Stop right now and create a Brag document
I, for one, welcome our robot overlords

Book Review: Scarcity Brain

This is a 2023 “self-help” book by Michael Easter. Definitely not the sort of book I typically read, but occasionally, I surprise myself.

gordon meyer holding book cover

Scarcity Brain was a compelling read, perhaps mostly because — unlike many publications of this genre — Mr. Easter writes in the first person and does not come off as preachy. The style is that it’s just one man’s account of his investigations into a subject that interests him.

Unfortunately, with this approach, it’s not a good resource for those who want to “do their own research” as there is a paucity of usable references and no bibliography. More than once I cringed at references to “a study found that…” without any detail about the “who, what, when, and where” provided. This is a surprising omission for Easter, he’s a college professor and journalist, but it does serve to keep the book breezy and readable.

The premise of the book is that “scarcity” has driven human behavior ever since our arrival. Scarcity consists of the opportunity to gain something, a degree of unpredictability about the outcome, and quick repeatability. It is the pursuit and anticipation of a reward that releases a dopamine high, not the actual receipt of the reward. We are compelled to persist in the face of uncertainty because it feels good to do so. (Also, quitters die.)

The book examines how this urge plays into many aspects of modern life, such as extreme sports, gambling, social media, politics, food, and more. It’s a fascinating take on what is really going on with people and driving so much obsessive behavior.

Some ideas and phrases that stuck me with:

  • Slot machines are finely tuned to tickle the “scarcity brain” and, annually, take in $100 per American. That’s more than books, movies, and music combined.
  • “Losses disguised as wins” is a key component of gaming. That is, bet $5 and get back $3, and it seems like a “win.”
  • Although not his exact wording, Easter’s observations inspire me to declare Las Vegas the “The Vatican of Excess” — a turn of phrase I’m rather proud of.
  • Humans overlook subtraction as an effective way to change things. Instead, we pursue more, more, and more. (A lesson I wish more software developers would learn, although Apple is pretty good at recognizing this.)
  • “We need to ask the deeper questions and consider how we can find enough. Not too much, and not too little.” In other words, Goldilocks had the right idea.
  • Better living through chemistry: Manufactured street drugs release a thousand-fold more dopamine than any naturally occurring substance.
  • The rise of data, numbers, and figures is gamifying everyday life, and that impacts how we live, what we pay attention to, and what we pursue — the reward being a better “score” on our wrist computers.
  • “Snacking” is a modern, post-war category of food. And the variety of food available now has ruined the sociability of eating. No longer do you have to accommodate the tastes of others or discover new things, everyone eats in their own “bubble” of preferences.
  • We are exposed to more information in a single day than a 15th century human would encounter in their entire lives. Much of it designed to make us feel happy, sad, outraged, or correct. All so that we will keep looking and see more advertisements.
  • Just as “slow food” is better for you than “fast food,” slow information gathering is better than Googling.

Well, there’s much, much more. I thoroughly enjoyed this book despite its flaws and annoying oversights of page layout. But, kudos to the designer who came up with these charming chapter headings:

chapter number design that looks like a slot machine reel

I bought my copy on sale at Writer’s Block, but it’s also available to at the Amazon.


Craig Conley

"The Vatican of Excess"!!! Great phrase!

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)