybe, this place runs out of this treat on a regular basis, so getting there early is important. There is a feeling of urgency. Maybe even excitement. But odds are good the treat will continue to be there tomorrow, next month, next year or even in five years. Kind of knocks down the excitement factor a bit, doesn’t it? The truth is, the urgency is false. And sometimes it’s more about thrill than the food.

Practice gratitude. 

I can’t emphasize this enough. Every day, write down or say out loud what you are grateful for. I’ve been practicing this for just under a year with regularity, and I’ve experienced noticeable changes. I have more appreciation for the people around me, for my health, where I live, and what I have. Even when you are feeling low, find something that you are grateful for, even if it means being grateful for a warm blanket.

Challenge scarcity. 

The next time you are feeling the sense of scarcity, try to flip your thinking and frame it in the positive and see what happens. For example, if you have 30 minutes to pack a bag for a weekend trip away, you may be feeling a sense of time scarcity, “I only have 30 minutes!” With a scarcity mentality, your stress rises, you run frantically around the house worrying that you can’t get everything done. You might make strange decisions, like washing dishes before starting to pack. You feel too busy to write down a list of items you don’t want to forget. You snap at your family. It’s frantic.

Now, let’s say you have the exact same amount of time, but instead of “I only have 30 minutes!” you think, “Great, I have 30 minutes to pack. That’s more than enough time.” You might spend 2 minutes calmly making a list. You get your luggage and start packing. It only actually takes 10 minutes to get your weekend essentials. You have time to double check your list and then clean some of the dishes. Your family isn’t scared to talk to you.

This might seem extreme, but it’s a personal example. And I’m guessing you have had times in your life when you have had similar situations with completely different reactions depending on whether your perspective was scarcity or abundance.

It’s a Practice

Though some people may naturally have an abundance mindset, for many of us, it takes effort. There isn’t a switch where once it’s on, we’re done. Just like learning a new skill or language, it takes time. We might be clumsy at first. But with conscious attention, I think an abundance mindset is possible – and it will make a significant and positive impact. It’s definitely worth the effort.