Everyone has some bad habits, and they nearly always involve doing something too much. Eating too much, drinking too much, buying too much, looking at your phone too much. Why do we have such a propensity for overdoing it?
My guest says it’s all thanks to a “scarcity loop” that we’re hardwired to follow. Once you understand how this loop works, you can start taking action to resist the compulsive cravings that sabotage your life.
Michael Easter is the author of Scarcity Brain: Fix Your Craving Mindset and Rewire Your Habits to Thrive with Enough. Today on the show, Michael unpacks the three parts of the scarcity loop, and how they’ve been amplified in the modern day. We talk about the slot machine lab that corporations use to hack your brain, why your main problem may be that you’re understimulated rather than overstimulated, why addiction may be better thought of as a symptom rather than a disease, how the quantification and gamification of life can negatively impact your experience of it, and how ultimately, the fix for resisting your bad habits is having something better to do than chase the cheap, unsatisfying hits of pleasure our culture so readily offers.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Michael’s previous appearance on the AoM podcast: Episode #708 — Overcome the Comfort Crisis
- AoM Article: Via Negativa — Adding to Your Life By Subtracting
- Research of Thomas Zentall
- Research of C. Thi Nguyen
- Sally Satel
- Maia Szalavitz
- AoM Article: The Groundhog Day Diet — Why I Eat the Same Thing Every Day
- AoM Podcast #636: Why You Overeat and What to Do About It
- Sunday Firesides: Tidying Up Our Gilded Cages
Connect With Michael Easter
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. Everyone has some bad habits and they nearly always involve doing something too much: Eating too much, drinking too much, buying too much, looking at your phone too much. Why do we have such a propensity for overdoing it? My guest says, “It’s all thanks to a scarcity loop that we’re hardwired to follow. Once you understand how this loop works, you can start taking action to resist the compulsive cravings that sabotage your life.” Michael Easter’s the author of Scarcity Brain: Fix Your Craving Mindset and Rewire Your Habits to Thrive with Enough.
Today in the show, Michael impacts the three parts of the scarcity loop and how they’ve been amplified in the modern day. We talk about the slot machine lab that corporations use to hack your brain, why your main problem may be that you’re understimulated rather than overstimulated, why addiction may be better thought of as a symptom rather than a disease, how the quantification and gamification of life can negatively impact your experience of it. And how ultimately the fix for resisting your bad habits is having something better to do than chase the cheap unsatisfying hits of pleasure our culture so readily offers. After the show’s over, check at our show notes at aom.is/scarcitybrain.
All right, Michael Easter, welcome back to the show.
Michael Easter: Hey, thanks for having me back, I appreciate it.
Brett McKay: So we had you on last time to talk about your book, The Comfort Crisis, that’s episode number 708 for those who haven’t listened to it, I’d highly recommend you go check it out. You got a new book out called Scarcity Brain: Fix Your Craving Mindset and Rewrite Your Habits to Thrive With Enough. Now, I read a lot of books for what I do in my business, it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I’m looking forward to digging into it. So we’ll start off with this idea of scarcity brain. What is the scarcity brain?
Michael Easter: Well, first of all, thank you for having me back and thank you for the kind words about the book, I’m glad you enjoyed it. To answer your question, everyone knows that everything is fine in moderation. Right? But the question is, why are we so bad at moderating? It’s like, Why can’t people seem to get enough of everything: From food to stuff to time on social media? All these different behaviors that we do to excess and wanna stop, but can’t seem to. So scarcity brain is really that feeling we don’t have enough and this tendency we have to overdo things in our life. And I think where that comes from, it tracks back to evolution because for all of time, trying to overaccumulate, overdo things, getting more food, more stuff, more status over people, that gave you a leg up survival wise. But in today’s world, we now have an abundance of all those things, and I think that you start to see it backfire in a lot of ways.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. So what are some areas where you see the scarcity of your brain contribute to problems in modern life?
Michael Easter: Sure. Well, I think food is a really easy to say one. We throw out about a third of the food that we produce in America. 75% of the country is either overweight or obese. And we’re not alone, I think more than half of countries now have an obesity rate of at least 20%. So for all of time, food was scarce and now it’s literally on every corner and hyper-processed and delicious possessions. The average American used to own something like a few outfits and some basic tools and furniture that was passed down generation to generation. Now the average home has 10,000 items, and that is linked to debt, to general life stress. Just being around all the clutter that we’re in seems to be linked to life stress. And not to mention, it’s a lot of wasted resources.
And even information. So the average person today… And this was a crazy stat that I came upon in researching this book. The average person today takes in more information in one day than a person 700 years ago would’ve taken in in their entire life, which is wild to me. And I think that in the sea of information we live in, it’s not always improving our understanding of the world. Right? You can Google any silly question that pops into your brain. There’s obviously a big problem with misinformation online. And also how we get information has really changed, we used to have to go there in person in the present moment, maybe often talk to another human to know something, and now this world of information that may be good or bad is at our fingertips instantly.
Also, influence in status. So that’s a big thing that we evolved to crave as humans. In the past, we could only influence so many people. We seem to have evolved in these bands of people that were maybe 150 people most, but now we have this rise of hyper-connected societies and social media, where you can literally put a post on the internet that influences millions of people, and promote your status. And it all just goes out instantly and then that status can then get quantified. Right? It gets quantified and gamified, and likes and retweets and follows and all that stuff.
And even just sheer stimulation. The average person today is taking in 11 to 13 hours of digital media every single day. That’s all new in the last 100 years. Like we’ve never been this hyper-stimulated by media ever, and I think you see that leading to a lot of issues with mental health and burnout. And this is just one of those things that’s basically an evolutionary mismatch, where humans evolved in these environments where everything we needed to survive was scarce, and now it’s abundant. Yet, we still have these old brains going, “You need more of that. Status? Yeah. Get that. Information? Oh, you gotta figure that out. Food? Yeah, I’ll have another bite.” Right?
Brett McKay: Right, so yes, the scarcity brain is making us fat, going into debt, buying stuff, just getting sucked into social media feeds and all that stuff. Those are some things that the scarcity brain… That anyone can experience. But you also talk about, the extreme form of scarcity brain is addiction, addiction to alcohol and drugs. And you talk about this in your book. And then in your previous book, that you experienced the pitfalls of the scarcity brain when it comes to addiction.
Michael Easter: Yeah. Totally. So I am a person who has been sober for about a decade now. And I can absolutely tell you when you look at addiction, it very much is this constant craving, this wanting more of the substance that is going to improve your life in the short term but lead to long-term problems. And I think that that same story holds for a lot of the bad habits that people have. I’ve been writing about health and wellness and psychology for most of my career, and I started in the magazine world, and now I’m a professor at a university. And I’ve always been most interested in bad habits, it’s like everyone wants to give gas to good new habits, but if you still have your worst habits, you still have your foot on the brake. It’s the things that we do that really drag us down, that keep us from going anywhere.
Like for me, I could do all the exercise and eating right and all these great things I needed to, but until I stopped drinking and got sober, I wasn’t really going anywhere. Right? It was having to fix that really bad habit of repeat consumption of this thing that was bringing me down that allowed me to really improve my life. And I think that everyone has to a certain extent probably something in their life, a handful of bad habits that are really holding them back. And so part of what I want to do with this book is help people identify those, understand why you fall into those bad habits in the first place, and then start to think about, “Okay, well why do I have those? And then how do I get out of that?”
Brett McKay: So something you write about in the book, and you take this thread all throughout the book, is that one of the things that… Or the thing that is driving our scarcity brain is what you call the “scarcity loop.” So what is the scarcity loop, and what did you learn about the scarcity loop by visiting a casino research and development facility in Las Vegas?
Michael Easter: Yeah. So I told you I’m interested in bad habits. And I live in Las Vegas, which just happens to be the best town a person who’s interested in bad habits could ever live in. Right? This town is built on… It’s built on excess and people coming into town to just go crazy for a while and then leave, so you see a lot of strange things when you live here. But the strangest thing about this town to me has always been the slot machines because these things are everywhere, they’re obviously all over the casinos, but they’re in our gas stations, they’re in our grocery stores, they’re in airports, they’re in restaurants, they’re in bars, you name it. And these things are not sitting empty. People will play slot machines around the clock. Like I’ll be getting groceries at 7:00 AM on a Tuesday, and someone will be letting their frozen food spoil ’cause they got sucked into this slot machine. Right? And this is insane to me because everyone knows the house always wins. Right? Yet people play and play and play. And I would later find out that we spend more on slot machines than we do on music, movies, and books combined. And it’s like, Well, why the heck is that?
Brett McKay: Yeah. And another interesting point you made in the book when you’re talking to these guys in the gambling industry. 30 years ago, 40 years ago, slot machines weren’t the main event at casinos, most of the revenue came from the table games.
Michael Easter: It was all table-game revenue. And then what ended up happening is that this guy, whose name is Syred, comes along. And he’s like this old school… Just picture like your stereotypical old-school Vegas guy in like a maroon polyester suit, big cowboy hat, the bolo tie. Just a really fascinating cat. And he is effectively able to apply this idea called the scarcity… That I call the “scarcity loop” to slot machines. And the way that I learned about this, it wasn’t necessarily from him, it’s that I traveled to the slot machine lab that you mentioned before. And this came from noticing that people play slot machines around the clock, and it’s like, Okay, why are people doing that? I’m an investigative journalist, let’s figure it out. And this takes me to this lab, and this lab is this casino that’s on the edge of town.
Like this is a fully working casino, newest, most cutting edge place in town, but it’s used entirely for research on human behavior. So the public isn’t welcome. And the gambling industry has collaborated with a bunch of big businesses in 73 different… There are 73 different companies on board and they’re all trying to figure out, “Okay, how do we get people to gamble more?” And it all tracks back to getting people into this scarcity loop. Now, this is like the ultimate serial killer of moderation, it’s this behavior loop that pushes people into repeat behaviors. And it has three parts, it’s got opportunity, unpredictable rewards, and quick repeatability. So with opportunity, you have an opportunity to get something of value. In the case of a slot machine, it’s money. Then you have unpredictable rewards. You know you’re gonna get that thing of value, but you don’t know when and you don’t know how valuable it’s gonna be. So when you pull a slot machine handle, you could lose, you could win a few quarters or you could win a life-changing amount of money. Right? That’s this crazy range of outcomes.
And then quick repeatability, you can immediately replay… You can repeat the behavior, you can repeat the game. So the average slot machine player plays something like 16 games in a minute, which is more than we blink. And there really is nothing better than this random reward loop, the scarcity loop, at pushing people into these repeat behaviors that can be fun in the short term but ultimately hurt them in the long run.
Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s dig into these unpredictable rewards. What is it about unpredictable rewards in this scarcity loop that drives… That’s a bigger reinforcer of behavior than predictable rewards? Because that seems counterintuitive. Right? ‘Cause like if you know you’re gonna get something all the time, then you’d be like, “Well, I’m gonna do it ’cause I know I’m gonna get it.” But we see unpredictable rewards influence not only humans but also animals. So what’s going on there?
Michael Easter: Yeah. And to your point about it being counterintuitive, that’s what behavioral psychologists thought. So one of the fathers of behavioral psychology is BF Skinner. In the ’50s, he is teaching rats to basically hit a lever for a treat. And what ends up happening is this guy runs out of treats, he’s running low on ’em, so instead of making new treats, he goes, I’m just gonna give them treats randomly when they hit the lever. And he figures, “Okay, now that they’re not getting as many treats and they don’t know when, they’re just gonna stop hitting the lever.” The opposite happened, they got super obsessed with hitting that lever, they just sit there and hit it, rehit it, rehit it, trying to figure out when they were gonna win that treat.
So I end up talking to a guy whose name is Thomas Zentall, and he’s like 80-something years old. He started researching behavioral psychology in the ’60s. And he’s done similar experiments, where he will take pigeons and he will give them two different games. In the first game, the pigeons hit a lever, and every other time they hit the lever, they get, say, 15 pellets of food. In game two, they hit the lever and they get food every fifth peck, but it’s random. So it could be like peck, food, peck, peck, peck. Right? So it’s a total random rewards game just like a slot machine. And what ends up happening is when you offer pigeons these two games, the pigeons all choose the gambling game. Like 97% of pigeons choose the gambling game even though that game ends up getting them far less food, like half as much food. And you see this in all different animal species.
Now, the reason for this likely tracks back to how we used to have to find food, how all animals find food. So if you think of us as hunter-gatherers and it’s a million years ago and we need food or else we’re gonna starve, but the thing is we don’t know where the food is. Right? So we’re gonna go to point A to look for it. Oh, it’s not there. Okay, we’ll go to point B. We’ll go to point B to look for it, it’s not there. Now we’re gonna go to point C, not there. Oh man, we’re gonna go to point D. Jackpot, ton of food. So this is effectively a random rewards game that kept us alive in the past. So this Thomas Zentall’s theory is that we effectively evolved to fall into this game. Our brain has this natural attraction because if it didn’t, we would’ve been not quite as good at persisting in these long, crazy, hard hunts and sessions of gathering that kept us alive.
Brett McKay: Okay, so the scarcity loop, you have opportunity, unpredictable rewards, quick repeatability, and this explains why slot machines are so addictive. But then you see this scarcity loop pop up in other parts of our life, it’s why social media or the internet, just going online taps into a scarcity loop because you have the opportunity, it’s in your pocket, in your phone. The unpredictable rewards, you don’t know what you’re gonna find. Maybe you’re gonna find something really cool or funny, maybe not. Or maybe you post something that’s gonna get a lot of likes, maybe not. So that unpredictable reward is driving you to constantly check your phone and then it’s quickly repeatable, you can just do it anytime you want. So the scarcity loop explains why our wanting to check our phone is such a problem. But then you also see this with food, if you have the opportunity of like snacks in your house, you eat one, it may be good, it may not be great, but then you can quickly repeat that. So this is… You see it everywhere in modern life.
Michael Easter: Yeah. You really do. I mean, so when I… You have to track back and ask, “Okay, there’s this casino lab and gambling companies are invested, but the majority of the companies that are invested in this thing have nothing to do with gambling, they’re like these big tech companies. And you go, “Okay, well, why do they care?” It’s because this loop, which is fundamental in slot machines, I think we really figured it out with slot machines in the ’80s. Other industries take notice and they go, “What’s happening over there?” And so now you start to see it pop up in all these different technologies. I mean, to your point, you named a few, but social media, it’s like you have an opportunity to get some status, you post, you don’t know if you’re gonna get one like, and, Oh that sucks. Or if you’re gonna get a million likes, you’re gonna go viral. And, Oh my gosh, that made my day. So it’s this random rewards game.
You also see it in online shopping with things like lightning deals or even just scanning the internet like, I need to find this purchase, I need to find this purchase. Oh, this is the one, this is the one. Right? And now you even see it in advertisements online, where you can, say, spin a wheel like a roulette wheel for a discount, and those tend to increase conversion rates by sevenfold, which is a crazy number. It’s in dating apps. Right? It’s like swipe, swipe, swipe. Oh my gosh, I matched. But who is it? Is it that person that I was like on the fence about? Or is that person that I was like, Oh my god, that’s the most amazing looking person I’ve ever seen in my life. Right? It’s random. Sports betting, it’s obviously in sports betting.
And I think too that you have to realize that the scarcity loop is inherently part of nature, it’s part of life, but really the important part about it that makes a difference of why it’s so popular today is the quick repeatability element. So the quicker you can repeat a behavior, especially if it has random rewards, the more likely you are to repeat it again and again and again. So when you think of sports betting, this is why sports betting goes, “Okay, we can get people to bet, but the thing is that games are long, so how can we fix that? Oh, what if people could bet on like a free throw? What if they could bet on whether the team will score a touchdown?” So you start to see the rise of in-game betting as well.
And then it’s in personal stock trading apps like Robinhood. Their real secret to success was increasing the quick repeatability, and they did that by taking down trading fees because that slows you down. You’re gonna have a moment of pause if you have to pay a fee to make a trade. Right? So by taking that down, people started to increase the frequency of their trades. It’s in the gig economy too. Companies like Uber are using it to nudge workers into driving different areas and driving longer than they would want.
And yeah, to your point, it is in the food industry. One of the more fascinating quotes that I came across was from an executive at a big junk food company. Basically said, “The way that you make a snack food successful is that it has to have three V’s. It has to have value, it has to have variety, and it has to have velocity.” That is just different language to explain the scarcity loop. Right? It’s gotta give you something of value, you’ve gotta have a lot of different flavors because then it becomes much more exciting, and you have to be able to eat it quickly. And when you see how people eat, if a food is ultra processed, like junk food is, they will eat far more of it faster than if the food was less processed.
Brett McKay: Some interesting research you highlight is the role of understimulation in our environment and its contribution to the scarcity loop. What does that research say about understimulation?
Michael Easter: Yeah. So this was one of those counterintuitive things as well that goes back to animals. I mentioned that researcher Thomas Zentall earlier. And so he turns these pigeons into degenerate gamblers in like two minutes. Right? He takes them outta their little cages and he gives them the option of, Do you wanna play the predictable game or do you wanna play the slot machine-like game? They all choose the slot machine-like game. But what happens is that at some point, he takes these pigeons out of their small cages where they live alone and he puts them into this really massive cage that is designed to be just like their wild environments. So it’s got plants, it’s got trees, it’s got places they can roost and it’s got other pigeons that they can hang out with. And then he gives them the choice to play the games again.
And what he finds is that pretty much all the pigeons stop playing the gambling game, they start making better decisions. And so from there, he basically told me, “I don’t think that we as humans are all that different from animals.” Like his whole research is that the same fundamental architecture of the brain still sort of holds. And there’s this model in psychology called the “optimal stimulation model.” And it basically says that animals and humans, they have a certain level of stimulation that they prefer that helps them do well, and when we get below that, we go searching for stimulation. And so what he found is that when you put an animal in its more wild environment, it gets enough stimulation and it doesn’t have to go find stimulation from a slot machine. And his point was that we humans today are living very different than we did in the past. We don’t have to struggle for resources, we don’t have to go hunt and forage food, we spend a lot less time outside. Our social worlds have changed, where we are less reliant on other people for survival, and we don’t have to be in the moment anymore. Right? Like life used to be very consequential and dangerous, and that’s a lot of stimulation all the time.
And now that we’re in a very safe world, it’s great, don’t get me wrong, this is part of progress, but we get a lot less simulation from our environments and so we become more likely to go search for it in the form of, say, gambling or, say, overpurchasing or even doing drugs or eating more than we need. Just something that makes us feel something, really, is his theory.
Brett McKay: Well there’s that one famous study where they put people in a room and they connect them to like a zapper and they say, “Well, look, you can just sit here quietly for half an hour or you can zap yourself with an electric current.” And most people zap themselves with the electric current ’cause they’re just looking for some sort of stimulation. And particularly, men were the ones more likely to zap themselves than be bored out of their minds.
Michael Easter: Yeah. Exactly, so as part of this book, I traveled to Iraq and I talked to a lot of people that had been in war zones. And it’s so fascinating to talk to them ’cause they all go, “When I was there, it was very intense, it was dangerous, but I also look back on that time in my life very fondly because I had to be 100% in the moment, I had to have my head on a swivel, I had this group of people that I was working with that all had this same common mission, and everything I did was consequential. And then I came back home and I didn’t get that anymore, and I absolutely miss that.” And so I do think that that is one of the key reasons we see PTSD in vets. It’s quite counterintuitive, but I think that the research bears that out.
Brett McKay: Well, so it seems like we really have a problem of overstimulation in our modern lives: We have the internet, we’ve got all this stuff trying to grab our attention. So how are we understimulated?
Michael Easter: Well, it’s a different type of stimulation. Right? I think we’re understimulated in the way that humans for two and a half million years evolved to be stimulated. Right? We never had digital media in our life until about 100 years ago. And then you see radio creep in and people start listening to it for three hours a day, and then TV really rises in the ’50s. And TV went from people watching zero hours in 1950 to the average person I think watching four hours by 1960 a day. So you have this creep of media that is stimulating, but at the same time, we’ve lost this other form of stimulation, which requires hard work and effort in a natural environment like humans had to do for all of time. And so I think we’ve just traded it. And again, that goes back to progress. Right? Probably, I would say for the vast majority of people, like we don’t wanna be out hunting and gathering, we don’t wanna be braving the elements every single day. But I do think that a result of that is that we’ve had to look for other forms of stimulation, and those other forms of stimulation haven’t always necessarily netted a positive in our life when you think about a lot of the behaviors that you see people do today.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I think a lot of the stimulation we have, it’s underwhelming. Right? It doesn’t really scratch the itch, and so as a result, you have to get more of it to even feel like you’re doing something. I think that’s what I… That’s what I’ve noticed in my own life.
Michael Easter: Yeah. What’s more exciting? Climbing up a dangerous mountain or watching someone climb up a dangerous mountain on TikTok. Like obviously, it’s the climbing up a dangerous mountain. Right? That’s the thing that you go home and you go, “Oh my God, that trip changed my life.” You remember that forever. And it changes your behavior from then on, it changes your sense of self, it changes your confidence, your competence. Not so on TikTok, you forget about it in about 2 seconds when you flip to the next video, which is a cat that learned how to play the drums or whatever it is.
Brett McKay: Well, you see this idea of what healthy environmental stimulation looks like. I’ve read reports about kids going to summer camp and the camp bans digital devices, smartphones, iPads, whatever. And what they find is that after the first few days, like the kids are grumpy, it’s like, “I want my… I want my smartphone, but after a while, they’re just happy, they don’t even think about their smartphone.” And they report like the reason why is, “Because I’ve got these other kids that are around me, we’re out doing hard things with our bodies.” And so they don’t even have the desire to look at their phone by the end of camp.
Michael Easter: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And I think that what becomes so hard for everyone is that phones are now your everything-device. It’s very hard to create silos around these behaviors because the work device, which is your phone is also your entertainment device, is also the device that you use to keep in touch with your kids or family, it’s this device that gets used for so many things. And I think what tends to happen is that you go to check email and then you’re like, “I’m on here, I’ll check this random social media platform.” And you get… And then you look up and 15 minutes have gone by because these things are designed to be so hyper-stimulating. Or you’re like, “You know what? I’ll check the news.” You start looking at the news and then you find yourself in a fit of anger and anxiety because of some crazy political thing coming outta Washington.
And I think that that makes it hard to really get away from it when everything is coming through one device or everything is available on a computer at all times. And yeah, so I do think that the lesson especially for kids is that if you have kids, having kids take time away from their phones or from media stimulation and go out into the real world with other kids… It doesn’t have to be a summer camp, it could even be, “Hey, you gotta go volunteer at the homeless shelter,” or, “We’re putting you in this program for X, Y, Z with other kids.” I do think that that is very valuable ’cause you are seeing rates of anxiety really spike, you’re seeing focus go down, you’re seeing critical thinking go down. And I think it does track back to how much time people spend on digital media today.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Play sports, get physically active, that sort of thing. So we talk about addiction as the extreme form of the scarcity loop, scarcity brain, but you highlight some really interesting research that goes against how we typically think of addiction. And I think when we typically think of addiction, we think, “Well, once you get addicted to something, you’re addicted for life.” But you have that research that actually, that’s not the case. What’s going on there?
Michael Easter: Yeah. The reason that we think that is because most of the research that leads to that conclusion is conducted by neuroscientists in labs where they’re looking at a lot of the most addicted people, like the absolute extreme cases. But when you look at the data on, I guess I would say everyday people, most people are able to quit a problematic drug or alcohol use or even smoking on their own. So for example, there was this one big survey, looks at 20,000 people. And it found that 75% of them who reported struggling with drugs before they had turned 24, they no longer used any substances by age 37. So 75%. That’s a pretty significant number. And there was another survey that found over 10 years, 86% of people who struggle with addiction ended up getting clean.
The point I wanna make in the book with this is on this topic, is that I do think that addiction definitely falls into a scarcity loop. And as you mentioned before, I mean I feel relatively qualified talking about this because I’m a person who is now sober. And I can tell you that a substance, whatever it be, alcohol, drugs, it gives you an opportunity to improve your life or just escape from your problems, at least in the short term, only in the short term. Whether you’re getting drugs or whether you’re drinking and don’t know what’s gonna happen, it’s very unpredictable trying to get the drugs, trying to see what’s gonna happen after you have a bunch of drinks. And then you repeat the behavior. Right? You get sucked into a cycle of getting drugs again or waiting for the next drink.
The US has had different viewpoints on addiction throughout the years, but they tend to be two different viewpoints. The first is that addicts are bad people, it’s a moral failing. Or now, which started in the ’90s, is that addiction is a brain disease. And I traveled to Iraq to understand some of the new thinking around addiction. So a lot of new thinkers are coming out and basically saying, Addiction of course is not a moral failing by any means, you’re not a bad person if you’re an addict, but it also doesn’t seem to be a brain disease, and that’s because if it’s a brain disease, you can’t really cure it. Right? You can’t respond to incentives if it’s a brain disease.” Like Alzheimer’s is a brain disease, and if I tell a person with Alzheimer’s like, “Hey, if I put you in this church basement with a bunch of other people with Alzheimer’s and you talk about Alzheimer’s, you’ll probably be okay.” Like that would never happen.
But that does seem to work with addiction, where if you put people in a group of other people who are trying to get over addiction and they talk about it and they get a new network, they make bigger changes in their life, they can come out of it. So I think addiction is more of a symptom than anything else. Drugs effectively get used to deal with life’s problems. Right? It could be just general discomfort with life or people might have started using ’cause they have some past trauma or whatever it might be. And Iraq is a good case study of this because you had basically no people using drugs in the country. And then the US invaded and this caused obviously a lot of trauma in people’s lives. Right? They had to live through a war. And then what ended up happening is that Syria fell and effectively became a narco state. And they started flooding the Middle East with this pill called Captagon. So there’s now billions of these Captagon pills floating around the Middle East, and they’re akin to methamphetamine basically.
And so you have these two things, you have this population who has a lot of problems, a lot of traumas, and then you have this sudden influx of a substance that will immediately solve your problems if you take it. Right? It’ll comfort you from the hardships of life. And so you start to see addiction really spike in Iraq. And I think that that has been the American story too. I mean there’s a reason that you saw the opioid epidemic hit the Midwest hardest in these towns that used to, say, have steel mills or used to have factories. And then they moved outta town and like all hope was lost. It’s like, Okay, well, life is really hard, and then you have an influx of opioids. And it’s like, Well, this will fix my problems in the short term. And the problem could be that you don’t have a job, you could be really bored, you could have some past trauma, and you see it all spike.
And there’s also great examples from the past of people who were addicted changing their environment in such a way that it removes their problems and they tend to get clean. So soldiers in Vietnam are a great example, where during the peak of the Vietnam War, you had something like 25% of US soldiers, the government thought, were addicted to heroin ’cause there was this huge heroin epidemic among US soldiers in Vietnam. And so Nixon came in and goes, “I don’t want all these addicts coming back to the US. If you are a soldier in Vietnam and you want to come back home, you have to pass a urine test.” And so if the idea that an addict can never get clean is true, we would’ve left 25% of soldiers in Vietnam. Right?
That didn’t actually happen. Nearly every single soldier produced a clean urine test, and when they got home, 95% of them remained clean. And the 5% that didn’t remain clean tended to be soldiers who had used drugs before the war. So really what the difference was is that they were in this environment where there was this hell of war, and drugs allowed them to cope with that, it allowed them to forget that problem while they were using. But once they were out of that hell, the problem was solved and they didn’t need to use drugs anymore. And so I think that that’s a larger metaphor for the underlying reasons why people tend to use to excess, because people have problems and drugs are a pretty quick and easy way to solve your problems, at least in the short term. But the issue is that they cause long-term problems.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So like what goes on in with the scarcity loop with these people who… You talked about 75% of people who report struggling with drugs before age 24 and no longer use. So they were able to put it behind. So like what happened? Like what do you think is going on with the scarcity loop in those individuals that allowed them to put the drug or the addiction behind them? Or like even like what happened with you. Right? Something happened that you’re able to get out of that scarcity loop.
Michael Easter: Yeah. So I’ll answer this two ways, I’ll talk generalities and then I’ll talk about what happened with me. So you do tend to see that the addiction rates peak when people are younger. And this is because from about puberty to age 25, the human brain undergoes like an insane renovation, and all these different things become important to people. One of them is that teens really like to take risks, they’re more drawn to risky behavior. Another one is that this is when we learn how to cope with life, basically. We’re figuring out, How do we deal with our problems? How do we cope? And if people use drugs when they are younger, or alcohol or whatever it might be, the risk of becoming addicted greatly increases, and that’s because they’ve learned that this substance can help them solve a problem in the short term.
So for example, if you started drinking underage, 15, your risk of becoming an alcoholic is about a coin flip, it’s 50%. But if someone starts drinking when they’re 21 or after, their risk is I think 6%, which is very minimal. Right? And that’s because these changes in the brain, things are happening then, so if you introduce a substance then, it makes you more likely to want to use that substance to excess later on in your life. And so over time, what happens is that people can effectively grow out of it, it’s like they might use when they’re in their 20s and they’re going this helps me solve my problems, but then as they age and they start to realize like, Oh, this is actually creating more problems in the long haul than it’s solving, they begin to try to work to get outta that cycle.
And it is hard, I’m not saying that it’s easy at any point. It is hard, but that’s what you tend to see. For example, people might go, “Well, I wanna get married to this person,” and they’re not gonna marry someone who’s drinking this much. Or, “I want to have kids, I can’t be drinking as much as I drink when I have kids.” So the behavior changes because they have something more important to care for than their alcohol or drug use. Now, with me, I’ve thought about this a lot doing this book, and I will say that when my editor assigned me this book and was like, “Yeah, you need a chapter on addiction.” I went in thinking that addiction was a disease. So, “Okay, we’re gonna like learn about this,” it was a brain disease, basically. And I don’t know if I think that anymore, if people think that, I’m totally fine with that. Really, I just want people to… If they have a problem, to have resources to change. But I do think for me, it was very much that I had this job that was relatively unsatisfying.
I was in the office from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM five days a week, and I didn’t have a lot of money, I was living in a town I didn’t really wanna live in, I didn’t see my friends all that much, I just wasn’t doing that interesting of things. And what was interesting is, if I would drink, all of a sudden, things became unpredictable. Right? It became this sort of, every night could offer a new opportunity that I knew was gonna be far more exciting and interesting than if I had sat home and watched Netflix or whatever it is. If I go to a bar and I start drinking, it’s like, Who the hell knows what’s gonna happen? I might close this place down and be belting out Garth Brooks at 3:00 AM with some people that I just met, and that would be a blast. Or I might connect with some person I otherwise wouldn’t have. Or I could sit down at my desk and write something that I otherwise wouldn’t have sober. So it really for me, allowed me to live out on the edge and have more intense experiences than I otherwise wouldn’t have had I been sober.
So when I realized that I needed to get sober, it was very… It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done by far. But a big part of me becoming sober was that I had to find where to get stimulation and excitement in my life from other places ’cause I’ve always been drawn to extreme experiences. But if your extreme experiences come from drinking, you’re gonna find yourself with some problems, and I did. So I had to find new ways to deal with that. Started spending a lot more time doing things like back-country hunting or traveling, I got more into working out, started picking up more extreme exercise. I just found other ways to deal with that and to scratch that itch to go peak over the edges in a way that didn’t lead to these insane long-term problems that made me not like myself and made other people not really like me that much anymore.
Brett McKay: So it sounds like if you have an addiction to a substance, the key is to find, try to figure out, What’s the problem in my life that this addiction is trying to solve? And then solve it in another way with something else.
Michael Easter: Yeah. Exactly. And I think you gotta try a lot of different things, what works for one person isn’t gonna work for another. There’s this researcher… I talked to two researchers around this who are really smart. One’s name is Sally Satel, and the other is Maia Szalavitz. And Maia said, “You really see that people do find all different ways to cope, some people go to programs like a 12-step program, and that really works for them ’cause it gets them this new group of people and that gives them a higher purpose, they’re doing service. Some people go to those sorts of programs and it doesn’t work for them, but they might find a group that they rock climb with and they get really into rock climbing. And all of a sudden they’re like, ‘Oh, I have this thing in my life that’s providing me with something bigger.’ Or they get married or they have kids or they get a new job or they decide they’re gonna go get educated.” It’s the guy that I… I talked with a head psychiatrist in Iraq, and that was his big message, is that, “When people come in here and talk to me, I very much tell them, ‘We need to figure out a way to deal with your past traumas, if that’s it, and we need to find a way for you to improve your life. I want you to go to school, I want you to learn how to read, I want you to try all these different things and we’re gonna see what it takes. But it ultimately is gonna take a little bit of effort, but on the other side of that is growth.'”
Brett McKay: So one of my favorite chapters is where you talked to a philosopher out of the University of Utah about how our tendency in the modern world to quantify all aspects of our lives might be contributing to our scarcity brain and scarcity loop. So what’s going on there with quantification creating new scarcity loops for us?
Michael Easter: Yeah. I love this guy, his name is Thi Nguyen T-H-I N-G-U-Y-E-N, and he’s up at the University of Utah. And he studies games and gamification and how quantification, when we put game-like features into everyday activities, how that ultimately changes our behaviors in ways that may not be good. Now, to understand this, I will give you something of a damning admission, and that’s that I got this Instagram habit. Right? So I download Instagram initially years ago because it’s like you download it and like, Oh okay, great, I can share photos of my life with my friends and my family. And that’s it. So it’s like, “Here’s a photo of me at a concert with my wife, here’s a bunch of photos with my dog,” that sort of stuff. But then I began to realize that, Oh, I’m getting these followers who aren’t my friends and family, and certain types of photos are getting a higher number of likes and comments and shares and that sort of stuff.
So an example of this is that when I would post photos of my runs in the desert, I live on the edge of Las Vegas, and I’m very blessed to have a backyard that looks like something from an old western movie, it’s amazing. And I would run out there and post photos. And those would start to get the most likes and comments and shares and stuff. So once that happens, all of a sudden my behavior changes, I start posting more photos of that to accumulate more of those metrics. And then the worst part is that the whole reason that I was running out in the desert is that it was my time to escape, it was my time to zone out, it was my time to… It was like a moving meditation. Right? But then once that gamified Instagram system gets in my head, now when I’m out there running, I’m looking for a freaking, What would look good in an Instagram photo? And this totally changes what my run is like, it makes it something totally different, and I don’t like it.
Now, this philosopher, I came across one of his papers and it turns out that he had had the exact same thing happen to him, but it happened to him with Twitter. So he joined Twitter just to communicate with people like we all do at first, and then he had a few tweets go viral. And what ended up happening after that is that… So this guy is a philosopher, his job is to think really deep thoughts, like to go down the rabbit hole of thoughts and ideas. And he found that after he had this tweet go viral, what ends up happening is he starts… He’ll have a thought and instead of following it down that rabbit hole that it needs to go down for him to be a good philosopher, he starts thinking, “How could I turn this into a short tweet that would maybe go viral?” It changes his entire experience, a thought. Right?
And so the long story short of this is that when you gamify a system with numbers and points and shares and retweets or whatever it might be, could be great, the goal shifts to scoring points. Now, if you are playing a real, actual game like baseball, like basketball, or like Monopoly, that’s totally fine because games as they are normally constructed are supposed to be an escape from normal life. They’re not part of normal life, they’re this fun diversion we do to have some entertainment. But when you start to put a gamified system on really complicated behaviors that are part of everyday life, it changes the goals in ways that can take us away from the original meaning.
So take Twitter, it’s supposed to be this platform for people to have discussions, and it’s like, Well, what’s the goal of the discussion? There’s a lot of them. It could be to commiserate, to share information, to show empathy, to fact-check things, to do… I mean, there are so many different goals of a conversation, but once you put that scoring on Twitter, people just start to tweet to score points, they’re like, “Oh, I gotta get retweets, I gotta get likes, and that changes how you use the machine.
This is why you tend to see Twitter is like the ultimate place for people to be outraged and say crazy things because that is what the system of scoring incentivizes. It’s no longer a platform for discussion, it’s a place for people to score likes by trying to dunk on people publicly. And you can apply that same logic to really any gamified system, it’s another example, is, Great, so the point of going to college… I’m a professor, the point of going to college, what is it? There’s a lot of them. Right? It’s, you wanna learn, you wanna think critically, you wanna be able to unpack other people’s arguments, unpack your own arguments, you wanna be able to question yourself, you also wanna learn how to be social.
You need to learn how to get your stuff together so you can turn things in on time, you have to balance work and other stuff, you have to learn how to not be a jerk at parties, there’s a million different things that you learn at college. But once you start to slap grades on to things, which is the simplified gamified thing with the 4.0 scale, all my students really obsess about is their grade, not whether they learn the material, not whether they’ve been able to think critically and prepare for this future out in the employment world, they all obsess about their grades. And I have personally found as a professor that the best students, they don’t get the A’s, the best students are free-thinking, they might be working other jobs, they’re questioning things, they’re gonna do things a little differently to test the edges and really think. They tend to get a B+ or A-. But it’s the A students that get recruited by companies, and the A students tend to just simply be more robotic. It’s like, Okay, just fill out the sheet, make it perfect. Get the A, move on with your life, whether or not I really know the material or not.
Brett McKay: Well, what you highlight in the book is that with all these things that we want to quantify or gamify, whether it’s Instagram, grades, you all see this with fitness apps and trackers like The Whoop, in your sleep score. What you’re trying to do with these things is you’re trying to put a number on something that’s otherwise ambiguous, like you don’t know for sure what your social status is, where you are in the pecking order, how smart you are or how healthy you are, but what these numbers do is that they give you… It gives you something concrete, but they may not… They might not be accurate, like it doesn’t actually reflect reality, but you still let the numbers affect everything, like your mood, your self-perception, your motivations, and your actions.
Michael Easter: Yeah. It goes back to the… Humans love certainty, this is why real games work, they give us this escape. Life is very complicated and complex, everything is ambiguous, but in a real game, what makes it fun is that you take on these obstacles and at the end of it, you know exactly whether or not you did the right or wrong thing. If you are playing basketball with some friends, you know whether you won, you know whether you lost, with most of life’s big decisions like education or what to do at work or who to marry or what food you should eat to avoid this… I mean all of these big decisions, they’re ambiguous, you never get a clear yes or no answer, but with gamified systems, they allege to give you a clear answer on whether you did the right or wrong thing. The problem is, of course, they don’t… It’s like with Whoop, it all goes into this black box algorithm, there’s a ton of assumptions, it’s also based on data about ideas like HRV and what respiratory rate means and what heart rate really means.
These are all things that… The science isn’t settled on these things by any means and it’s all based on these very potentially flawed human judgments. And so, What does it really mean? It doesn’t. But if you can just see like, Oh my God, my Whoop this morning, it said I got a 94, I gotta work out today. Or conversely, if it’s in the red and you’re not gonna work out because of that, that seems like a questionable judgment.
Brett McKay: So yeah, what the quantification does, it creates scarcity loops that probably don’t need to be created.
Michael Easter: Yeah. Exactly. It’s basically preying on our need for certainty, putting us into this loop where we’re gonna get these random unpredictable rewards in the form of points. Like if you have a sleep tracker, when you wake up in the morning, you’re probably checking that thing first thing, How did I do? But it’s probably highly flawed. And whether or not you slept well, it’s like, Well, you’re still gonna do the same thing you’re gonna do. Right?
So I think that what tends to happen is that we just gravitate to scoring points rather than experiencing or doing the activity for many of its original goals. The point of Whoop is to help you, I guess, increase your fitness. But it’s like, Well, why do you wanna increase your fitness? It’s not to score points on your Whoop, it’s probably to have these experiences in life that are inherently important about being a human that you’re gonna need to be fit for. It could be being around for when your grandkids are around, seeing them crawl on the ground, it could be like, You know what? I get a ton of rewards from going out on these seven-day backpacking excursions and I wanna be fit for that. And I think that sometimes we forget that, we don’t define, What are all these reasons I’m doing this everyday behavior in the first place? And we tend to just default to obsessing about whether we got the right or wrong number of points.
Brett McKay: And what that point system can do, it can end up… It’s a nocebo, it’s the opposite of a placebo. Placebo is like if you think something’s gonna work, it’s gonna work. A nocebo is the opposite of that, like, Well, if you get negative feedback, it makes you think that you can’t do the thing, so it demotivates you. So with the Whoop, if you get the low score, it’s like, Well, yeah, you’re not ready to work out. Well, you think, “Well, yeah, I can’t work out,” and so you don’t. And it’s like, actually, you probably could have worked out and had a great workout if you just ignored your Whoop score. Or you as a writer, I’m sure you struggle with… You mentioned this with Instagram. You put something out there on an Instagram post or maybe a newsletter and it doesn’t get that many opens or engagement and you think, “Oh man, I suck, why am I doing what I’m doing?” You start questioning your careers. You experience that status defeat that the numbers gives you, when if you just had ignored that or just didn’t even have those numbers, you wouldn’t have been affected. So how do you avoid those scarcity loops especially when it comes to social status in your own life?
Michael Easter: Yeah. So the three parts of the loop are opportunity, unpredictable rewards, and quick repeatability. So to me, what gamification does is it really changes the opportunity. It’s changing the opportunity of any behavior from all these deeper, more meaningful things down to scoring these random points that some coder in Palo Alto came up with. So I think for me, it’s like I have to remind myself, What is the opportunity of this thing that I’m doing? What am I really doing this for? The answer is never to score points, the answer is usually to improve the life of others if we’re talking about content that I put out as a journalist and a writer. And that could be on social too, so I’ve started to shift my Instagram to being like the goal of this is to inform people, give them information that can hopefully help their lives and help others. So if I’m using it in a way that is divorced from that, then I’m not using it for the goal that I want it to.
And the metrics, they can be useful, they can not be useful too. I could have a post bomb, but then I get a message from someone who’s like, “Hey, I saw that post, I started practicing that. Dude, that changed my life, I lost 15 pounds. I went to the doctor and he was like, ‘Hey, your triglycerides levels are looking great.'” It’s like that is what we’re after and that is what points can never capture it.
Brett McKay: Right. So the rest of the book, you talk about different ways you can engage in scarcity loops in nonscarcity loop ways. So like for diet, for example, you highlight, “If you want a nonscarcity loop diet, it’s gonna look pretty boring, you’re just gonna eat the same sort of foods. They don’t taste terrible, they’re palatable, but they’re not hyper-palatable like the food you get out of a convenience store. And if you just eat the same thing every day, that’s food that’s taste okay, you’re gonna be okay probably. That’ll help you avoid that scarcity loop diet.”
Michael Easter: Yeah. I agree. So what I found to be really interesting is, just like there’s these casino laboratories researching the scarcity loop to get you to gamble more, turns out this is also happening in the food industry. There’s labs across the country figuring out, How do we get people to eat faster? I mentioned before that junk food executive who basically said, “The three Vs of being able to have a junk food take off is value, variety, and velocity.” So with any scarcity loop behavior, if you can take away any one of the three parts, you can start to reduce the behavior around it. And so in the case of junk food, it really sells well because there is such a wide variety. It’s like if you go to the grocery store right now, there’s like 75 different kinds of Doritos, and that makes us more likely to overeat when we have all these different amazing tasting foods. So if you can eat mostly the same stuff every day that isn’t super hyper-palatable, but it’s still… It’s good, but it’s like not every meal you have has to be this explosion of flavor, that can be a good thing. And also changing the velocity and a quick repeatability. So people tend to eat ultra-processed foods significantly faster than they do foods that are less processed, like lean meats and vegetables and whole grains. Like you just can’t eat those foods that fast. And this seems to allow you to better figure out when you are full, and in turn not overeat.
Now it’s shown in studies, where they’ll give people a… Everything about the food is the same in terms of macronutrients and salt and all those things, but in one group, the food will be hyper-processed, ultra processed, on the other, it’ll be very minimally processed. And the people who are eating the ultra-processed food eat about 500 extra calories a day, they end up gaining weight. And it’s opposite in the group that eats the less-processed stuff. And to really get to the bottom of this is what was a really interesting trip. I traveled into the Bolivian Amazon because there is a tribe there called The Tsimané who have the healthiest hearts ever recorded by science. So this is important because the average American, if you look at the data, they really worry about cancer, they really worry about things like mass shootings. It’s not that those things aren’t dangerous, but compared to heart disease, heart disease is what kills people, kills like half of people, it’s the number-one cause of death by far for all Americans, and yet we totally ignore it.
And so I travel down there, and what really stuck out to me is that they’re basically eating… They have a wide variety of foods they’re eating, but it all comes down to that they mostly just have one ingredient and they’re not super delicious. So there’s not as much incentive to just eat any meat like we do when things are really delicious. And not to mention that foods that have just one ingredient, like fruits, vegetables, lean meats, rice, potatoes, plantains, things like that, those are so much more filling and you just can’t eat that much of them, where I could sit down right now and probably smash an entire thing of Doritos if I really put my mind to it. If I sat down with an equivalent bag of carrots and broccoli, dude, I’d get like an eighth of the way through it and be like, “Oh my God, this is so much, there’s no way I can do this.”
Brett McKay: And you also talk about… You explored your shopping binge you went on during the COVID lockdowns. And I think it’s a perfect example of the scarcity loop when it comes to stuff. You were understimulated, you couldn’t go out anywhere. And then you had this scarcity loop. You had the opportunity, you’re on Amazon, you had unpredictable rewards, you never knew what you’re gonna find on some websites saying, “Here is this product you need to buy to help you navigate the pandemic.” And then you’re able to do it fast. And you said, To counter that scarcity loop when it comes to our stuff, you had this need of your heuristic. And you just start thinking of your stuff as gear. How can thinking of your stuff as gear help you overcome the scarcity loop when it comes to buying crap?
Michael Easter: Yeah. Well, I think that there’s a handful of reasons why people buy. One is because the item is a piece of gear, meaning that it is helping us accomplish something. Right? It serves this higher purpose of allowing us to do something greater. There’s also buying for status. So this is like when you buy say the really nice… The car that’s nicer than your neighbors because you wanna one-up another person. We see this all the time. I mean it’s what luxury brands really thrive on. You can also buy something to belong, so this could be something like a football jersey so you can be with your friends and like you’re all in your Cleveland Browns jerseys or whatever it is. And then there’s also for boredom. Let’s be honest, I think that during the pandemic, you saw such a spike in purchasing because to how you put it, is that people were understimulated and it was like, You got to do something.
And we’re creatures who evolved to add, who evolved to acquire items when we could. And so in that setting we’re like, “Okay, yeah, I’ll just do what I’ve always done and just buy some stuff.” But I think so much of what we buy now is… We don’t need it. The average home now has 10,000 items. And the vast… I think the world as a whole spends a trillion or more dollars on stuff they don’t need anymore. It’s like this insane amount of stuff that people have. And I found myself going down this rabbit hole during the pandemic. Like I’m on first-name… I was on first-name basis with my UPS guy. I was like, “What the hell is happening here?” Then I learned about the scarcity loop, and that, of course, was it. Right? I was using stuff, I was getting caught in this like search for random items, and when I’d find it, it was like, Oh, exciting. Jackpot. And then it would arrive and then I’d repeat the cycle again.
So seeing your items and purchases through the lens of gear rather than stuff I think is a useful heuristic for saying, “Okay, what is this allowing me to accomplish?” Because a piece of gear is ultimately a tool to accomplish something bigger. So framing, reframing my purchases through that has been pretty useful for me to not just buy as much stuff that I don’t need, which has saved a lot of money.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And you also talk about, Minimalism can turn into a scarcity loop, where you’re just constantly purging stuff. So you buy the stuff which feels good, but then also, it feels really good to purge. I’m guilty of this, I love purging stuff, and I just throw away stuff that probably shouldn’t be thrown away. Like I get carried away and I end up… My kids are like, “Dad, what happened to my homework?” And I’m like, “Oh, well, it was on the floor, so I guess it wasn’t important, I threw it away, sorry.” So we have to go dig through the trash. But that’s a scarcity loop. Like the whole minimalism thing can turn into a scarcity loop too.
Michael Easter: Yeah. I talked to a psychologist who studies how humans relate to their possessions, and her first point was like, “Look, in the grand scheme of things, we’re all hoarders today, in the grand scheme of time and space. Like we all have way more things than anyone has ever had in the past.” And that applies to all socioeconomic groups. For the first time ever, even people who are in lower socioeconomic status can compulsively buy. That’s never been possible. But as it relates to minimalism, she had this amazing point, that was, “When I study how people relate to possessions, there’s essentially two groups, there’s people who are accumulators, so these are people who buy and buy and buy, they don’t like to get rid of stuff, they tend to have a lot of stuff. But then there’s this other group which are more minimalist people. And what happens with them is they get really into organizing things, purging things, making sure things are just so.” Now, the driving force between both of these, she thinks, is that it gives people a sense of control.
So if you’re buying a lot of stuff, you’re like, “Okay, I can solve any problem that comes my way, I’m using this to deal with stress.” But with minimalism, it’s often the same thing, it’s like people are stressed, and having too much makes them even more stressed, and so they purge it. But what happens with everyone is that people slowly acquire over time and then we go, “Oh my God, I have too much.” And so then we go on a minimalist blog and we’re like, “I need to be a minimalist.” Then we purge all our stuff and then we slowly start to reaccumulate it. So her point was that you need to get into the underlying why you either want to accumulate more or purge more stuff in the first place because that’s how you can eventually end that cycle of buying, purging, buying, purging, buying, purging, buying, purging.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So one thing you did for this book is you went to a monastery in New Mexico to learn about taming the scarcity brain. What did you learn at this monastery?
Michael Easter: Yeah. These guys at the monastery were so interesting because there’s so much information out about how to be more happy and a lot of it is backed by some research or another, there’s always new research coming out. And we’ve got this giant wellness industry in the United States. But what you’ve tend to seen is that people are generally less happy than they ever have been in the United States. And it’s not just the US, I mean I think we’re maybe especially worse off compared to comparable countries. But overall, I think the world is generally becoming unhappier when you look at the data. And these monks in this monastery that I went to are so interesting because they’re not doing all these things that I think people think classically will make them happy. They don’t own anything, they have a really hard lifestyle. And the fact that they get up at 3:00 AM to pray, and they pray seven times a day. They do 4 hours of hard labor every single day.
Their meals, they don’t eat that much, they’re asked to like, “Don’t overdo it with food.” They’re also silent for most of the day, so they’re not exceedingly social. Like they’re around people, but it’s not like they’re yucking it up all day. And yet, despite all that, despite the hardship and the austerity of their life, when researchers do studies on them and ask them about their subjective wellbeing, which is the sciencey way of saying “happiness,” they always score far higher than the general public. And so that shouldn’t make sense. Right? It’s like you look at that life on paper, you’re like, “Oh man, that sounds like a prison sentence.”
But I think the takeaway with them is that they’re not worried about being happy, they realize that a lot of the things that we traditionally think are gonna make us happy, like the next possession, like getting the bigger house, like having the nice meal out, like all these different accumulations. They call them… They call it “worldliness,” it ultimately doesn’t lead to lasting happiness. And really, they’re not even focused on happiness at all, they really are dedicated to giving themselves over to something larger than themself, to helping others, to working towards a common goal of getting close to, again, something bigger than themselves, and just chasing that. And as they’ve done that, doing the next right thing, they’ve found themselves happy. And I think that that’s a good lesson for all of us. The lesson, I think, for the average person is that chasing things you think are going to make you happy, that maybe you read is like, “Oh, this is the key to happiness.” That’s probably gonna backfire in the long run. Instead, it’s like, Do the next right thing that helps another person that gets you out of yourself. It may not always be easy, but ultimately that seems to be what is most rewarding for humans.
Brett McKay: Right, yeah, I think the monks would say… Like St. Augustine talked about this, he said that famous prayer, like, “Our hearts are restless, oh Lord, until they rest in You.” I think like these monks would say, “Well, all these desires for, I don’t know, social status, for food, for sex, for stuff… He says, “Basically, those are like we… ” I think they would say like, “We all desire the Good, like capital G Good. Getting Instagram likes, nicotine, alcohol, those are our attempts at trying to get the good, but like it’s not gonna give you the good.” And you see this in other faith traditions like Buddhism. That’s all Buddhism’s about, is that desire is what leads to unhappiness. And you gotta somehow figure out how to… You get to see beyond the illusion that worldly fulfillment of desires will bring you happiness. And realize, That’s not gonna be the case. So you got to look for something bigger. And this stuff of overcoming the scarcity brain, humans have been trying to figure this out for millennia.
Michael Easter: Oh, totally. And I think that what’s different today is that we have such an abundance of these things that we’re naturally drawn to those “worldly things,” as the monks will put it. And we also live in a world where we’ve got laboratories figuring out how to push us into more of those things, whether it’s a food laboratory, whether it’s the casino laboratory, whether it’s a laboratory in Palo Alto watching every swipe you do and how long you look at every photo so they can give you more of what you want. I think that’s the real challenge of today, it’s a much harder world to navigate. Now, the upside of it is that it’s a really promising world in the sense that like people don’t die of infections anymore, you’re not gonna starve. There’s all these things that used to be really hard about everyday life that we don’t have to deal with anymore. But within that promise, there is a lot of peril, and figuring out how to navigate that I think is challenging, but that is ultimately what it means to live a good life, is trying to improve yourself as a human and realizing that it’s not always gonna be easy and that the journey is what’s important, not arriving at this ultimate destination.
Brett McKay: Well, Michael, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Michael Easter: Yeah. The book is called Scarcity Brain, and my website is eastermichael, and then I also send out a three times weekly newsletter called 2%, and that’s at twopct.com.
Brett McKay: Fantastic, well, Michael Easter, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Michael Easter: Yeah. Thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Michael Easter, he’s the author of the book Scarcity Brain, it’s available on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about his work at his website, eastermichael.com. Also, check out our show notes at aon.is/scarcitybrain, where you find links to resources, we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles that we’ve written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple or Podcast or Spotify, helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think could get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to all listen to the AoM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.