People have a “mental bandwidth,” or brainpower, made up of attention, cognition, and self-control (Mullainathan & Sharif, 2013), which consists of finite resources that may become reduced or depleted. The scarcity mindset entails a feeling of not having enough of something. According to Mullainathan and Sharif, anyone can experience cognitive scarcity, but it is particularly pronounced for people living in poverty. On the positive side, this may induce limited focus that can be used productively. The downside is ‘tunneling’, which inhibits the cognitive power needed to solve problems, reason, or retain information. Reduced bandwidth also impairs executive control, compromising people’s ability to plan and increasing impulsiveness whereby the focus becomes immediate—put food on the table, find shelter, or pay the utility bill (cf present bias).
The financial and life worries associated with poverty, and the difficult tradeoffs low-income individuals must make on a regular basis, all reduce their cognitive capacity. Limits on self-control or planning may lead some individuals to sacrifice future rewards in favor of short-term needs. Procrastination over important tasks is also more likely, as is avoidance of expressing negative emotions.
Mullainathan, S., & Sharif, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. London: Allen Lane.