hg: Mental Bandwidth

Scarcity makes us dumb. That’s the basic message of Scarcity by Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan.

To use their slightly more technical terms, scarcity reduces our “mental bandwidth”, which is comprised of our “cognitive capacity” and “executive control”.

They define scarcity as “having less than you feel you need” of something. Be it time, money, food, or something else.

Cognitive capacity refers to our logical reasoning and problem solving abilities. Executive control refers to our ability to manage what’s going on in our brain - how well we plan, focus, multi-task, and control impulses.

Example, please

Let’s say you’re given an essay to write and the deadline is in six weeks. You procrastinate for five weeks, dipping in and out, without making much progress. And then in week six you suddenly think, Bollocks! I’ve only got a week left.

So you focus. Everything else gets put aside and your attention is consumed with finishing this essay on time. You spend a few long nights at the library and get it done and all that focus means you’ve written a cracking essay. Great, right? Well this is the “focus dividend”. You have to tunnel all your attention on a single task, because of time scarcity, so you perform that task well.

But there is also a “tunnelling tax” - the downside of all your attention having been consumed by one thing. You may not have paid much attention to your health during that final week, sleeping less and buying expensive take-away food instead of cooking. You may have ignored friends and family. You won’t have paid other assignments any attention. And when you took a break, you just collapsed on the sofa and gawped at The Chase.

Scarcity “captures your mind”. That manic last week reduced your mental bandwidth and you were unable to make rational decisions in other areas of your life.

An example given in the book is firefighters. The bell rings and they rush to the flames as quickly as possible, strategizing enroute. They are brave, well-trained, and capable of solving problems under extreme pressure. But it’s been estimated the second leading cause of death for firefighters is car accidents, primarily because they’re not wearing seatbelts. Time scarcity makes them very good at fighting fires (the focus dividend), but bad at remembering to put their seat-belts on (the tunnelling tax).

My theory

Protecting the environment is rational. It is ensuring the survival of future generations by keeping Planet Earth habitable. We also know that money and stuff don’t guarantee happiness.

The fact that we strive to consume more, and seem incapable of properly addressing environmental problems, shows we are acting irrationally.

Down at the minuscule level of our daily lives - by working too hard, buying lots of stuff we can’t afford, driving cars in cities, flying frequently, wasting food - we are living beyond the means of our natural environment. We are behaving irrationally.

Why are we irrational? Because our lives are too full. Time, money, and energy seem scarce (and for some are genuinely scarce), which drains our mental bandwidth. So we neglect things that are beyond our immediate attention or seem too big to tackle.

What do we need?

Simpler lives. More free time. Less focus on work and consumption. More focus on the things we truly care about.

This is beginning to happen. Trials for Universal Basic Income (a.k.a. Citizens Income), which could free us from drudgery and create a fairer society, are happening all over the world. Countries are trying out shorter work days. Minimalism and mindfulness are gaining popularity. Mental health problems are coming into sharp focus.

In other words, we’re wondering why we have more money and stuff than ever, but don’t seem to be happier. And we want to do something about this.

What’s exciting is that we have the power to simplify our lives. By intentionally owning and doing less, we can start to free our minds. Free them to prioritise what we love most and maybe to protect something beyond our own tunnel.