The Scarcity Mindset is Killing Us

Which world view dominates our collective mindset – one of scarcity or abundance?
Which world view dominates your personal mindset?
It’s an important question because this core world view is easily the mother-ship of most of the beliefs that shape our existence.
What you believe; what we believe, determines much of how we act. The world we inhabit today is the making of our collective beliefs.
When we look out there at the world what do we see?  How much do we connect what we believe to the results of our lives? What do we believe about human nature?
It strikes me that we are living in a time of perceived not enough-ness. More of everything is desired, needed, wanted. Not having is one of our greatest fears.
Ten years ago I came across the work of author and non-profit fundraiser, Lynne Twist.  Lynne’s book, The Soul of Money: Reclaiming the Wealth of our Inner Resources, is one of those books that ask some fundamental questions about the way we live in the world.
Twist’s work helps us to understand that our insidious sense of not-enough-ness is the greatest driver for more. “Even when the game’s going our way, we often feel a nagging disconnect, the gap between the way we imagine life should be and the way we are living it, under daily pressure to earn more, buy more, save more, get more, have more and be more.”
While humans have always measured their well-being by their neighbors’ – our neighbors are now the world.  We make comparisons of our worth and neediness to skewed representations presented on social media and a 24/7 news media industry financed by interests vested in stimulating continuous material consumption.
Living in the scarcity model, we often find ourselves living in the in-between.
We’re here, but we want to be there. The benchmark for our arrival there is often elusive – sometimes permanently. The scarcity assumption is built on two contradictory ideas; there’s not enough of what I want to go around and there’s more out there that I want but I don’t have it.
The emotional outcome of living in the scarcity mindset leaves us feeling frustrated, angry, anxious, jealous, resentful and exhausted.
In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey refers to this as the “scarcity mentality,” a zero-sum paradigm of life. As Covey suggests, these world views of life have been deeply scripted within us.
The voracious appetite of not-enough-ness extends far beyond material needs.  “The mantra of not enough, says Twist, carries the day and becomes a kind of default setting for our thinking about everything from the cash we have to the people we love or value of our own lives.”
Beyond money, our sense of not-enough-ness extends to everything:
·        time
·        relationships
·        beauty
·        love
·        attention
·        rest/sleep
·        space
·        happiness
·        credentials/experience
·        power/connections
·        even the latest phenomenon FOMO – the fear of missing out

Is Scarcity a Cultural Construct?

Most scarcity assumptions are cultural constructs, as is race.
A New York University study showed that African-Americans are seen as “blacker” in a bad economy.  “The study’s findings point to a new challenge to discrimination reduction since perceptual effects appear to operate without a person’s awareness,” adds co-author Amy Krosch. People typically assume that what they see is an accurate representation of the world, so if their initial perceptions of race are actually distorted by economic factors, people may not even realize the potential for bias.”
While social constructs play a major role in shaping unconscious perceptions, real need and scarcity exists.  Too often understanding and addressing the needs of others are narrowly defined by our personal lenses on the world.  In an era of soaring income inequality, wage stagnation, climate instability, global food insecurity and a seeming escalation of world conflict, fear – the basis of all scarcity thinking – can overwhelm our cognitive resources.
We can find ourselves being manipulated by powerful external forces that trumpet messages intended to move us in one direction over another.
In their book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Harvard economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton professor of psychology Eldar Shafir introduce us to the new psychology of scarcity which shows that people living in scarcity actually experience changes in how the brain works that makes it difficult to solve the pressing problems that face humanity.  “Scarcity captures the mind. The mind orients automatically, powerfully, toward unfulfilled needs. Scarcity is more than just the displeasure of having very little. It changes how we think. It imposes itself on our minds.”
Because the primary organizing biologic imperative is survival, words and images constantly trigger our amygdala – the brain’s early warning detector and fear center.  Our unmitigated unconscious processes then measure incoming information with our beliefs.  Our threat responses are constantly filtering that information with comparisons, Can this happen to me?  Am I safe?
Since the mere perception of threat can compromise our cognitive capacities (Mullainathan and Shafir refer to this as a “bandwidth tax”) decisions and actions are constantly being generated from a mindset that’s leaning towards seeing resources as limited or pregnant with opportunities.
While we rarely attribute our choices to the external factors that shape them, systemic social and economic forces are highly potent influences on our scarcity/abundance mindsets.

The Roots of Economic Insecurity are Deep

To be sure, beliefs are formed and reinforced by the social systems in which we live.  In her erudite book, The Victorian City, Judith Flanders explains how attitudes towards London’s poorest residents changed during the explosive growth of the 1800’s. Early in that century there was “general acceptance of the poor some were good, some were bad, some lazy, some worked hard; just as with the wealthy.” The poor were viewed as unfortunate and worthy of receiving alms from the better-off.
Pressured by industrialists and developers, “Poor Laws” were introduced in the 1830’s and as a result regard for the needy plummeted. Dickens’ Oliver Twist was an outraged response to the new Poor Laws but even this empathetic author and social observer used words like “wild” and “voracious” to describe children now consigned to the new workhouses.
The question of how much is enough continues to challenge our imagination.   A 2011 study done at Boston College’s Center on Wealth and Philanthropy surveyed those with a “net worth” of over $25 million asking –  how much was enough? Most gave figures, on average, 25 percent higher than their current assets.
Distorted ideas of scarcity and abundance take on new meaning in light of the realities of real need. In 2013 Oxfam International reported that the “$240 billion net income in 2012 of the richest 100 billionaires would be enough to make extreme poverty history four times over.”
But the ties that bind us to the scarcity mindset go deeper than any asset portfolio. They are rooted in our psyche where the scared places live. While the human psyche is incredibly complex, scarcity habits dictate a more simplistic black and white ideology of the world.

Scarcity Separates Us

Few would argue that feelings of abundance join us to others – taking us deeper into the world, with all of its challenges, joys and sorrows. Scarcity, however, is the great separator.  Scarcity binds us closer to smaller tribes of those we have identified as like us.
Scarcity mindsets pit us against each other and against the world. In the scarcity model, we cannot afford to restore the earth to balance because of economic interests. The contradictions of capitalism require us to believe on one hand that abundance is our birthright – that endless expansion based on cheap labor and natural resources is the inevitable, limitless progress of human nature. On the other, the message is clear, we can no longer afford to care for the earth or its citizenry – scarcity (aka austerity) is the only way to guarantee future economic prosperity.
Aligning ourselves with a model of the world based on abundance vs scarcity could make the difference between birthing a new age or battening down the hatches of an old one.

Is more for you, less for me?  That may be one of the most important questions we now face.

Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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