Dieting and the Scarcity Heuristic

December 18, 2013

There is a concept in psychology and behavioral economics known as the scarcity heuristic. It simply means that when there is something that we want but are afraid we can’t have it, we want it even more. But scarcity affects more than how much we want something; it also affects how we behave when we find it. And that has important implications for our patterns of consumption, both economic and gastronomic.

It’s now the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas, after Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It’s a time when retailers try to create the impression that you have a unique but brief opportunity to buy their products on sale. But you have to do it now, because soon they’ll be gone and you won’t have this chance again.

The reality, of course, is that manufacturers and retailers know well in advance how many units of each product need to be produced and there will be no shortage. But by making you believe that demand is greater than supply, they create a sense of desperation to buy now because if you wait, you’ll lose out. This may be great for the economy, but as a psychologist I’m more interested in how this might affect us in other ways that may be less benign; like how we think about food and why we overeat.

Biologists who study foraging behavior have found that when animals search for food as a group they find it faster than those that forage alone. There was one downside to doing it this way, though: once they found a patch of food, each individual in the group had to compete with the others so they don’t get left out and go hungry. This created a competitive scramble that probably looked a lot like the 6am scrum at the JCPenney door buster sale. It seems we’re just hardwired to take advantage of holiday sales because as foragers it was a strategy for survival.

I think this can help us understand other behaviors as well, especially something like emotional eating, which is my area of specialty as a psychologist. Even though in most of the world today there’s no actual food scarcity, we still feel desperate when we believe that we won’t get our fair share. Have you ever walked into the break room at work and found that someone brought in a plate of cookies? Even if you’re not really in the mood for a cookie just then, you wonder if there’ll be anything left later when you might want one. So you take it while you have the chance.

A more serious version of this, however, involves chronic restrictive dieting. Regardless of how much food is available, if you’re a strict dieter, you’ll always feels like there’s a food scarcity. The knowledge that you can’t – or rather, the feeling that you shouldn’t eat what you like can make you feel constantly deprived. Yet you keep trying your best to stay on track and resist. Most of the time you’ll succeed, but there’s only one way to be perfect and countless ways not to – especially at this time of year, when the opportunities to eat seem endless.

And when you, as a dieter, do let down your guard and allow yourself the chance to have a “forbidden” food, it’s not enough to just have some. Because once you give in, the gates are open and the urge to keep eating is hard to resist, just like that hungry forager who finally finds a patch of food. He would say, “I better eat while I can, because if I wait it will be gone and who knows when I’ll have the chance again!” The dieter says, “I better eat while I can, because once I go back on my diet I’ll stay on it forever, and who knows when I’ll have the chance again!”

I tell my patients that the only question to ask yourself when you’re making a decision to eat is simply, Do I want this? If you’re on a diet you can’t answer that question honestly, because you’re always supposed to say no. But if you allow yourself to eat what you like, then an honest answer to the question, Do I want this? will let you to enjoy eating without overindulging. Because if the answer is yes, you eat; if the answer is no, you move on. There will always be another chance when you really do want it.

You may enjoy the experience of foraging for toys among a herd of bargain hunters. But no one who struggles with emotional eating enjoys the guilt and shame that accompanies every encounter with food. The conflict that occurs when the diet mentality meets an eating opportunity can be avoided when all foods are good, and permitted, and back on the menu. Then an enjoyable meal without anxiety will no longer be a scarce resource.

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One Response to “Dieting and the Scarcity Heuristic”

  1. Ionna Says:

    Wow… I am overwhelmed by the studied accuracy of the article. I am dealing with this problem myself. Interestingly, there has been only one year in my life when I was really able to diet strictly and lost all the weight I disliked. That happened 2 years ago. Since then, I have been struggling with my obsession with food and losing weight. I have now better understood that it stems from mental depriving. This depriving is subliminal. You do not get aware of it unless there is such an expert as you who discloses the scientific explanation. I am very grateful. I would like to ask you yet: in my effort to implement this whole new course of thinking, which are the concrete small steps? Because it seems to me that I do not have the power. I feel afraid that if I allow myself to eat whatever I shall also eat without measure. How can I gain the power to listen to that low voice: ”You do not want this. It is enough”?


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