Intro. [Recording date: October 9, 2023.]
Russ Roberts: Today is October 9th, 2023 and my guest is author Michael Easter. This is Michael's second appearance on EconTalk, first here in July of 2021 discussing his book, The Comfort Crisis.
Our topic for today is his new book, The Scarcity Brain: Fix Your Craving Mindset and Rewire Your Habits to Thrive with Enough. Michael, welcome back to EconTalk.
Michael Easter: Thanks for having me back, Russ.
Russ Roberts: What is the Scarcity Brain?
Michael Easter: It's this feeling that we can't get enough. Everyone knows that everything is fine in moderation. Then the question is: Well, why are we all so bad at moderating?
So, the book sort of investigates the roots of that and spends a lot of time looking today, looking specifically at how today, technology has really allowed corporations, different entities, to figure out what gets us to not moderate and push us into more.
Russ Roberts: And, this is a topic we've touched on many, many times here in the program. It fascinates me. Especially if you are trained as a rational economist believing in rational behavior, it seems to be easy to deal with the scarcity brain. Just: 'I have enough, I don't have to--I don't need to be eating all the stuff I shouldn't be eating or gambling compulsively,'--to the topics you spend some time on among others. Why can't we fix that? Why is that so challenging for us?
Michael Easter: Well, I think when you look at it in that sort of grand, sweeping historical perspective, less never made sense when we look at the things that kept us alive. So, everything from food to possessions to information to status. Right? If you were the type of person who overdid those things, who leaned into more, you would have a survival advantage. Right? More food always made sense because we lived in environments of food scarcity. If you had more tools that you could use, that was probably a good thing. If you had more status or influence over others, that was also a good thing. That would get you out of crappy menial labor, all these different things.
And so, really it's this evolutionary mismatch between: we came up in these worlds of scarcity where more always made sense and now we live in a world of abundance of all these things, from food to stuff to information to status and influence, and on and on.
Russ Roberts: Now, you start your book with a really fascinating look at the gambling industry, and let's start the way you do. The revolutionary change in this business in the role of the slot machine--the slot machine used to be this forgotten thing over in the corner. And now it dominates the casinos. I don't go in casinos very often. I went in one the other day--probably the first time in, I don't know, 20 years. And, there's slot machines everywhere. It seems like it's just slot machines. And they're not like the slot machines of yesterday. So, tell us what was the breakthrough there for the industry and how it's related to the Scarcity Brain.
Michael Easter: Yeah. So, before about 1980, as you sort of alluded to, very few people played slot machines. Now, the reason for this, frankly, is because they were very boring. They were slow to play. And, when you would win, you wouldn't win that much, and the wins were very infrequent. Right: so, you would play a game, lose; play a game, lose; play a game, lose; play a game--on and on and on until, 'Oh, ding, ding, ding, I won some money.' So, you get these infrequent wins or exciting events.
Now, in the 1080s, you have this guy come in whose name is Syred, and he's, like, kind of this--he's a great character. He's this old school Vegas guy who'd kind of roll around in Cadillacs and maroon suits with the big bolo ties with turquoise. And, he makes this observation that his grandkids, they will play the Atari video game system for hours and hours. And he goes, 'That's fascinating.' They just keep playing and playing. But it doesn't make any sense because you don't actually win anything when you play Atari.' But he wonders: 'Can I take some of the lessons from Atari and apply them to slot machines?'
So, what he does is he digitizes slot machines. Now once he does that, this allows for a few different things that allow him to make gaming--slot machine gaming--less boring. That's the key.
He makes it so the wins are more frequent; but what he does is they're not true wins. What he dials up is what are called losses disguised as wins. So this is when, let's say, you bet $1 on a game and you, quote-unquote, "win" 50 cents.
Now the important part is that this is still exciting for people. Right? You still feel like you've won something. Not to mention the machine cues you to believe that something exciting has happened, right? It still goes ding, ding, ding, ding, ding; you still see the money go up.
But, over time, obviously, you lose your money, right? So, what that does is that it gives these sort of unpredictable little losses disguised as wins.
He also increases the speed of gambling. So, in the past, you would hit this lever and it would take a while to play a game, right? It would be spin, spin, spin, clonk, clonk, clonk. You'd hit the lever again. He eventually takes out the levers. And, this increases the rate at which people can gamble. It basically--that people go from I think being able to play, about, I believe the number was 350 to 400 games an hour to 900. So he dials up the speed.
And, the important part is that he really starts figuring out this idea that I talk about in the book, and I call it the scarcity loop.
So, if you want to push a person into past moderation or get them fixated on something, this behavior loop will do it.
And it's got three parts. It's got: One, opportunity. It's got: Two, unpredictable rewards. And, it's got: Three, quick repeatability.
So, opportunity: you have an opportunity to get something of value, okay? So, in the case of a slot machine, it's money.
Two, unpredictable rewards. You know you're going to get that thing of value at some point, but you don't know when and you don't know how valuable it's going to be. So, with the slot machine game, the wheels are spinning. You could win nothing. You could win the 50 cents on your dollar bet, okay? Or you could win $50,000, right? So, there's this insane range of outcomes that could happen, and that attracts all animals. Unpredictable rewards, we just focus on unpredictability.
And then: Three, the quick repeatability. You can repeat the behavior immediately, over and over and over. So, this is unlike standard habits or behaviors. In the book I talk about, if you have an itch, you scratch the itch. One, it's predictable. You know the itch will go away. And then, two, you don't repeat the behavior because if you keep repeating the behavior, you've got OCD [Obsessive-Compulsive disorder], right?
But, with slot machines, it's: You play; you don't know what's going to happen. 'What's going to happen? What's going to happen? Oh, we lost this game. Let's see if we'll win the next one,' right? And, you can immediately repeat that.
Now, I think the important point in what the book gets to is that I think the gambling industry really unearthed the power of this system and how if you put, you use this unpredictable rewards and make the behavior quickly repeatable, you can get people to sit on slot machines for a really long time.
And, living in Vegas, I can tell you people sit on slot machines for a very long time.
Russ Roberts: So, I really love the metaphor you gave of trying to start a car. If you try to start your car and nothing happens--you don't hear any noise--after two or three times, you realize your car is not going to start and you give up. If it comes to life for a second or make some kind of noise, and if the noise is different the first two or three times, you don't give up: you keep trying. And, those are little wins. Those are the equivalent of losses disguised as wins.
And, I think it's a somewhat ubiquitous phenomenon. I think--I want you to try to make the case that it's more ubiquitous than slot machines.
It's not obvious to me, it's the same as, say, eating. When I eat a whole can of Pringles, I'm pretty sure it's that it's pretty predictable. But, when I play with Twitter, it's pretty accurate, right? I might find something interesting: 'Oh, that's pretty interesting'; 'Well, that's incredibly interesting'; and I keep scrolling and get new results all the time. So, social media really has perfected this scarcity loop that gives you the scarcity brain. But, where else do I see it? You do see it elsewhere, correct?
Michael Easter: Yeah. Social media is a great example. And, it appears that social media companies did look at the gambling industry and go, 'Oh, well, how does that work?' Right? You also see it in dating apps. Swipe, swipe, swipe, 'Oh, I matched.' Is it that really beautiful person that I just stared at for 30 seconds their picture? Or was that one that I was, like, 'Ehh, come on. Fancy[?] about that one'?
You also see it in the, obviously, the rise of sports gambling, right? And, one thing that became interesting about sports gambling, and it has just absolutely taken off in the United States, unbelievable, is that they dialed up the quick repeatability. So, now with sports gambling, you can bet on down to the second occurrences within games because the thing about a sports game is you bet on one game, it's like you may not bet again for three hours. And so, 'Well, if I can bet that on this next play, the Green Bay Packers are going to score a touchdown. Well, great.' And then I can do the next one, the next one.
I think you see it in the financial system--personal finance apps like Robinhood--who dialed up the quick repeatability by taking away fees for trades. So, once you do that, it's easier to repeat trades across the day.
What's interesting is, you bring up the food system, and there's a food executive--basically a junk food executive in the book--who says if you want to make a snack food successful, it's got to have three Vs. This is his language. He said it's got to have value, it's got to have variability, and it's got to have velocity. So, value: get a lot of calories for the money. Variability: there's an explosion of flavor in every bite--One. But Two, when you go and try and select which Pringles you want, Russ, I mean, are you going to get the pizza ones? Are you going to get the cheddar cheese? Are you going to get the barbecue or are you going to get--on and on and on, right? You're staring down 25 cans.
And then, velocity: the food has to be quick to consume. So, when you look at research on how people consume minimally processed food versus ultra-processed food, i.e. junk food, people generally eat far more of an ultra-processed food simply because it's much faster to consume. Right? The chips, they hit your mouth, they get this nice, crunchy thing, and then they just dissolve and they're down, right? And then, you got another bite. Whereas, if you were to sit down and eat broccoli, like, how much raw broccoli are you really going to eat in a sitting? Like, that never happens, right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah, but I think that--just to be picky for a minute, and I don't think it takes away from the main point--the dazzling flavor fest of modern junk food is part of the appeal. It's not quite the same, I would say, as variability in it of, say, the reward with gambling. I think I'm not alone in finding my consumption of certain types of junk food, and other types even, compulsive--where, as I'm reaching for the second, third, and fourth one while the first, second, and third one are still in my mouth, right? That doesn't happen with broccoli, and part of the reason is that broccoli is just now--the algorithm for the broccoli is just not that exciting. I enjoy it: I like broccoli. I like it a little more with a little bit of olive oil and freshly cracked pepper; I like it more with cheese on it. And, with that, it's starting to head toward a potato chip in terms of the explosive thrill that happens. But I wouldn't say--it doesn't seem to me to be the same variability that happens with the wins in the slot machine. Maybe that's not important.
Michael Easter: Yeah, no, I agree. I give a lot of examples in the book, and I don't think that all of them are a one-to-one from the slot machine. But I do think especially when you apply the--I mean, the loop directly is in things like social media; it's in the dating apps, it's in a lot of tech. But, I think you start to see elements of it describe a lot of human behaviors that we overdo. Junk food being one of them, the velocity. I do think that the unpredictable rewards are not a one-to-one with gambling. But it is a big range of outcomes of: How's this food going to taste? And, so.
Russ Roberts: And my brother pointed out to me a long ago that the secret to restraining yourself with potato chips as you take one, then you put the Pringles on top of the refrigerator using a step stool that you can't easily reach otherwise. Put the step stool away, eat the one, maybe you go back, get a second. Try to reduce the speed with which you can go back.
Russ Roberts: I find myself pushing the mixed nut container farther away from me on the table after I've taken a handful and somebody cruelly pushes it back. I need that--that slightly higher cost--or I'm in trouble, at least in my previous life. I feel like with the help of your book and my conversation with Peter Attia and the app I'm using on my phone, I've pretty much solved it. But, I still have some weaknesses.
Michael Easter: Yeah. I mean, I will say the quicker that you can repeat a rewarding behavior, the quicker you will repeat that rewarding behavior. So, speed is really sort of the ultimate killer.
And, you saw that in the rise of slot machines. It really was tweaking: How do we make this faster?
So, a good example is that if you lose in a game, it just immediately shuts off, nothing happens. Like the reels: clonk, clonk, clonk. Okay, you're done. And, you can hit that speed button really fast. Now, if something exciting happens, the sort of celebration is really drawn out, right? So, they want you to sort of be cued, like, 'Oh my God, that was amazing. That's so much fun.' If you win, it's not just going to, 'Okay, you won some money and party's over.' No, we've got to make it a party. But, if you lose, it's, like, 'Yeah, no party.' Just: 'You know what to do. Hit the button again.'
And, what I think is interesting is that I talked to one psychologist who said, 'When I see humans on their cell phones, I see rats in the cage hitting the lever for the unpredictable reward game.' And, I mean, these systems really do sort of train us. I don't see a huge difference between when I tell my dog to sit; he sits and I give him the treat. It's like: Okay, that's classic training, right? But, when I go on social media and I post the thing and then I wait for the hearts to come in and the retweets and whatever it might be, like, I don't see that much difference in that behavior. It's the system is cueing us exactly what to do, and we get a reward from that.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's kind of dehumanizing when you think about it. I don't know if it's better or worse to be aware of it. I like the idea that if I'm aware of how dehumanizing it is, maybe it'll help me reduce my addiction.
Russ Roberts: You have a nice distinction, a subtle distinction, about dopamine that I had not heard before. A lot of people assume dopamine in the brain--this chemical--is what we're seeking when we tweet or eat or look for success on social media or gamble, but you had a slightly different take on it.
Michael Easter: Yeah. So, really, dopamine has sort of been positioned as the pleasure chemical. And, there's some old neuroscientists--neuroscience--that explains why we think that. But we've since learned that it is more the chemical that gets us to pursue pleasure.
So, what actually gives us pleasure is a part of the brain called the liking system. Now, when you do a new behavior--you've never done it--and it turns out it's rewarding, your brain will pump out dopamine, and your liking system will light up. But, after you've done that enough times, dopamine is really there pushing you into, 'Do the pleasurable thing,' and then you get the lighting up of the liking system.
And, I think that it's interesting because I do think to a certain extent, we're in a time of research and communication where everyone thinks dopamine is everything. And, while it obviously pushes people to do pleasurable things, it does a lot of other things in the body that are very important. And, I guess one of the reasons that I talk about this in the book is because it's almost as if people blame bad behaviors on, 'Oh, it's just my--it's neuroscientists; it's this neurochemicals, I'm a slave to these chemicals,' and I don't think it's exactly that way. I think people have a little more agency than they might think.
Russ Roberts: So, when you're talking about the unpredictable, the reward, for some reason, it reminded me of when I was younger and I used to go fishing a lot. Fishing is a lot like playing a slot machine, but every once in a while, you're going to catch a small fish, but maybe, maybe you're going to catch a really big fish. And, that jackpot sustains you through a day when you don't really catch very much or you only catch small fish because you know there's a chance.
And, you talk about an experience in wilderness: a woman who collects antlers and has this--it's a form of fishing. And, you don't talk much about the comfort crisis in this new book, but clearly, these pre-digital forms of gambling, addictive behavior--I used to love to go fishing--but they were not compulsive in the same way. They had a serenity potentially to them, although there are probably some compulsive moments. 'I know: one more cast, one more cast. Maybe this will be the cast where I'll catch the big fish.'
And, talk about, maybe--I don't know if you've thought, I'm sure you've thought about it--how our transition to a more digital world of compulsion is less healthy for us when it was physical. And, we went hunting or fishing or did things in the physical world that had rewards that were unpredictable.
Michael Easter: So, once I learn about how the slot machine works--and I learned about this from a slot machine designer--I wonder, 'Okay, well, why though? Why? I get that this system is powerful, but why is it powerful in the first place?' So, I ended up talking to this psychologist, whose name is Thomas Zentall, and he started his research in the late 1960s. And, his theory is that when you think about our ancestors and what it took to survive--so your kind of main job, you have two jobs, well, three jobs. One, house and kids. Two, find some food so you, Three, don't die.
Russ Roberts: Right.
Michael Easter: And, when you think about hunting and gathering, it very much falls into that loop because you need food or else you're going to starve, but you don't know where the food is and you have to go search the land for it, right? And so, you go to point A, nothing there. Point B, nothing there. Point C, oh, it looks like there's a berry bush. But is it a near miss where we're only going to get a few berries from our efforts, or is it going to be this entire massive grove of berry bushes, which is the jackpot? Right?
So, it's very much a random rewards game. And, you see random rewards embedded in all the activities that humans tend to love to do in nature today. To your point, fishing. It's also in hunting; it's also in any type of foraging activities--like, foodies love going out looking for the mushroom for their dishes.
And so, it's the same architecture as all the tech that we use today, like social media, exact same architecture. But, I think the real difference is, okay, if I'm on--let's say I'm on Twitter--and I'm sitting at my house; I'm inactive, I'm inside. I'm also not talking to other people in the present, not interacting with other people in the present.
But, if we think about something like fishing, when you're fishing: One, you're outside. You probably had to hike down to the river, right? You're also casting, that's physically active. So, you're getting in physical activity. Not to mention, you know, people fish alone, for sure, but a lot of the time, we fish with other people. Fishing doesn't uniquely pull us into this, like, semi-anti-social behavior.
And so, I do think that if you can find ways to fall into this unpredictable rewards game out in nature, I think that that can be transformative for people and can get people into activities that allow them to do more of what helps them. So, it's still the same game architecture, but you're getting all these different side benefits that you wouldn't get were you playing Candy Crush inside.
Russ Roberts: Do you think we have a fixed amount of addiction in us, so that if I'm fulfilling this primitive part of my brain by fishing and hunting or foraging or going truffle hunting, I'm going to be less likely to struggle with Twitter or Pringles or slot machines?
Michael Easter: I think so. I mean, I think that--it's really interesting because I think when you find, when people go do things that are challenging on a variety of levels, I think you find that they perhaps tend to want to fixate on these other methods of getting this reward gain[?game?] less often.
And, as much as there's criticism over taking animal studies and applying them to humans, the Zentall guy that I mentioned, he runs these studies where he can basically turn a pigeon into a degenerate gambler, like, very quickly. And, he'll get them to choose between one game where it's predictable: So peck, no food. Peck, food. Peck, no food. Peck, food. Right? And, the next game is much like a slot machine where they peck, they don't know when the food is going to come.
And, in the predictable game--the non-gambling game--they will get more food over time playing that. But, 97% of the pigeons, they choose the gambling game. They all choose the gambling game. And so, he's, 'Okay, that's fascinating.' Now, typically, the pigeons live in these small sterile cages in his lab. And, it's like, yeah, their life seems fine. They're pigeons, whatever. But, what he found is that when he puts these pigeons into this really big cage that mimics their life in the wild, where they've got roosts, where they've got little ledges they can hang out on, where they can interact with other pigeons, where they can work, do all these different things. And then he puts them back in the scenario to choose whether they're going to play the slot machine game or the predictable game, they all start to choose the optimal game, the one that gets them less[?] food, and they don't play the slot machine game.
And, his next point from there was, 'And, I think that humans are a lot like my pigeons.' When we live these cramped lifestyles indoors and we're not stimulated in some ways, we go searching for stimulation, whether that be from gambling, whether that be from excess social media use, whether that be from drug use, whether that be from--insert every behavior that we probably overdo in the modern world today.
And, I think his point was that humans evolved in an environment where life was very stimulating and we were constantly outdoors working, and there's something inherently rewarding about that to us. And, our environments have changed in a lot of ways that is good. It's a result of progress, but I do feel like you're starting to see, okay, well, we still want some level of work and unpredictability and all these things. And, we now have very easy, effortless access to it.
Russ Roberts: So, to go back to your earlier book for a minute, physically challenging things that we may not successfully complete, but that won't kill us, which is the Japanese concept of--
Michael Easter: Misogi [pronounced with a hard 'g' as in the word 'get.'--Econlib Ed.].
Russ Roberts: Misogi. Those are deeply satisfying, right? And, they unspool over a long-ish period of time, depending on the particular misogi you've chosen for yourself. And when they're completed, they lead to all kinds of good chemical things, I'm sure, and a much different mental state, I think, than the more rapid repeat interactions we're talking about with stuff, either physical stuff, food, digital media, etc. Because, after you've gorged yourself on a package of Oreos, you don't go, 'That was amazing. I'm so happy now.' You go, 'Why did I do that?' Whereas, after you finish your hike on the West Highland Way as I did a few weeks ago--months ago--and thought of you because I thought, 'You know, for me, it's a misogi.' Okay, it's not that impressive, but it was--and it was only half. But, I wasn't sure I was going to finish it.
So, it was--and I was--probably wasn't going to die. And it was perfect. And, after it was done, I felt bathed in some level of serenity. And, they're different things.
Michael Easter: Yeah. I mean, I think that a theme that runs through both of these two books is that, to me, really, the story of improving yourself as a human, you often have to choose things that are uncomfortable in the short-term, but give you long-term rewards.
And, I think we now live in an environment where you can choose the short-term escape, the short-term comfort, the short-term, that sleeve of Oreos; but then it leads to long-term problems.
Now to me, this is the underlying architecture of addiction. And addiction, really, I think sometimes we think about it as this bright line in the sand; but really it's just this wide spectrum of behaviors that at a certain point, the long-term consequences of this short-term reward that we're taking start to really pile up and we go, 'Oh, I got a problem with this,' right? But, I do think that levels of effort, time in nature--even working on relationships is often challenging. Right? Like, that's hard. But on the other side of that, I think, is growth.
Russ Roberts: One of the things I really like about the book is it's not a diatribe against corporate behavior, or personal behavior, and saying we need to get off the Internet or we need to regulate social media or we need to ban all junk food. Most of these things in moderation are extremely pleasant, and you actually argue they need not be addictive. And obviously, for many people, they are not. There are people who gamble--they gamble but we wouldn't say they have a gambling habit. They just gamble occasionally and have a good night out with their buddies and have fun. There are people who love food and enjoy it without becoming obese. There are people who can use social media with some level of moderation. And, I think it makes your book unusual; and it's, I think, also correct as the right perspective to have on the human experience.
Michael Easter: Yeah. I mean, to me, when people fall into what they would consider addiction--where this short-term reward I'm taking really is leading to a bunch of long-term problems and it's starting to really impact my life--I think it's typically a symptom of something else in that these short-term rewards, they are fun in the short term. They're an escape. Gambling is a fun escape, going on social media is fun.
But, when the rewards start to, or sorry, when the problems start to pile up, that's when they become an issue. And, I think that often it's because something else is maybe missing in life, right? So, you have some underlying problems. I see addiction much more as a symptom of something else than I do a brain disease, which is typically what NIDA [National Institute on Drug Abuse] in the United States has considered addiction. And so, I think that can often be a signal for people that, okay, what is underlying the surface?
And, yeah, to your point: I am not saying, 'Oh, don't spend time on your phone.' I'm not saying 'Never gamble.' I'm not saying never have a drink or never do XYZ, because the reality is, as you put it, is that most people most of the time are going to use behaviors for fun, they're going to get some short-term reward out of it. It's like, after I learn about slot machines, I'm like, 'Oh, I actually find these things enjoyable.' But, at the same time, I'm spending $40 every month, maybe, and then I leave the casino. The same time when I go into casinos, I see people have been sitting there for eight hours straight, just doot, doot, doot, doot, right?
And so, one theme, too, is that I think that we have, in today's day and age, we have so many options of these things that people tend to get hooked on. People can often find something, right? And, it's typically to me, it's a signal of some underlying thing that the behavior allows them to escape from in the short term.
Russ Roberts: And, just to apply it to an area you haven't, I don't think you wrote about in the book and I hadn't thought about until just now, which is sports. Most popular sport in America I think is football. The outcome of any one play is unpredictable. The game has been changed on purpose, maybe not with a strategic plan, but certainly it's been steered toward more passing and less running. Running tends to be less unpredictable, usually gain between three and seven yards. Every once in a while, there's the long run; it's very exciting. But passing is much more dramatic in terms of the range of outcomes that can happen. And, I just, for the first time, saw RedZone--because I don't have any TV in my life of that kind. And, it's really addictive and it's exactly what we're talking about. And, of course, if you play fantasy football, all of that, all these things come together, or if you gamble on football in a casino, this is like, it's a perfect mix.
Michael Easter: Yeah. Well, here's a great example. So, over the last, say, 15, 20 years, baseball has declined in popularity, okay? And so, now why is that? So, in the 1990s, you start to have the home run race where home runs become really popular--those are such a blast to watch. And then, you have the rise of Moneyball and analytics. And so, what happens is that teams are able to go, 'Okay, this batter is coming up. This person has a X probability of hitting the ball in this area of the field, so we're going to shift our fielders here.'
Now, what tends to start to happen in baseball is that because of this, you have fewer people getting on base because of this. And, you start to see the rise of: the only time you get action is when someone smashes it out of the park, okay? But, that doesn't happen all that often, because pitchers are really good. So, you watch four innings and very few people get on base. And, by the way, it's very slow because pitchers are going to sit there and they're going to pull their--they're going to run through their superstitions every pitch.
Russ Roberts: And, they're going to replace the pitcher very quickly if they're not doing well, and that pitcher will be replaced quickly. And, that--the replacement process itself takes time and slows the game down.
Michael Easter: Yeah. So, long story short is that baseball starts to become boring for these reasons. And so, what does baseball do this season? They go, 'Okay, our problem is that: One, the game has become relatively predictable. Most innings, you're not seeing much action. Two, the game is very slow. So, what we have to do is we have to increase the unpredictability and we also have to increase speed of the game.'
So, they stop allowing for players to be shifted around the field all the time and they also start pitch counts. So, now all of a sudden, you know the pitch is coming in 30 seconds, right? And, this really speeds up the game; it adds more unpredictability back in the game; and you're starting to see more people becoming interested in baseball again.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, it's a great example.
Russ Roberts: I don't want to miss your reference to William James: Our life is ultimately what we pay attention to. It's not a quote, but that's his summary that you give of his viewpoint. Life is ultimately what we pay attention to. I think that's a very powerful idea. I don't know if it gets into the brains of my own brain or that of listeners, but it seems like that's a really good thing to think about.
Michael Easter: Yeah. So, I'm a lecturer at UNLV [University of Nevada, Las Vegas] and I teach courses on media, especially this. I have this really big intro course, right? And, something that I have students do is the very first day, it's, 'All right, everyone stand up. Now take out your cell phone and look at your screen time,' right? And then, I go, 'All right, sit down if you have less than two hours. Sit down if you have less than three; sit down if you have less than four; sit down if you have less than five.' And, every semester, you get more people standing the deeper you go in, and then you always get these outliers that have just some crazy amount of screen time.
And, at the same time, you might be thinking, 'Oh, these college kids with all their time on their digital devices.' Well, the average American today spends anywhere from 12 to 13 hours a day on digital media.
Now, I'm not saying that all of is bad. A lot of it is necessary for work; a lot of it is informative and educational. But, what I am saying is that how humans spend their attention has changed drastically, very, very quickly. All of this stuff is less than 100 years old. So, we used to have none of this in our lives. And, now it has basically become our lives. And that's changed how we spend our attention.
So, my message in this book is if you want to spend 13 hours a day falling into the scarcity loop of TikTok, I'm fine with that--so long as you made the choice. And I think a lot of times, we don't necessarily make the choice. What happens is we feel some form of discomfort or something comes up and we just reflexively pull out the phone and get into that favorite app and we're just kind of escaped.
Like, I had this really interesting conversation with my mother. So, she had breast cancer maybe eight years ago, and so she's been cleared: she's cancer-free now, but she has to go in for checkups. And, she's in this waiting room and it's the hospital room. It's totally sterile. There's no books, there's no TV, there's nothing. And so, she's sitting there. And it's a nerve-wracking process. You're back in this place where you kind of went through some trauma, having to go through chemo, having to go through all these things, real health scares. And, she goes to take out her cell phone because she's nervous and she forgot her cell phone in the car. And, she goes, 'It was fascinating to see how I wanted to use that as a way to not have to feel what I was feeling, and I had to sit with my feelings.' And she goes, 'I kind of teared up.' And that wouldn't have happened, but it was just so fascinating to her. And then, she goes, 'Probably a lot of other times in my life where I'm feeling something and I want a quick escape, it's: Oh, New York Times App. It's Wordle with Friends. It's whatever it might be,' right? [More to come, 38:58]
Russ Roberts: Yeah, no: it's a numbing--it's a drug, maybe even similar in terms of brain pathways to what we normally call drugs.
Russ Roberts: Your story about screen time reminds me: When I used to teach economics, I would ask my students, 'Who has at least five pairs of shoes in their closet?' Pretty much everybody would raise their hand. And, I said, 'Who has more than 10?' And a lot of people would have more than 10 pairs. They've got two or three pairs of dress shoes for different colors and different settings, there's some flashy interesting off beaches for a party and weekend. Then they've got more than one kind of sports shoe. So, a lot of people would have more than five and sometimes more than 10 pairs of shoes. And then, there'd be those outliers, people with 30 or 40 pairs of shoes.
And, I used that--in my youth and my naivete and my dogmatic way--to talk about how great capitalism was: Look at this wealth, look at this abundance we have. And, as I get older, I now see it more of as this form of maybe not so healthy behavior. So let's turn and talk about gear versus stuff. What's the difference?
Michael Easter: So, to me, there's a lot of reasons people buy things today. So, I think we don't have to get into the exact numbers, but I think we can all agree 150 years ago, people owned a lot fewer things. Things were often passed down, things were often expected to last. You would repair things like a pair of shoes.
Today, the average home, depending on what stats you look at, in America, supposedly has anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 items. Now, this is down from items big and small. This is pens to toasters to whatever it might be. And, especially since the rise of the Internet, we don't even have the pause of having to go to a store to buy stuff. So, if you're a person who likes stuff, you can immediately go on to whatever it is--Amazon Prime--and get it in 24 hours.
Now there's this wide range of, just, things we can buy; and so you obviously start to see consumption just go up and up and up and up.
And, the reason we buy--it could be you could need an item as gear. So, in the book, I talk about gear as items that serve a utility. They allow us to achieve some higher thing we're trying to achieve.
But then, you also see people buy things for status. So, it's like, no one buys a Rolex to know what time it is. Like, that's not why you buy a Rolex, right?
People buy things for belonging. So, this could be even something like, I buy a football jersey because this shows that I'm part of this group who loves the New Orleans Saints or whatever it might be.
But then, I think you also see people just buy things because you're kind of bored and you go online and, 'Maybe I could use that thing' and you search and search and search, right? You're searching the Internet landscape and then bam, 'Oh, that one is--'
Russ Roberts: Got to get the best one--
Michael Easter: Yeah. Got to get the best one. Got to go down the rabbit hole of reviews.
And, there's even, I don't know if you've ever been on this site called Temu, might be called Temu. It's fascinating because it sells items direct from factories in China. And, it is--it's just like a casino of stuff. You go on there and you can spin a wheel to figure out, 'Okay, what is my discount going to be?' And then, everything is, like, we have X amount left. There's the scarcity queue. And, then, 'Oh, and by the way, this deal is going away in three, two, one.' And, it's just fascinating.
And, you even see when--companies online started using casino-like features, like spinning a wheel for a discount--those apparently have a sevenfold increase in conversion rate when people feel like they play this unpredictable game and get this special deal.
And so, when I think about how do we relate to our stuff, I spent some time, as you alluded to, with this woman whose name is Laura Zara. And, she was at one of the little Ivies on the East Coast and was going to be a doctor. And, the whole point she wanted to be a doctor. She goes, 'Well, I can make a bunch of money and then I can do what I really want to do,' which is spend these, like, extended time outdoors, out in the wild. And then, she kind of realized, 'Well, wait a minute. I think I can do that for free.' So, she drops out of college, she's got like $6. And, she goes and buys some stuff at the, what are they called? The Army-Navy store. And, she just starts traveling the world and going into these extreme places for just months at a time.
And, she made me take the position that gear--framing your purchases through gear, stuff that is going to help you achieve something, help you do something that enhances your life--I think can be a good way to maybe start to cut down on all the stuff that we buy. Because she is, I mean, she doesn't own much at all and yet she's one of the most fulfilled, fascinating, tough--she's just the coolest person I've ever met. And, all her stuff fits in a backpack.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. The fancy name for this is minimalism. I think I've mentioned on the program before: Moving to Israel, you can order from Amazon, but it's challenging. And so, I spend no time surfing on Amazon compared to when I was back in America. In fact, when I go back to America and my suburban friends--I come to visit them on my trips. They have all these boxes outside their front door. It's weird because it's the daily Amazon haul. I used to have that, too. And, to what point? And, I have a smaller apartment, by the way, compared to the house I had in suburban Maryland. I threw away, gave away half--we gave away half of our stuff. We had to when we moved here. I can't follow sports the way I used to because of the time zone difference, so that part of compulsiveness is greatly reduced in my life.
And, it's just interesting when you're forced to come up against that, that stuff thing. It doesn't make you happy, but you do sometimes do it because you think it will. And, you buy that extra shirt, that extra pair of shoes, the gadget--a lot of gadgets--and you do have to have the best one. And, that gives you the excuse to watch a lot of YouTube videos, not just searching for reviews, you got to watch the video reviews. That's just an interesting phenomenon.
Russ Roberts: I should turn to the question here of how do you change your mindset? And, I think framing your purchases as gear versus stuff is one way in that world to do that. But, I think in each area, you kind of need your own trick--mind trick--to help you avoid this, if you have a compulsive behavior in that area. So, it might be different for food versus gambling, it might be different for social media than it is for food.
One thing I've tried from your book, which I don't think you mentioned explicitly, but it's like--and this is really embarrassing, by the way, because it's really juvenile, but I kind of like it--is I just say to myself, 'I have enough.' And, I don't mean enough stuff, by the way, or enough food, or enough wins on the slot machine that night. I mean, life in general. I have a good life. I don't need these things to substitute for something a hole in my soul. And, the idea that I might is repugnant to me--the idea that I'm a pigeon or a rat. I want to be the rat, by the way, out in the subway. I don't want to be the one in the little cage. I want to be the one living wild and free.
So, I love that idea. But, talk about other ways that you might, one might avoid the loop that we've been talking about.
Michael Easter: Yeah. So, with this scarcity loop, which I argue in the book that so many of our behaviors fall into it from the time we spend on our phones, a lot of apps leverage it. The ones that you spend the most time on are probably leveraging it and somehow, it is leveraged I think in online shopping; and all these different areas of our life. Now, in order to either slow or get out of the behavior, you can change or remove any of the three parts of the loop.
So, for example, if you change the opportunity or remove the opportunity, that'll stop it. If you can make the rewards more predictable, that'll reduce the behavior. If you can slow down the behavior, as we were talking about getting some--I mean, for food, it could be you've got this one food that you are terrible at moderating. Well, don't keep it in the house.
With your phone, there's actually--and this is kind of funny. I had this person reach out to me--he's this young kid. He has this app that is called, I believe it's called Clearspace. And he goes, 'Hey, we created this app. I know you write about this kind of stuff. And, the whole point is so to get you to spend less time on certain apps that you spend too much time on.' And then, so my question is, 'Okay, so I have to download an app to use another app less[?]?' Yeah, good idea. But, I try it, okay? And so, what this app does is you pick which applications you want it to put limits on. And then, when you open that application, it goes, 'Do you want to open this app right now?' Let's say it's Instagram. And, you go, 'Yes' and it goes, 'Okay.'
And then, you have to wait three seconds. And then, it goes, 'Okay, great. You've waited your three seconds. How much time do you want to spend on Instagram?' You go, 'Okay, five minutes, 10 minutes,' whatever it is. So, really what it's doing is it's inserting pause and thought and consideration to using it.
And, I can tell you, when I put it on the apps that I was--found myself spending too much time on, it'll absolutely reduce your time. Now, sometimes you might find it annoying. You might be, 'I just want to get into Twitter and learn this information,' but it'll slow it down because simple, like I said before, it speed-kills. And, we often find ourselves doing these behaviors, not necessarily consciously, simply because they've become an unconscious habit for reasons we may not be entirely aware of--kind of like my mom found when she was sitting in the waiting room.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I'll put a link up to that app. We'll see if we we'll get the name right. And, that other one that you mentioned, Shamu [Temu] or whatever, just forget about it. We won't link to it. If you want to listen carefully and try to spell it right yourself, listeners, go ahead.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the end of your book, where you have a chapter that seemingly does not fit. You spend some time in a monastery. Why did that cross your mind? And, tell us what you experienced there.
Michael Easter: Well, a lot of this, the loop is very much a search. It's a search for something we think is going to improve our life that we repeat and repeat and repeat. And, I do feel like happiness often falls into that. So, we live in this happiness industrial complex right now where there's all this information you need to follow so you can be happy, and it's all backed by research. And, it's like, 'Do this, not that. And, by the way, if you don't do this, you're definitely not going to be happy.' I mean, this research is coming out all the time and it's--and so I just found myself going, 'This would be an interesting topic to look at,' because humans weren't necessarily designed to be happy.
It's, like, in the past, if you were the person who could sustain perfect happiness, you probably would have died because you just would have been sitting around going, 'Oh, man, things are great.' All the while your food is spoiling, you haven't hunted, your shelter is falling apart. And so, we're not necessarily designed for happiness, yet we seek it. And then, the question is, 'Okay, well, where do we think we're going to get it?'
And, I think if you look today, we often think it's going to be in the next purchase, it's going to be in the next meal, it's going to be in the next trip to the casino, whatever it might be.
And, I spent time in this monastery because--this is a Benedictine Monastery in the mountains of New Mexico--I'd come across some research that suggested that Benedictine monks are happier than the general public. And, to me, that doesn't make a lot of sense because these guys have to get up at 3 AM every day to pray. And, by the way, they got to go in the chapel and pray seven different times a day. And, we're not talking about, like: Oh, hit your knees, you know, say a couple words and move on with your life. No: we're talking about we are chanting Latin for an hour to a half hour every single time.
Not to mention they live under all these rules, the rules of St. Benedict. So, you're told, don't overeat too much. And, oh, by the way, you got to be dead silent for the vast majority of the day. And, yeah, we got to do hard labor as well. Four hours of hard labor every single day.
So, there's all these reasons why you look at their life and you're, like, 'Wow, those people should be depressed.' But they're actually happier. So I go spend some time there. And, I think my takeaway from that, and speaking with those guys, is that happiness is ultimately a journey, right? It's not a destination, it's--and when you try and seek it in what the monks would call worldly things, that is often a dead end.
And, the way that we find it is often--it may not fall into what you've heard a lot of messages around happiness are. So, a good one today is that we've heard a lot today that you must be social to be happy. And, I believe that you need some element of sociality in your life. I think you need a close relationship or two. But, we've gone so far down that road that it feels like, 'Oh, if I'm not social all the time and I don't have all these friends, I'm not doing these activities, I'm not going to be happy.' When the reality is, is that some of the happiest people in the world aren't entirely social, right?
These monks included, they're not talking to each other all day. They're not BS-ing, playing softball or whatever it might be. And, historically, I think you see that, too. When a person needs to understand themselves, understand these higher ideas, and really build a solid foundation for who they are as a human, they often have to do that alone. Right? And so, Jesus goes out for 40 days in the desert, or whatever it might be.
And, I think that's a decent message for the average person, that just because you read something that X is going to definitely make you happy, I don't think that's necessarily the case. I think that people are all different. And, one thing that you tend to see is that getting out of yourself is probably a good idea. Finding some higher purpose, doing what you consider the next right thing, and knowing that that is probably not going to be in the next purchase you make on that website that we will not name, so people don't go there.
Russ Roberts: So, how long were you at the monastery?
Michael Easter: I was there for about a week.
Russ Roberts: And, were you different at the end of the week?
Michael Easter: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Russ Roberts: In what way?
Michael Easter: Well, I think that I realized that their pace of life is a lot slower. And, I found that to be good for me, personally, and go back to the speed thing. I think that life has sped up in a lot of ways in the sense that the amount of information we encounter is that it comes at us at a higher rate; I think we're expected to do certain things at a faster speed. I mean, even think about the rise of email, you can get an email from your boss at 7:00 now. And, your company goes, 'Oh, yeah, have a work-life balance,' but your boss is going, 'Why didn't you respond to my email?' Right? And so for me, I left realizing that probably the speed at which I was living life was maybe not great for me.
But I also realized that I needed to do some work in terms of asking just sort of big questions. Like, why am I here? What do I want to do with my life? Because you just--it's easy I think as a person to fall into: Oh, got to do X, got to do Y, you got to graduate college, and then you get a job, and then you do well at your job, and then you buy a house, and then you do X, Y, Z. And, I think asking some of the bigger questions and realizing, is that ultimately what I'm going to find fulfilling and give me meaning? What is important to me was good for me because sometimes you just get on the road and you put it in cruise control and you just keep going, and you're like, 'We're headed this direction, and this is the right way.' I don't know if that's always true. I don't know if we have those moments to remove ourselves and pause and that's I think what that gave me.
Russ Roberts: I think the speed thing is really interesting. I've mentioned it before in the program--when I was on silent meditation retreat, we had to eat mindfully; and I think you did as well: in the monastery, you had to savor the texture of the food, smell it, ponder and think about where it came from. And as an economist, that's dangerous because I think a lot about division of labor and all the numbers of people. I spend a lot of time thinking about that.
And, when I'm on that retreat, my relationship to food changes radically. It goes from, 'When are we eating? When are we eating? When are we eating? Come on, lunch, lunch, lunch' to, like, 'Oh, here's lunch. And, this is going to be an interesting experience I'm going to enjoy very differently than I did when I'm back on the mainland.' And yet I find it very hard to recreate that outside that environment because so much of every fiber of my being rebels against it.
And, I think that's true in lots of different areas of our life. Hit the gas pedal and go, go, go. First, it's a form of control. It's a form of appealing to the kinds of addiction and addictive behavior that you talk about. And, it's against serenity. And, it's hard to find serenity without slowing down.
Michael Easter: Yeah, I agree. And I experience the same thing with the meals. So, at the monastery, when you have meals, you walk into this big room and there's this food that they grow and produce on the grounds, the vast majority of it. And, for breakfast, for example, you walk in--and by the way, there's still the Grand Silence, so you're not talking to anyone. You get your bowl, you get your food, and you're not taking a giant plate that it's sort of frowned upon. And then, you stand and you eat it in silence. And, I even found that the fact that I'm not doing something else as I eat--so, if I'm eating a meal, a breakfast or a lunch, I'm sitting there and I'm eating and I'm on Twitter, I'm on some news website, or I'm trying to send emails. And, like you said, you're looking forward to the meal. And the, when you actually eat the meal, you're not actually--I mean, you're putting the food in your mouth and consuming it and you can kind of taste it, but it just goes down because you're doing something else.
And, I even think just the slowness of that, it changed my relationship to how I eat meals now. So, now, I will usually, for breakfast, for example, I'm going to sit in silence and I'm not going to do anything else. And, I'm just going to enjoy this and kind of see where my mind goes and let there be a period of slowness.
So, the reality is, is we can't all go move to the monastery. Nor is that even desirable. But, it's what small lessons can I take from a place like that and from these traditions of living that have been around for thousands of years? And, how can I insert those into a modern life in order to maybe get some benefit from that?
Because I do think we've tipped the balance in such a way where it's speed, always be doing, you don't have enough, all these things, right? And so, trying to offset that with some of these lessons I think can be useful for people.
Russ Roberts: I think about your mom. When I'm eating and I'm on some website, either scrolling or reading an article quickly because I'm in a hurry, I want to get back to work--and that's another aspect of this that's interesting. For many of us, I think lunch is a open-ended activity that we try to cut short so we can get more done. So: 'Eat quickly and get back to work,' as opposed to saying, 'I'm going to eat for an hour and in that hour, I'm not going to read, I'm not going to scroll, might not even socialize--as in the monastery or on my retreat. I'm going to be with myself.' And, certainly--and I'm going to focus on the food--and I'm doing one thing. And, your mom was having an emotional reaction and she changed it, if she'd had her phone with her, to doing two things: having an emotional reaction and scrolling on Twitter to kind of drown it out.
There's a great Hasidic Rebbe, the Piaseczna Rebbe, who gives this crazy analogy about our addictive behavior. And, he says--this is insane--he says, 'Our craving of, say, of alcohol or eating is the equivalent of when in primitive societies, they would have a human sacrifice of a child. The priest would bang the drums so that the father could not hear the screams of the child and would be willing to go through with this horrific practice of sacrificing his son.' And, what the Piaseczna Rebbe says is that we have this craving in his--he was writing it religiously--saying, 'We have this craving for the divine. Our addictions--like alcohol, food, and modern versions--they're just like banging the drums to drown out this other thing we really crave': That in the analogy of saving your son or connecting to the divine or being part of something larger than yourself.
And so, much of what we do is the numbing, drowning-out thing. And, it's ironic, I think, because we think of multitasking as the highest level of productivity. It's the greatest achievement. And we're so proud of it, too: 'You know, I can do three things at once.' But maybe the road to a better life is doing one thing really well.
Michael Easter: Yeah. And, the question is: Why do we have the feeling that we're trying to drown out in the first place?
And, once you start to unpack that--I mean, I think that these feelings are ultimately signals. Right? And, they're trying to tell us something that can be very important and that will enhance our life more than just sort of putting the bandaid on it, however we're putting the bandaid on it now, hitting the mute button.
You know, there's a PSA [Public Service Announcement] coming out, and we're like, 'Oh, hit the mute button on that PSA. I'm not going to listen to this thing.' And then, when it's over, okay, now we'll unmute the radio.
And so, I think by trying to unpack the greater why behind these things, that can lead to decisions that enhance your life over the long term. Again, uncomfortable in the short term. Right? 'Oh, now, why am I feeling this way?'
This is challenging, but that's ultimately the journey of life. Life is never going to be perfect all the time. And, in fact, by going through hardships and dealing with things that are challenging, I think you find people end up on the other side of that better off. We become more resilient, we have a better perspective on life, we enjoy the journey more. And, I mean, that is how to live a life.
Russ Roberts: One thing that I like about your books is you don't just read a bunch of articles. You read a bunch--and some of them I don't agree with, by the way, Michael, research you're relying on I don't always think is as reliable as you do. I'm a big outlier on that. But you don't just read the research papers. You go visit the faculty member or your call them or you go out in the field. You're in the crazy world of this fake casino that's done that was built just to measure how people respond to casinos. And then, you're out looking for antlers with Laura Zara, and you're hunting something in Alaska in your last book.
And, I'm curious if the writing of this book and the encounters that you talked about--and you spent the week in the monastery just to cap things off--has it made you a healthier person, do you think? Has it made you more content with enough and less desirous of more as you understand some of the scientific and psychological problems that are underlying these behaviors?
Michael Easter: Yeah, I think so. For sure. I mean, and really, I do think that experience is the greatest teacher. If I go out to, say, Alaska for a month and say, 'Here's what I learned and here's the wisdom,' that doesn't always fly, in today's--they go, 'Okay, well, show me the research on why this would be beneficial.' So, part of it is having you speak to academics. You go, 'Okay, well, this feeling I'm having tracks.' The study showed: 'Okay, yeah, I understand why this tracks.' But, ultimately, it is the experience that is the teacher.
So, a good example I like to give in my last book is that: when is the last time you thought of hot running water or had an emotional reaction to hot running water? Well, after I spend all that time in the Arctic, when hot running water first hit my hands when I got back into civilization, I mean, I literally had an emotional reaction to that.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Michael Easter: And, it's not just one, right? I keep that thought in the back of my mind.
Of course, it sort of tails off over time. I'm not going to be tearing up every time water hits my hands for the rest of my life, and that's probably a good thing, but I do think it has made me more appreciative of the world that we live in and just the fact that we're alive and we can ride this life in ways that are different--maybe we just fall into--and I think that can be good for us. A lot of it is perspective and gratuity, and it comes from experiences. And, sometimes the experiences are with other people, sometimes they're alone. Sometimes they're challenging, sometimes they're an absolute blast. But, the point is that there's a lot of different paths that we can take in life and a lot of different different things we can do.
And, I think that by exploring a lot of different paths, I think we look back on them and say, 'Well, I'm really glad I did that seemingly strange thing that other people are going: Wow, that's crazy that you did that,' but okay.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Michael Easter. His book is The Scarcity Brain. Michael, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Michael Easter: Hey, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.