Notes & Quotes: Scarcity Brain by Michael Easter

The following are my favorite quotes from Michael Easter's Scarcity Brain: Fix Your Craving Mindset and Rewire Your Habits to Thrive with Enough.

  1. It doesn't matter how much gas we give good new habits; if we don't resolve our bad ones, we still have our foot on the brake.
  2. Aren't addiction, obesity, anxiety, chronic diseases, debt, environmental destruction, political dispute, war, and more all driven by our craving for...more?
  3. The [slot] machines make more than $30 billion each year in the United States alone, or about $100 per American per year. It's more than we spend on movies, books, and music combined. And the figure rises about 10 percent every year.
  4. 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." It has three parts. Opportunity -- Unpredictable Rewards -- Quick Repeatability.
  5. [William] James captured something profound about this brief stint of consciousness we all have and call life. In the end, he said, our life is ultimately a collection of what we pay attention to.
  6. In 1928, the propaganda genius and father of public relations Edward Bernays wrote, "In almost every act of our daily lives...we are dominated by the relatively small numbers of persons...who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses...We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by [people] we have never heard of...It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind."
  7. In the human brain less equals bad, worse, unproductive. More equals good, better, productive. Our scarcity brain defaults to more and rarely considers less.
  8. We're experiencing what researchers call "time scarcity." It's 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.
  9. Brainpower we could have used to plan ahead and solve real problems or just be satisfied and enjoy our present condition gets sucked into a vortex of craving. "This deprivation," wrote the scientists, "can lead to a life absorbed by preoccupations that improve ongoing cognitive deficits and reinforce self-defeating actions." That's scientist-speak for "we obsess over and do dumb stuff and that hurts us."
  10. Scientists at the University of New Mexico analyzed alcoholics in recovery for more than a year. The top reason for relapse was believing addiction is a disease. The relapsers said they didn't see the point in struggling against a disease without a medical cure. This viewpoint can also lead would-be lifelines to give up hope. Other research found that the more a drug user's family members believe addiction is an insurmountable disease, the more likely the are to distance themselves from the user.
  11. "How do you help patients who come to you with addictions or even compulsions around other habits?" "My main advice is to make a big change," said Dr Adbul-Razaq. "Change your circle. Go to school. Educate yourself. Get a job or change your job. Take courses to improve your skills. Learn to read and pour yourself into books. Actively go out and make friends or change your friend group. Make big changes." Embrace short-term discomfort to find a long-term benefit. 
  12. 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. Whether posting on social media or behaving a certain way around others, we'll see the opportunity, act, wait for unpredictable rewards, then repeat. The scarcity loop.
  13. "Status ponds" are more important than we realize. How we feel at any given moment is surprisingly linked to the pond we're in. For example, research shows that people in the top one percentile of wealth--one percenters who make at least $600,000 a year--frequently complain of feeling poor and stretched. This is because they usually live around other one percenters. So 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.
  14. Authentic pride comes from doing awesome things. Hubristic pride comes from falsely advertising ourselves.
  15. The "false uniqueness bias," which is our tendency to see ourselves and our work as more unique than it is. It often leads us to focus on the differences we have with people rather than our similarities. Which explains the concept of schismogenesis, the idea that cultures and people define themselves against their neighbors.
  16. "Do you want to be right or happy?" This question has since saved me a lot of headaches my ego-driven brain manufactures and seems intent on worsening by defending its position. And it highlights something important about our scarcity brain and its desire for influence.
  17. When we ask ourselves, "Do I want to be right or happy?" we take the long view and insert perspective into the equation. But we can also bend the question. It could be "do I want to look good or be happy?" Or "do I want to one-up this person or be happy?" Or "do I want to be right or be a good friend, co-worker, or significant other?" And on and on. Play with it.
  18. Pair our scarcity brain with the modern news cycle, the rat race of life, abundant ultra-processed food, and the limited-time release of the McRib. Congrats, you have an elegant formula for folks who waddle.
  19. In the modern world, if we push back against our tendency to add--forcing ourselves to solve a problem with what we have--we'll likely solve it better, more creatively and efficiently. Creativity and efficiency bloom under scarcity.
  20. The experience led me to a rule to guide my future purchases. I landed on "gear, not stuff." Stuff is a possession for the sake of it. Stuff adds to a collection of items we already have. We often use stuff to fill an emotional impulse or advertise to society that we're a certain type of person. Or it solves a perceived problem we could have solved better with a bit of creativity. Gear, on the other hand, has a clear purpose of helping us achieve a higher purpose.
  21. We might be surprised to learn that still today the world is mostly vast and unpopulated spaces. Our urban areas take up just a sliver of Earth. Cities, towns, and villages make up only 1 percent of our habitable land. Most of habitable land, 50 percent of it, goes to agriculture.
  22. Psychologists have a good rule of thumb for making decisions in a sea of information. It's similar to the rule we can use to determine if we should keep or discard an item. Make everyday decisions within sixty seconds. After that, analyzing more and more information only wastes time and doesn't steer us into significantly better outcomes.
  23. When a child looks longingly through a pet shop window at a puppy, she's seeking the dog because she's seeking happiness. When a miner toils in a coal mine, even though the work is a harsh drudgery, he's seeking coal because he believes his pay will lead him to happiness. When a sales executive strives to make the next big deal, she's seeking a commission because she believes the commission will ultimately bring her happiness. When we take that second serving of food, troll someone online, click buy on Amazon again, or do anything at all, we're taking that action because we think it will make us happy. When we fall into a scarcity loop, it's for happiness. Even our worst ideas are a search for happiness.
  24. The same cycle that helped us survive in the past--happiness followed by dissatisfaction repeated for life--now blinds us to how astonishing modern life is and leads us to chase happiness in all the wrong places. 
  25. [Saint] Benedict's philosophy on life can be summed up by the phrase "ora et labora." That's Latin for "pray and work." It's the motto of Benedictines.
  26. Improving our lives requires enduring short-term discomfort for long-term achievement.