That Whooshing Noise All of the people feel scarcity some of the time, but some of the people feel scarcity all of the time. Understanding the psychology of scarcity enables a leap of empathy.

Deadlines are great. They’re the reason why I’ve sent this email every week for the past six years. They’re the reason why, at the halfway mark, I’d only bagged 28 of my 100 Days of Adventure — four months later, with time running out, I’m on 81.

Deadlines are the reason why Beth and I have written an Edinburgh show and four series of radio comedy — and the reason why the beginning of our writing process is so expansive and the final weeks so intense.

Deadlines are great because they generate a scarcity, in this case, of time. Humans respond to scarcity with hyperfocus. When you’re trying to complete a project, this hyperfocus is really useful.

(Unless you’re Douglas Adams: ‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’)

When good deadlines go bad

But hyperfocus comes at a heavy cost. Under conditions of scarcity, we enter a single-minded tunnel that excludes everything outside our immediate goal.

In the blinding heat of those final weeks before a deadline, we get the work done, we get the script finished — but when we come up for air and our tunnel vision fades away, we realise that we’ve neglected our diet, sleep, exercise, electricity bills, friends, family and houseplants.

Basically, everything that isn’t scriptwriting goes to shit.

And this isn’t just the experience of a hapless scriptwriter; this is a replicable scientific observation.

According to research collected in a clever book written by clever people, human brains work less well when they sense a lack of something, whether that’s time, money, food or friendship.

That clever book is called Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, written by two clever people: psychologist Eldar Shafir and economist Sendhil Mullainathan.

In an interview with the American Psychological Association, Shafir explains that the pair started out with the assumption that the money-poor were neither perfectly rational economists (none of us are) nor that they are uniquely afflicted by stupidity, loose morals and myopic planning (that’s all of us).

They believed there was something else going on…

Over time, we started getting more data and observing cases where the poor seemed to be making more extreme errors than those with greater means. That gradually led us to the idea that there’s a very particular psychology that emerges when we don’t have enough and that this psychology leads to very bad outcomes.

Very particular psychology

Just like busy people under deadline start to neglect their houseplants (I’m so sorry!), people who are money-poor become hyperfocussed on their economic situation and start to neglect the spheres of life that float outside their tunnelled vision.

The stark difference is that my deadline will come and go, but it’s much, much harder to get out of poverty.

This matters — a lot — because, according to the research, the cognitive penalty of living with a scarcity mindset is a temporary penalty of ten IQ points. Ouch.

All of the people feel scarcity some of the time, but some of the people feel scarcity all or most of the time. Understanding the particular psychology of scarcity is slightly terrifying, but it also enables a leap of empathy.

As Shafir says:

What’s most striking is that these findings make a very strong case for the idea that people who look very bad in conditions of scarcity are just as capable as the rest of us when scarcity does not impose itself on their minds.

So the next time someone says or does something stupid, maybe ask if they’re worried about paying a parking fine or meeting a deadline.

Cut them some slack.

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David

David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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