Review and Summary: Scarcity Brain

Review and Summary: Scarcity Brain

Scarcity Brain is a book that helps us understand about how we often feel like we don’t have enough, making us constantly chase after things we think will make us whole. The book describes a “scarcity loop” – a cycle where we keep wanting things (like money or fun) because not knowing when we’ll get them next makes them more exciting. But this cycle can stop if the chances, rewards, or our ability to try again are taken away. The book really opens our eyes to why we’re always craving more and how this thinking impacts our everyday decisions and happiness.

Before getting this book, I read The Comfort Crisis and got a feel for Michael Easter’s style. He has a unique way of blending his adventures with his research to explore his interests. But if you read Easter’s books one after the other, the style might start to feel a bit repetitive. So, it’s a good idea to mix it up and read books by different authors in between to keep things fresh (unless you’re really into Easter’s style!).

I’ll be honest – it took me a while to get through this book. The first half of the book felt a bit slow and repetitive. But the second half? That’s where the gold is. It’s packed with insights that are worth the wait.


Scarcity mindset

  • It leads us to believe we don’t have enough. Then we instinctually fixate on attaining or doing that one thing we think will solve our problem and make us feel whole.

The ancient history of our reaction to scarcity

  • We evolved in harsh environments that had one thing in common: they were worlds of less, of scarcity.
  • Obeying evolutionary cravings kept us alive and still makes sense for all species.
  • The science shows that our scarcity brain doesn’t always make sense in our modern world of abundance. It now often works against us, and outside forces are exploiting it to influence our decisions.

The scarcity loop

The behaviors we do in rapid succession—from gambling to overeating to overbuying to binge-watching to binge-drinking and so much more—are powered by a “scarcity loop.” This loop is the ultimate trigger of the scarcity mindset. No matter the behavior, the more we have the opportunity and desire to quickly repeat it, the greater its effect on us It has 3 parts:

  1. Opportunity
    • An opportunity to get something of value that improves our life. but this opportunity comes with risk. we might get something valuable. But we also might not—or we could even lose it.
    • The more an event could lead to a clear reward or loss, the more we enter a trancelike state of fixation as we wait for the outcome.
  2. Unpredictability Rewards
    • We experience a sort of exciting, suspenseful anxiety as we wait to see whether this occasion will deliver the good stuff. Our brains hone in on unpredictability. They naturally suppress systems that take in other information, and we fixate on whatever is unpredictable
    • The moment when we wait to learn the outcome of an unpredictable reward are so exciting that they become rewarding in and of themselves.
  3. Quick Repeatability
    • Scarcity loops are immediately repeatable. We see opportunity, receive rewards sometimes, and then do it all over again. As much as we’d like.

How do we get out of the scarcity loop?

  • The opportunity could go away.
    • For gamblers, this could be from running out of money or, in the rarer occasion, making enough that they feel satisfied to stop.
  • The rewards could stop trickling in.
    • For a gambler, this is stringing together too many pure losses in a row. Which explains why so few people play early slot machines.
  • The repetition could stop being quick.
    • This is rarer for gamblers, but it could be that the gambler gets physically tired or the spin button starts jamming.

Slot machine

  • The machines emit exciting noises and light and graphics for both true “wins” and “losses disguised as wins.” Psychologists call what happened next conditioning: humans began associating the machine’s fantastic reactions with not only big, true wins but also losses disguised as wins.
  • Our brains respond to “losses disguised as wins” as small wins rather than small losses. It lead us to play longer than and spend more money because they maintain hope, suspense, and excitement.

Why we crave more

  • Once we’ve met our desire of the moment–no matter how big or small–our brains seem to produce the next one.
  • In the human brain less equals bad, worse, unproductive. More equals good, productive. Our scarcity brain defaults to more and rarely consider less. And when we do consider less, we often think it sucks.

Time scarcity

  • A feeling that we don’t have enough time. The truth is that we have more time than ever, thanks to advances in human longevity and the changing nature of work. Still, we cram our lives with so much compulsive activity, things “to do,” that we feel pressed.

Gamifying the world

  • Games thrust us into a scarcity loop and give us a score. Games incentivize quick repetition, or getting up and trying again.
  • We began gamifying anything we could: exercise, learning, weight loss, shopping, advertising, and even hea;th care and warfare.
  • According to Thi Nguyen, a professor in philosophy:
    • The idea with the gamification movement was that the more you make life a game, the more awesome life will be. But that is incredibly naive.
    • When we try to gamify ordinary life, we’re trying to impose clear values on a preexisting thicket of values, on a system that is very uncertain and complex.
    • Gamification can increase motivation, but at the cost of changing our goals in problematic ways and the repercussions ripple into actual life.
    • Value capture is when we stamp a simplified scoring system on an activity, we begin to fixate on the scoring system and chase points rather than experience the activity’s original goals. Those metrics take over our motivations. We get satisfaction in exchange for shifting our goals along engineered lines but risk losing sight of the real importance of the activity. It bends toward something much more improvised.
  • Points and gamification begin to remodel our experience, our behavior, and how we define success.
  • Metrics aren’t useless. But we need to realize that they don’t account for the human experience. We must see them for what they are: gray oversimplified scores that can tell us a little bit but far from everything. Outside forces can use them to pull us into a scarcity loop that is divorced from reality and our bests interests, walking us into places we may not want to be.

Scarcity brain evolved to crave influence

  • When we start to feel as if we have an opportunity to gain status and influence, we start valuing it even more and doing more things to get it.
  • Scarcity brain craves influence because the more influence we have over others, the more likely we are to survive and spread our DNA. Influence got us better mates. It increased our odds of survival in a conflict. It got us a bigger share of scarce resources. It even helped us get out of crappy menial work that burned energy.
  • Finding: it’s better for our physical and mental health to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond—that is, having a higher rank at a smaller company—than to be somewhere in the middle of a bog, well-known company. Even if we make more money at the bigger company.
    • Status pond are more important than we realize.
    • People in the top one percentile of wealth, frequently complain of feeling poor and stretched. They focus on what they don’t have compared to their peers. It leads these objectively rich people to believe that they are subjectively poor.
  • Our drive for influence also creates anxiety and leads our bodies to open a floodgate of stress hormones
    • Of course, seeking influence isn’t bad. It can lead us ot work hard, to be more generous, to do goof and help others. But our drive for influence can also lead to vain, selfish, and destructive tendencies like over-competitiveness, over confidence, materialism, aggression, and general misery.

Scarcity loop and food

  • Scarcity brain evolved in a world where food was often in short supply. It’s built to crave all foods, but especially foods that are packed with calories.
  • Our body stores extra food as fat. In the past, having extra fat was an insurance policy against starvation. Our bodies would draw on that fat to survive food scarcity. For energy, when we couldn’t find food.
  • Through basically all of time, the food we hunted, pulled, or picked from the earth wasn’t that rich and calorie dense. It wasn’t just scarce in quantity.
  • The scarcity loop helps explain why 95% of people who lose weight in a given year eventually gain it back. When we begin to lose weight, the scale gives us unpredictable rewards every morning. Our weight changes unpredictably, trending downward in an exciting way. But then weight loss stagnates, the number becomes predictable, The unpredictable rewards no longer tricked in. Dieters get frustrated—and extinction occurs. They slide back into their old habits.
    • Solution: stick to your diet but find another behavior that rides the loop and aids your goal. For example: lifting weights. As you become stronger, the amount of weight you can lift and number of times you can lift it changes unpredictably and trends upward in an exciting way.

Author: Michael Easter

Publication date: 26 September 2023

Number of pages: 304 pages


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