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Too Little, Too Much: How Poverty and Wealth Affect Our Minds

Portrait of a Man with Full Beard sitting in an Armchair holding a Glass of Wine
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Have you ever noticed that when something important is missing in your life, your brain can only seem to focus on that missing thing?

Two researchers have dubbed this phenomenon scarcity, and they compare it to tunnel vision, blinding you to the big picture. When you're hungry, it can be hard to think of anything other than food. When you're desperately poor, you may constantly worry about making ends meet. When you're lonely, you might obsess about making friends. Today we'll explore why, when you're in a hole, you sometimes dig yourself even deeper.

Then, we meet Brooke Harrington, a sociologist who wanted to know what it's like to be one of the richest people on the planet. To find out, she spent years studying to become a wealth manager, a "social worker for the rich" who handles everything from stashing money in offshore banks to recommending rehab facilities for family members.

In interviewing other wealth managers, she discovered that the rich are indeed different from the rest of us.

"It's almost literally unimaginable. National borders are nothing to them. They might as well not exist. The laws are nothing to them. They might as well not exist," she says.

More reading:

"Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function" — why poverty saps attention and bandwidth

"Some Consequences of Having Too Little" — why poor individuals often reinforce the conditions of poverty

Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir

Capital without Borders: Wealth Managers and the One Percent by Brooke Harrington

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu, Laura Kwerel, and Camila Vargas Restrepo. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Chris Benderev is a founding producer of and also reports stories for NPR's documentary-style podcast, Embedded. He's driven into coal mines, watched as a town had to shutter its only public school after 100 years in operation, and, recently, he's followed the survivors of a mass shooting for two years to understand what happens after they fade from the news. He's also investigated the pseudoscience behind a national chain of autism treatment facilities. As a producer, he's made stories about ISIS, voting rights and Donald Trump's business history. Earlier in his career, he was a producer at NPR's Weekend Edition, Morning Edition, Hidden Brain and the TED Radio Hour.
Chloe Connelly
Parth Shah is a producer and reporter in the Programming department at NPR. He came to NPR in 2016 as a Kroc Fellow.
Laura Kwerel