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The Scarcity Mindset

Do you have a scarcity mindset? You are if you fear you won’t get enough of what life has to offer, especially with food. If the shoe fits, read on to find out more about your irrational viewpoint and how to change it.

In SCARCITY: WHY HAVING TOO LITTLE MEANS SO MUCH (Economist, 8/31/13), authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir focus mostly on poverty and the minds of people who are poor. But they also universalize their theories about feeling deprived in general. They insist that “People’s minds work differently when they feel they lack something. And it does not greatly matter what something is. Anyone who feels strapped for money, friends, time or calories is likely to succumb to a ‘scarcity mindset,’ which shortens a person’s horizons and narrows his perspective, creating a dangerous tunnel vision. Anxiety also saps brain power and willpower, reducing mental ‘bandwidth’.” Note the authors’ use of the word “feels” as in “strapped for money, friends, time or calories.” There’s a big difference between feeling something and being something (see my Feeling versus Being blog).

Reading the above description got me thinking about disregulated eaters who hold a scarcity mentality about food, even though they have and can afford enough of it. One might think that this mindset stems exclusively from not having had enough to eat when you were young. Not so: if your need or desire for certain foods was not met, you also may have felt as if there wasn’t enough for you. Although most of you probably grew up with adequately filled cupboards, you may have developed a scarcity mindset if you were discouraged from eating or weren’t allowed to eat some particular foods in them.

Shafir and Mullainathan’s maintain that this mindset produces a “shortened horizon, narrowed perspective, and dangerous tunnel vision”—exactly what happens when you feel you don’t have enough food. At a party, for example, you forget you’re there to hang with friends and have fun and, instead, are preoccupied about getting your favorite foods before they’re gone. At a dinner, you obsess about “all the foods you can’t have.”

Next time you feel deprived around food and fall into the scarcity mindset, stop and take stock of what’s going on. Explore the feeling, especially its roots. Reassure yourself that food is plentiful and soothe yourself out of anxiety. Consider all the foods you can eat and enjoy and move into an abundance mindset. Think about the options you have, not being unfairly restricted and remind yourself that you always have choices.