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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Attentional trade-offs under resource scarcity Tomm, Brandon M.


Resource scarcity poses challenging demands on the cognitive system. Budgeting with limited resources induces an attentional focus on the problem at hand, but it also comes with a cost. Specifically, scarcity causes a failure to notice beneficial information in the environment, or remember to execute actions in the future, that help alleviate the condition of scarcity. This neglect may arise as a result of attentional narrowing. Attentional trade-offs under scarcity can further determine memory encoding. In seven experiments, we demonstrated that participants under scarcity prioritized price information but neglected a useful discount when ordering food from a menu (Experiment 1); they showed better recall for information relevant to the focal task at a subsequent surprise memory test (Experiments 2 and 3); they performed more efficiently on the focal task but neglect a useful cue in the environment that could save them resources (Experiments 4-6); and they failed to remember the previous instructions to execute future actions that could save them resources (Experiment 7). These results collectively demonstrate that scarcity fundamentally shapes the way people process information in the environment, by directing attention to the most urgent task, while inducing a neglect of other information that can be beneficial. The attentional neglect and memory failures may lead to suboptimal behaviors that further aggravate the condition of scarcity. The results provide new insights on the behaviors of the poor, and also important implications for public policy and the design of welfare services and programs for low-income individuals.

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