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Tunnel Vision: When Our Problems Control Us

Beautiful Tunnel; tunnel vision article

Tunnel Vision: When Our Problems Control Us

Do you ever feel like something that is hard in your life is keeping you in a tunnel? That all that you see and feel and think about is being seen and felt and thought through the filter and weight of that problem? That things which should be easy and should require little thought are somehow harder and more perplexing? That your feet are stuck in a thick bog and your brain is full of cobwebs? Do your problems sometimes control you? Me too.

I don’t live this way often. My circumstances don’t control my life as a rule, thank God. But when I’m worried about the health of one of my kids or I’m contemplating a weighty decision, I often feel paralyzed by those issues. Until recently, I saw this as a weakeness, a character defect even. I am a worrier and over-analyzer by nature, so I thought this was just something I didn’t deal with well or was a personal shortcoming. People in every day life don’t talk about it. The interactions we have are usually too fleeting or superficial (appropriately so) to delve below the surface and share what’s really going on in our depths. So when we feel this way, we often can’t see anyone else going through the same thing. And I don’t know about you,  but it never occurs to me to cut others slack because they might be in that boat. I heard a podcast earlier this week that dissects this phenomenon.

I love podcasts for so many reasons. Soon I’ll write an entry all about my favorites and how to start if podcasts aren’t something you do. My topic today comes from a Hidden Brain episode called Tunnel Vision.

hidden brain icon; tunnel vision article

Here is the link to the episode should you want to listen, but I’ll hit the high points.

The idea is that when we don’t have enough of something we need like money, human interaction, peace of mind, time, or food, it can become the only thing that matters to us. And this very mindset can make the problem worse.

The host interviewed Brandy, a woman whose mistake at work landed her in a spiral of poverty that she had been safely above for the previous decade. She lost her job, and as she sought other employment, her supplies dwindled and she worried constantly about money. To bridge the gap, she opened a new credit card account, went straight to Walmart and maxed it out on immediate essentials (food, laundry detergent, toilet paper). She soon realized she hadn’t budgeted for longer term, less pressing needs such as gas. Eventually she was forced to choose between paying her bills or feeding her kids. She felt imprisoned by debt. In retrospect, Brandy could easily see the mistakes she’d made. She was in her mid-thirties and had always been careful and conscientious. What had caused her uncharacteristic and illogical behavior?

Economists find that those with a severe shortage of money spend most of their attention and cognitive resources on financial juggling. If starving makes people obsess over food, poverty makes people obsess about how to make ends meet. The theory is that this is a survival mechanism. An alarm goes off in the head and the message is loud, pervasive, and can’t be ignored. When Brandy spent money on short term needs, her alarm bells temporarily went silent. But the reprieve from the alarm came at a huge cost. If our minds are consumed with something, there isn’t room to think about other things. Consider it like bandwidth. Tunnel vision makes the immediate problem crystal clear. The drawback is that you can’t see anything outside of it. And if the focus is too tight on what’s just ahead, it can make the underlying problem worse. This is the scarcity trap. Actions to address today’s scarcity lead to behaviors that bring about more scarcity tomorrow.

Lonely people often engage in social interactions in a way that makes forming friendships harder. They focus on the friends they don’t have and try too hard to be liked. Interactions can feel awkward because the lonely person is focused so intensely on making a good impression that he doesn’t focus well on the conversation. The awkwardness is avoided by potential friends, and the lonely person becomes lonelier.

People who are in a scarcity tunnel do things that to an outsider look ill-advised. What if the poor choices aren’t a function of the person, but a function of the scarcity itself that is actually changing the ability of their mind? What if a person who would usually handle a situation well does poorly if faced with the same situation in the midst of scarcity?

A study of sugar cane farmers in India fleshes out this idea. They receive payment once a year for their entire harvest, so they are relatively well off right after harvest and despite careful budgeting are usually very short on money right before the next harvest. These farmers were tested 2 months before and 2 months after harvest. Impulse control and long-term thinking were greatly superior during times of plenty. In times of scarcity, the farmers performed significantly lower on an IQ test with score changes similar to having just pulled an all-nighter. Not only did their mental capacity change, scarcity robbed them of insight into how their mind was changing. It’s not that struggling people think only about immediate needs because it’s all they want to think about, it’s all they can think about. Scarcity hijacks the mind.

Scott and I like the show Alone. It’s a reality show where survival experts are placed in remote areas with no resources and compete to outlast each other. We just watched a super smart, skilled guy get removed from the game due to malnutrition. The crazy thing was that he had a stockpile of dried fish. He was so focused on long term success that he was starving himself in the short term despite having food available that he himself had prepared. In the after show, he seem so perplexed by his error and frustrated at his miscalculation. He had fallen into a tunnel and had no idea.

Are you aware of when you are inside a tunnel? How can we prevent this phenomenon from taking hold in our lives? How can we prevent our problems from controlling our thinking and behavior?

Building free time into our schedule, being conscious about staying present during family time, and taking vacations are all things we can actively do, but these strategies presume we have choices. We can budget time. But how do we take a vacation from being lonely or broke or worried about a loved one’s heatlh? We can preserve bandwidth in other ways, but it takes intentional effort.

Looking outward, can we be more tolerant of things that those suffering from scarcity will have trouble with? Take those in poverty working hard to get out. They might struggle with being on time or showing up. They don’t need education on the importance of punctuality and attendance, yet their circumstances, their tunnel, make it hard to manage the logistics (the kids aren’t ready, they don’t have a babysitter, the bus is running late, the car is broken down, etc.).

Instead of eliminating all airline pilots who aren’t perfect (impossible), cockpits are now designed to be fault tolerant to diminish the consequences of mistakes. This has made air travel much safer. Can our mindsets be more fault tolerant of ourselves and each other?

We all break the rules. We agree to commitments when we don’t have time or pay with a credit card for things we can’t afford. When we do that, we need to look up and notice where we are. It’s also important to remember that other people may be in an invisible tunnel and doing the best they can from in there.

Just knowing that this is a hardwired, measurable phenomenon makes me feel better. It allows me to understand myself in a new way. I hope it will also help me to be more merciful in my snap judgements.

What tunnels are your stomping grounds?

  • I emailed Hidden Brain to send them a link to my blog post about their episode. I was excited to hear back from them! This is their reply:

    Hidden Brain
    May 2 (1 day ago)

    Hi Joanne,
    Thanks so much for your note, and for writing about our Tunnel Vision episode on your blog. I really enjoyed reading it!

    Wishing you lots of scarcity-free podcast listening in the future…

    Tara Boyle, Supervising Producer
    Hidden Brain

  • […] episodes about psychology and the brain and why we do the things we do. I wrote an entry called Tunnels about a recent episode that spoke to me. It’s episode […]

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