Discover more from Inspired Human Development
The Psychology of Deprivation
Hello, inspired humans! I hope you are doing well. We got a rare snow day here in North Texas last week. My kids’ first! I’ll include pictures at the end.
Let’s jump into today’s Stuff!
ONE FROM THE AGES
Early 19th Century Scottish Author, John Sterling, on the importance of building an ability to deprive oneself:
“The worst education which teaches self-denial is better than the best which teaches everything else, and not that.”
ONE FROM TODAY
Charlie Munger on Envy and Bias:
“Well, envy-jealousy made what, two out of the 10 commandments. Those of you who’ve raised siblings or tried to run a law firm or investment bank or even faculty are familiar with this….
Here again, you go through the psychology survey courses. You go to the index: envy, jealousy. In a thousand-page book, it’s blank! There are some blind spots in academia. But it’s an enormously powerful thing, and it operates to a considerable extent at a subconscious level, and anybody who doesn’t understand it is taking on defects he shouldn’t have.
Source: Speech at Harvard, June 1995
ONE FROM US
My children, Ace (almost four) and Brix (two and a half) have somehow accumulated 4,721,294 toys in their short lives. Many of these toys will sit on their shelf, forgotten, for months at a time. The kids will spend hours in their playroom, dressing up in character outfits, playing with dolls or action figures, and building with blocks. But their four-wheeled bumblebee-rider is ignored. Until one day, Brix gets on and starts wheeling herself around the house, giggling as she goes. Ace takes notice. Suddenly nothing else matters. Forget blocks. I want the bumblebee rider.
Ace knows he can’t just take it from her, however, lest he invite parental intervention and blow his chance altogether. He takes a wiser track, following her around for five-minutes asking her to share. When he finally gets his chance, she immediately begins calling out: Brixie’s turn! Brixie’s turn! Tensions escalate until an exasperated mother and father take the toy from both of them while trying to reason with the toddlers about how unreasonable their new obsession is: “That thing has been sitting there for months and now you both have to have it just because the other one wants it!” Head nods.
This pattern plays out all the time. Saturday night we hopped into the car to pick up dinner. Brix snuck in her Tianna doll. A few minutes later as we drove along, Ace found a small red rubber duck in his car seat cup holder. Desperate cries ensue. Brix has forgotten the $20 doll in her right hand and is reaching for Ace’s 50-cent toy, yelling “Duckie!”
More often than not, my children are very well-behaved, for their age. They simply don’t have the tools yet to override strong emotional impulses. What these recurring conflicts show is a fundamental feature of human psychology that remains throughout our lives and often controls our behavior: once we perceive deprivation it is untenable. It is not just envy or jealousy, as Munger suggests above, but the feeling that something is out there that we are not allowed to have that drives us mad.
We see this phenomenon everywhere. A child becomes fixated on drinking coffee because his parents tell him it is only for adults. A woman hopes to avoid being chosen as a bridesmaid but is then angry when she is not chosen. A man finds a woman attractive and plays hard to get. It works. They date for a while, but then he dumps the woman only to be racked with regret once she begins dating someone new. We want what we can’t have, and this is especially so when it comes to things we’d like to consume.
Millions of people have spent the last few weeks dieting - trying hard not to eat foods they usually would. Their plans seemed so simple and easy. No dessert. No alcohol. No grains. No more than fits in this container. But, unexpectedly, they seem to crave those foods like never before. And it isn’t just the effects of withdrawal. Their obsessions start the moment they declare “no more.”
This became especially clear to me this past December during our IHD 48-hour fast. Most days I don’t eat for about 15 straight hours (from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 a.m.) and I never think anything of it. Dinner ends and that is that. But after finishing what I knew would be my last meal for 48 hours, thoughts of food streamed through my mind all evening. And when I woke up the next morning my first thought was about how much I wanted to eat. It wasn’t even my normal breakfast time and all I could think was how I would have done anything for a cup of coffee and a large omelette. Something about being deprived of an available resource drives us wild.
Justin and I believe in modeling natural ancestral lifestyle patterns (movement, sunlight, whole foods, etc.). Knowing that all hunter-gatherers would have intermittently encountered long stretches of time when they did not eat, we were easily convinced of the benefits of an occasional fast. It was a way of reconnecting with a very human condition. But our ancestors did not eat because there was no food. They had no other options and lived amongst a tight-knit community that shared their experience. Psychologically, this would have made the absence of food far easier to deal with.
In perhaps the most famous study on willpower, people are split into two groups. The groups wait to do a challenging mental puzzle in a room that has both radishes and warm freshly baked cookies. One group is told they can eat whatever they like and the other is told they can only eat radishes. Unsurprisingly, the radish-only group goes on to spend far less time working on the challenging puzzle and the experimenters concluded that willpower fatigues like a muscle. But what is easy to overlook is that only having radishes available to eat before doing a puzzle would have no adverse effects whatsoever if the participants didn’t know they were being deprived of the cookies. For millions of hungry people throughout time, radishes would make a fine pre-puzzle snack. The perception of deprivation is what caused the mental angst and the subsequent drop in performance.
Understanding this is especially significant in our abundant modern world. We often wish we were less compelled by impulses to consume. Whether we desire food, alcohol, entertainment media, or even to buy something, what drives us wild is the belief that something better is out there and that we could have it if some force wasn’t trying to stop us.
The implications are especially profound for parents who want to raise mentally and physically healthy children in a world where this is far from normal. Most of our kids’ peers grow up eating Pop-tarts, donuts, or sugar-bomb cereals for breakfast, Cheetoh’s and soda at lunch, and fast food for dinner. From a young age, they spend hours each day in front of a tablet or TV and have uninhibited access to a smartphone and social media years before high-school. Against the tide of society, parents like me battle to limit these toxic elements. But our tactics can make children obsessed. The effects of being deprived are even more pronounced for kids who aren’t denying themselves but are being deprived by an authority. As with the preacher’s kid phenomenon, stifling boundaries often incite rebellion.
Whether we hope to coerce better behaviors from ourselves or our children, we have to change the mental conversation from one of deprivation to one of freedom. Various studies have shown that sustainable happiness tends to be found in the feeling of progressing towards a worthwhile goal. What powers are growing in you? What capabilities are you now freed to master and how will these improve your life? What new foods are you now freed to try? What new hobbies are you now freed to cultivate? Whatever path you’re on, try to make it meaningful and find a way to keep it fresh and exciting. The best way is always to connect with other like-minded people who have similar goals.
For parents especially, presentation is essential. Emphasize what your kids are getting access to and how doing things differently than most is making your kids special in specific ways. Foster a sense of pride in your kids for their creativity, curiosity, and love of play. Tell them how much you appreciate their maturity and compliment the passions they show interest in.
But, also, we have to let go of the reigns and make peace with some typical modern behavior. Kids will go to friends’ houses and binge on Gushers and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. They will get a phone and want to text friends and laugh at funny memes when not much else is going on. If we demonize everything while appearing stressed and angry, then kids just see our approach as crazy. Try to get a sense of what battles are worth fighting. Note the difference between phone patterns that might enhance your kids’ life and negative propensities like feeling the need to check social media all the time.
If we want more active, physically and mentally healthy kids, we should create barriers to the things that pull them to sit by themselves and do nothing. But, more than that, we should think about how we can create an environment that begs them to move, explore, and connect with the world.
There is nothing worse than feeling bound up. We are best to de-emphasize what is being limited and focus our attention on all those things that we are freeing ourselves to do. We set boundaries so that we are freed from manipulation and can experience a broader, richer life. Boundaries create more opportunity for getting good at ping-pong, doing backflips on trampolines, building a hidden talent for chess, and developing a passion for the guitar. This is not about deprivation, but being intentional about how we spend our lives.
Thank you for reading and sharing with anyone you think would like this.
In other news, this week I finalized my book manuscript and have started reaching out to editors. It is very exciting to see all this work coming into a more polished form and to turn my attention to a different phase in the process. I’m certain that the book would not be near what it is if not for the wonderful support and feedback I have gotten from many of you over the years. It means so much.
Now, as promised. My adorable children in the snow:
Life is too short to be normal,