The Psychology of Scarcity: Why the Seagulls Fight


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While sitting in a waterfront park on my lunch break, I observed a flock of seagulls engaging in all sorts of activities. Some of these gallant birds were leisurely floating in the shallows, soaking up the springtime sun, while others were feverishly scavenging for food. The ones that kept my attention, however, were the ones soaring with reckless abandonment near immovable objects while being chased by a small group of their flock-mates. Each incident involved a bird attempting to out maneuver up to 6 flying assailants, while holding on to a small morsel of food in its beak. It made me wonder, why would the freest animal on the planet feel the need to fight?

Those silly birds like we silly humans, are caught in the illusion of scarcity. In the book Influence, Robert Cialdini explains the value of using the psychology of scarcity to get people to say yes to what you’re asking. It’s why sales are always for a limited time while supplies last, why diamonds are expensive, and why Mcribs are seasonal. However, the scarcity mindset can also be debilitating. It shortens a person’s horizons and narrows his perspective, creating a dangerous tunnel vision. The anxiety caused by the feeling of scarcity reduces brainpower and willpower, further reducing cognitive function.

According to the Economist, feeling poor or being anxious about friendlessness lowers a person’s IQ in the same way as a night without sleep. In one experiment, a random group of people were told that their results on a personality test suggested a life of loneliness. This random subset subsequently performed worse on intelligence tests and found it harder to resist the chocolate-chip cookies provided for them.

The primitive urge to fight for survival is prevalent in all animals, including humans. Politicians, marketers and society at large perpetuate the falsehood that there are insufficient resources to fulfill all human wants and needs by creating new wants and needs. People who believe themselves to be poor are constantly bombarded with messages about the opulence of others, which they then comparatively perceive as proof of their own poverty.This leads to the type of tunnel vision that causes jealousy and crime – much like the seagulls viciously chasing their flock-mate for only a crumb.

So how do we escape the cycle of scarcity? Interesting enough a Harvard economist and a psychologist at Princeton wrote an entire book on the subject that can be summarized in the following sentence: Poor people can stop being poor by not making the decisions that poor people make – Seriously?

I think the observation of birds fighting along with some eastern philosophy can offer a slightly different and simpler answer: “The desire (in the form of assumed scarcity) is the root of all suffering.” Just as the seagulls viewed that desired crumb as the last crumb on earth, we view the things we desire with same tunneled intensity. While chasing our tangible or intangible desire, we ignore all of the natural abundance life has to offer. The planet is unfathomably large and nothing with the exception of your time on it is actually scarce.

Side note: Last year, a report published by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers found that 2 billion tons of food produced around the world ends up in a landfill before it even reaches the consumer. Makes you wonder why in 2014 hunger still exists…

One Reply to “The Psychology of Scarcity: Why the Seagulls Fight”

  1. Angelique says:

    I see you threw the McRib in there. Lol.

    I think you make a good point. A lot of us live as though happiness is rationed and joy is on short supply and it just isn’t so.

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