Scarcity Brain

Fix Your Craving Mindset and Rewire Your Habits to Thrive with Enough

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About the Book

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The author of The Comfort Crisis asks: Are we hardwired to crave more? From food and stuff to information and influence, why can’t we ever get enough?

“Reveals the biological and evolutionary foundations behind your brain’s fixations, so you can stop seeking and start living.”—Melissa Urban, Whole30 CEO and author of The Book of Boundaries

“Michael Easter’s genius is that he puts data around the edges of what we intuitively believe. His work has inspired many to change their lives for the better.”—Dr. Peter Attia, author of Outlive

Have you ever found yourself wondering “Why do I want more than I have?” Michael Easter, author of The Comfort Crisis and one of the world’s leading experts on behavior change, shows that the problem isn’t you. The problem is your scarcity mindset, left over from our ancient ancestors. They had to constantly seek and consume to survive because vital survival tools like food, material goods, information, and power were scarce and hard to find.

But with our modern ability to easily fulfill our ancient desire for more, our hardwired “scarcity brain” is now backfiring. And new technology and institutions—from dating and entertainment apps to our food and economic systems—are exploiting our scarcity brain. They’re bombarding us with subversive “scarcity cues,” subtle triggers that lead us into low-reward cravings that hurt us in the long run. Scarcity cues can be direct and all-encompassing, like a sagging economy. Or they can be subtle and slight, like our neighbor buying a shiny new car.

Easter traveled the world to consult with remarkable innovators and leading scientists who are finding surprising solutions for our scarcity brain. He discovered simple tactics that can move us towards an abundance mindset, cement healthy habits, and allow us to live our lives to the fullest and appreciate what we have, including how to:

• Detect hidden scarcity cues to stop cravings before they start, from a brilliant slot machine designer in a Las Vegas casino laboratory
• Turn alone time into the ultimate happiness hack, from artisanal coffee-making Benedictine monks
• Reignite your exploration gene for a more exciting and fulfilling life, from an astronaut onboard the International Space Station
• Reframe how we think about and fix addiction and bad habits, from Iraq’s chief psychiatrist
• Recognize when you have enough, from a woman who left a million-dollar career path to adventure the world

Our world is overloaded with everything we’re built to crave. The fix for scarcity brain isn’t to blindly aim for less. It’s to understand why we crave more in the first place, shake our worst habits, and use what we already have better. Then we can experience life in a new way—a more satisfying way.
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Praise for Scarcity Brain

“This book is for anyone desperate to break the cycle of doom scrolling, constant cravings, and the relentless drive for more—more validation, more sugar, more money, more stuff. Scarcity Brain reveals the biological and evolutionary foundations behind your brain’s fixations, so you can stop seeking and start living.”—Melissa Urban, New York Times bestselling author of The Book of Boundaries

“Michael Easter brings to light that our challenges with behavior change can be better understood—and conquered—if we know how driven we are by our scarcity mindset. With deep science-backed insights, personal stories, practical guidance, and a relatable approach, Easter’s book is for anyone interested in embarking on a journey of self-discovery and empowerment with the goal of living a healthier, more satisfying, and actualized life.”—Juliet Starrett & Dr. Kelly Starrett, New York Times bestselling authors of Built to Move

“Michael Easter illuminates how humans are hardwired to seek more, even when our reward-seeking behaviors become at odds with our well-being. His vulnerable weaving of his own personal experiences alongside cutting edge research and current events compel you to examine your own life and patterns. Consider this engaging read a mandate to get curious, a more effective tool for meaningful, positive, lasting change than shame or judgement, the traditional tools of the trade.”—Liz Plosser, editor in chief of Women’s Health
 
“Do you have cravings that cause you to overconsume? Are those behaviors counterproductive to your life goals? Scarcity Brain unravels the mystery as to why, so you can recognize the trap and appreciate the things you do have rather than the things your brain is telling you it needs. Easter will help you identify the difference between short-term comforts and long-term meaningful growth by understanding the ancient origins of the cravings that impede your happiness. Pick up Scarcity Brain today—avoid the trap and start living!”—Jack Carr, former Navy SEAL Sniper and New York Times bestselling author of the James Reece Terminal List series
 
“Unlike any habit book you've ever read—it'll stick with you and improve your life for years to come.”—Richard Dorment, editor in chief of Men's Health
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Excerpt

Scarcity Brain

Introduction

Our Scarcity Brain

Qutaiba Erbeed, my fixer in Iraq, is the most full-of-crap person I’ve ever met. That’s how he’d fast-talked us into a fortified police compound on the outskirts of Baghdad.

We were sitting on a hardwood bench in a makeshift waiting room. Photos of terrorists and drug kingpins filled the wall behind us. Each picture showed a man standing in handcuffs with confiscated weapons and chemical compounds all splayed out in front of him. Big bags of pills, bricks of powder, AK-47s, makeshift bombs, rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Captions in Arabic listed the person, the place, the haul.

A closed-circuit TV hanging in a corner displayed a live feed of the holding cells. One heavily guarded cell contained eight of the region’s most wanted and dangerous men.

We were waiting to speak with Mohammed Abdullah, Baghdad’s head of drug enforcement. Erbeed had lured me to Iraq with a detailed “itinerary.” It said he’d arranged all sorts of important meetings, one of which was to ride along with Abdullah’s A-team as they raided drug and terror cells.

But after four days in Iraq, nothing had happened. When I’d arrived and paid him, Erbeed admitted, “The itinerary was . . . um . . . proposed. Yes, it was a proposal.”

But now, it appeared, Erbeed had perhaps talked Baghdad’s finest into letting this ride along happen. “They say it’s okay, but we must wear flak jackets,” Erbeed said, pleased with himself. “We now wait for the final response.”

As we sat, Iraqi narco detectives—plain clothes, thick mustaches, with pistols in the waistbands of their jeans—emerged from offices like coyotes, all trying to sniff out why this gangly American was sitting in their waiting room. They circled me but didn’t engage. Instead, they all chatted, chain-smoked, and side-eyed me.

Eventually one stepped from an office and approached us. He began talking. “Ride alongs?” he said. “Who told you this can happen? No. This cannot happen. Too dangerous.”

“How dangerous?” I asked.

“I was shot three times last week,” the officer said. Erbeed and I tried to appear unruffled.

“The dealers are becoming more violent,” the officer continued. “Many are transporting and selling quantities of drugs large enough that the penalty is the death sentence. So they will fight to escape.”

Erbeed and I collected ourselves, huddled, and considered this. We then explained that we accepted the risk and would stay well in the background.

The officer looked me directly in the eye and held it as he methodically pointed to three spots on his chest. “I’d be dead if I weren’t wearing a vest last week,” he said.

Then he shrugged. “But, okay, I will ask.”

He tiptoed to Abdullah’s office, knocking lightly on the door and bowing his head as he entered.

Baghdad is generally considered a good place for solo journalists to get kidnapped and sold to ISIS, whatever they’re there for. I was there for the drugs.

I was investigating the dramatic rise of a new, methamphetamine-like street drug called Captagon. It’s hardly known in the United States, but it’s wreaking havoc in the Middle East and spreading. How I ended up in Iraq, however, takes some explaining.

The short answer: it was the pandemic, and I wasn’t thinking rationally. But there’s a longer answer.

As a science journalist and professor, I’m interested in understanding human behavior. Everyone likes to focus on developing good new habits. But I want to know how we can resolve the behaviors that hurt us most. Because here’s the thing: 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.

And I’d begun noticing a unique signature of the behaviors that hurt us most. We can quickly repeat them. The worst habits are things we can do over and over and over in rapid succession—eventually to our detriment. These behaviors are often fun and rewarding in the short term but backfire in the long run.

We all do stuff like this to some degree. And even if we realize that these behaviors have turned counterproductive, we find it hard to stop.

Everyone knows any behavior is fine in moderation. But why do we suck so bad at moderating? Why do we keep eating when we’re full? Why do we keep shopping when we own too much? Why do we keep drinking when we’re already tipsy? Why do we scroll social media when it makes us miserable? Why do we binge-watch another episode even when we realize a more meaningful life beyond the screen is passing us by? Why do we get stuck? Stuck doing the same thing we regret over and over and over.

I learned that these behaviors are usually reactions to feelings of “scarcity.” And all it takes is a small “scarcity cue” to incite them.

A scarcity cue is a piece of information that fires on what researchers call our scarcity mindset. It leads us to believe we don’t have enough. We then instinctually fixate on attaining or doing that one thing we think will solve our problem and make us feel whole.

Scarcity cues are like air: all around us and inside us. They can hit us through advertising, social media, news, chats with co-workers, walks in the neighborhood, and so much more. They can be direct and all encompassing, like a sagging economy or global pandemic. Or they can be subtle and slight, like our neighbor buying a shiny new car.

Our reaction to scarcity isn’t anything new. It’s an ancient behavior system that evolved naturally in the human mind to help our ancestors survive.

Scientists detailed our scarcity mindset and reaction to scarcity cues as early as 1795. And the topic is now an intense area of research for psychologists, anthropologists, neuroscientists, sociologists, economists, and biologists.

Today it’s well accepted that for most of human history, obeying the next scarcity cue and constantly craving and consuming more kept us alive. We evolved in harsh environments that had one thing in common: they were worlds of less, of scarcity.

Things critical to our survival like food, information, influence, possessions, time on earth, what we could do to feel good—and much more—were scarce, hard to find, and short-lived. The people who survived and passed on their genes chased more. They defaulted to overeating, amassing stuff and information, seeking influence over others and their environments, and pursuing pleasure and survival drives to excess.

Obeying these evolutionary cravings kept us alive and still makes sense for all species. Except one.

As humans figured out how to make things faster and cheaper during the Industrial Revolution, our environments of scarcity rapidly shifted to those of plenty. By the 1970s, the benefits of this revolution had spread to most people in developed countries. They’ve been rippling out across the globe ever since.

We now have an abundance—some might say an overload—of the things we’ve evolved to crave. Things like food (especially the salty, fatty, sugary variety), possessions (homes filled with online purchases), information (the internet), mood adjusters (drugs and entertainment), and influence (social media).

Yet we’re still programmed to think and act as if we don’t have enough. As if we’re still in those ancient times of scarcity. That three-pound bundle of nerves in our skull is always scanning the background, picking up and prioritizing scarcity cues and pushing us to consume more.

We’re still compelled to eat more food than our bodies need. To impulsively search for more information. To buy more unnecessary stuff. To jockey for more influence over others. To do what we can to get another fleeting hit of pleasure. To fixate on getting what we don’t have rather than using and enjoying what we do have. We have a scarcity brain.

The science shows that our scarcity brain doesn’t always make sense in our modern world of abundance. It now often works against us, and outside forces are exploiting it to influence our decisions. It’s at the root of the counterproductive behaviors we can’t seem to shake. The habits that put a hard brake on improving our physical and mental health, happiness, and ability to reach our full potential. Aren’t addiction, obesity, anxiety, chronic diseases, debt, environmental destruction, political dispute, war, and more all driven by our craving for . . . more?

Humanity has experienced big scarcity cues before. But the pandemic occurred at a strange moment. A time when technology has accelerated to deliver abundant access to everything we’re built to crave, while also giving corporations unprecedented insight into exactly how they can leverage our scarcity brain to bend our behavior. Especially those behaviors we can repeat over and over and over in rapid succession— eventually to our detriment. It’s as if there’s some larger behavior pattern at play . . . almost like a scarcity loop. I even started calling this pattern I noticed a “scarcity loop.” And it seemed to be the serial killer of moderation.

About the Author

Michael Easter
Michael Easter is a contributing editor at Men’s Health magazine, columnist for Outside magazine, and professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His work has appeared in more than sixty countries and can also be found in Men’s Journal, New York, Vice, Scientific American, Esquire, and others. He lives in Las Vegas on the edge of the desert with his wife and their two dogs. More by Michael Easter
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