Quick Review of “Scarcity Brain” by Michael Easter

Wired for scarcity

We are wired for endless craving. This longing for more has served us well in our ancestral past, but in our modern world of abundance, it leads to addictive behavior and suboptimal decision-making. I was extremely excited about “Scarcity Brain” since Michael Easter’s last book, “The Comfort Crisis,” was one of my favorites for the last couple of years. In this book review, I will share my favorite takeaways from the book and let you know if this book is for you, along with some personal insights. This book review of Scarcity Brain is also available in video format on Youtube.

Let’s dive into the problem and solution to our scarcity brains.

📚 About the Book

Scarcity Brain. What’s it about?

The idea behind the book is that we have evolved for scarcity. From an evolutionary perspective, we come from a world of scarce resources. We are hardwired to want more and not to give up on our mission to get it. The problem is that we now live in a world of abundance, and we have more than enough in almost every area of life. But the craving for more persists.

In this book, you will learn the evolutionary theory of why we crave and how commercial forces exploit this urge for more. An evolutionary mismatch is happening, where traits that helped us in the past hurt us in the present, and the only way to break free is to understand the issue and take measures to steer our innate desire towards something meaningful and positive.

The Scarcity Loop

Slot machines

When slot machines went digital and added spin buttons, the game’s designers tapped into something powerful. The move to digital allowed the games to have more advanced reward cycles, more smaller wins, losses disguised as wins, and higher jackpots. Spin buttons allowed people to play games quicker, going from 300 games an hour to 900. Slot machines on casino floors multiplied, and casino owners even had to buy more chairs because people now played for hours and had to sit. Everyone got rich, except the players.

What is a Scarcity Loop?

Slot machine designers had tapped into a cord in the human mind. The behaviors we do in rapid succession are powered by a scarcity loop, whether it’s drinking, eating, buying, binge-watching, or gambling. It has three components:

  1. Opportunity (you can get something valuable fast)
  2. Unpredictable rewards
  3. Quick repeatability

Today’s world is dominated by products powered by the scarcity loop: TikTok, Amazon, playing Candy Crush for way too long, or scrolling through Instagram endlessly.

📝 The power of uncertain rewards

High Odds Preferred by Other Animals:

Experiments with laboratory animals show that it’s not only humans that overvalue unpredictable rewards. Laboratory animals (roaches, rats, monkeys, pigeons) prefer to play a gambling game with irregular outcomes even if it nets them fewer resources. This behavior persists even if the same game with regular outcomes gives them 700% more food.

Why is this loop so powerful? If we get almost sure the reward (monthly salary) will come, it’s just “nice”. When we are unsure the reward will come, then we get very, very excited—excited enough to make suboptimal decisions.

An evolutionary explaination for the Scarcity Loop

Why is the scarcity loop so powerful? Michael Easter gives an answer from Evolutionary psychology and the search for food. In ancient times when looking for food (a reward), we didn’t know if and when we would find any, and we needed to be motivated to keep going. We went looking in place, no food (spin no.1 on the slot machine), next place, no food (spin no.2), and on and on. And then Jackpot! We found a place with both berries and game to last a week. Humans that could stay motivated to continue the search thrived and spread their genes.

📝 How is the Scarcity Brain Hurting Us?

Incentives get messed up: Important progress is hard to measure exactly; hence, when we get exact numbers for messy metrics, our motivations can get screwed.

School grades and scewed incentives.

One examples are grades in schools.Grades as a measure of how much you learn got students focused on how to get good grades rather than how much they actually learn.

Addition over subratction

Our tendency to “add” rather than “subtract” also leads to problems.”In the human brain, less equals bad, worse, unproductive and more equals good, better, and productive.” Having fewer planned activities often leads to a more enjoyable vacation. Turning down meeting invites gives us more time to focus on what matters at work. Yet, we tend to default to adding.

“More” reduces creativity.

It reduces creativity. When we have less, we find more creative solutions with the stuff we have at hand. In my field, video game development, it has always been the restriction of the hardware that has sparked the most creative solutions.

Video Review of “Scarcity Brain” by Michael Easter

Video Book Review of “Scarcity Brain” by Michael Easter

TAKEAWAY: Substituting one scarcity loop for another.

The author, Michael Easter, talks about his alcohol addiction in the book, and how he managed to get out of that addiction loop by replacing it with another addictions: fitness and perfectionism at work. I’ve done the same thing. When I realized in my 20s that my lifestyle of partying, playing video games, and consuming copious amounts of nicotine was not a satisfying life, the pendulum swung strongly into other compulsive behaviors; like reading 80 books a year, manic long-distance running, and frantically working on building BookLab. My obsessive tendencies needed another way out. “It’s ultimately up to us to be aware of when and why we are falling into the scarcity loop and look for ways to change it into an abundance loop.”

⚖️ Book Verdict:

I’m torn about this book. On the one hand, it feels fresh because the Scarcity Loop feels like a concept that I haven’t come across before, giving the book some unique value. On the other hand, after finishing the book, I feel like I still can’t summarize the key ideas of this book, and clearly articulate how the scarcity loop plays out in real life, and what to do about it. “Scarcity Brain” held my interest throughout, but it feels like it’s a collection of several ideas tied to the theme of scarcity rather than a clear-focused narrative—scattered rather than focused.

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ out of 5 stars

Further Reading: Evolutionary Psychology

3 Books about AI to check out

Check out these book reviews for more books like “Scarcity Brain” and evolutionary psychology
The Comfort Crisis – Michael Easter
The Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt
Why Buddhism is True – Robert Wright
The Moral Animal – Robert Wright

Find more great books to read on my the Great Books List
Video Reviews every week on YouTube and support the BookLab mission on Patreon

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