Scarcity, Abundance, and Negativity Bias

While we don’t often call attention to the concepts of abundance and scarcity, they are among the most central features and factors determining the quality of our lives. They are so powerful that even the mis-perception of abundance and scarcity can significantly impact the decisions we make, the ways in which we interact with others, and our own ability to live meaningfully. It is very difficult to make sound decisions when you feel like you lack resources. Those resources could include physical or emotional energy, food, money, love, friends, success, and many more. The Torah calls our attention to power of scarcity and abundance this week, and it is a lesson that resonates powerfully today.

After Pharoah’s description of his troubling dreams, Joseph interprets as follows:

הִנֵּ֛ה שֶׁ֥בַע שָׁנִ֖ים בָּא֑וֹת שָׂבָ֥ע גָּד֖וֹל בְּכָל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃ וְ֠קָמוּ שֶׁ֨בַע שְׁנֵ֤י רָעָב֙ אַחֲרֵיהֶ֔ן וְנִשְׁכַּ֥ח כָּל־הַשָּׂבָ֖ע בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם וְכִלָּ֥ה הָרָעָ֖ב


וְלֹֽא־יִוָּדַ֤ע הַשָּׂבָע֙ בָּאָ֔רֶץ מִפְּנֵ֛י הָרָעָ֥ב הַה֖וּא אַחֲרֵי־כֵ֑ן כִּֽי־כָבֵ֥ד ה֖וּא מְאֹֽד׃

Behold, there come seven years of great plenty throughout all the land of Egypt. And there shall arise after them seven years of famine; and all the plenty shall be forgotten in the land of Egypt; and the famine shall consume the land; and the plenty shall not be known in the land by reason of that famine which follows; for it shall be very grievous.

Genesis 41:29-31

For me, what stands out in this description is the notion that even though there will be seven years of abundance first, the famine that follows will erase all memory of plenty. Though their durations are the same, the power of scarcity to impact human psychology is infinitely greater than abundance. This is borne out in many ways in modern psychological experiments, broadly falling under the label negativity bias (read more here), which show that when two things are equal in intensity, the negative version will have more impact than the positive or neutral version.

There are powerful evolutionary reasons why this should be so: it costs an organism a great deal to ignore a negative or potentially negative stimulus, but it costs much less to ignore a neutral or positive stimulus – this is part of why we are not purely rational creatures – we are actually designed to pay more attention to negative things. Thankfully, we are not amoebae, and are blessed with enough self-awareness to fight against our natural tendencies, and understanding those inclinations is a huge part of the battle.

Given the understanding that scarcity will always have the potential to impact us, I believe it is crucial to mindfully focus on the aspects of our lives in which we can experience abundance. This is part of the message of Chanukah, too – to cast light into the darkness is to reject the primacy of negativity and scarcity and seek the miraculous. It is also part of the genius of Jewish prayer to express gratitude for even the simplest actions in life (including eating, using the bathroom, etc), allowing us to move mindfully through the day, acknowledging the abundance we could otherwise so easily ignore.

When you think about your own life, in what ways do you experience scarcity? How about abundance?

Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Urim Sameach,