Scarcity captures attention and induces neglect: Eyetracking and behavioral evidence


Resource scarcity poses challenging demands on the human cognitive system. Budgeting with limited resources induces an attentional focus on the problem at hand. This focus enhances processing of relevant information, but it also comes with a cost. Specifically, scarcity may cause a failure to notice beneficial information that helps alleviate the condition of scarcity. In three experiments, participants were randomly assigned with a small budget (“the poor”) or a large budget (“the rich”) to order a meal from a restaurant menu. The poor participants looked longer at the prices of the items and recalled the prices more accurately, compared to the rich participants. Importantly, the poor neglected a useful discount that would save them money. This neglect may arise as a result of attentional narrowing, and help explain a range of counter-productive behaviors of low-income individuals. The current findings have important implications for public policy and services for low-income individuals.

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