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Hidden Brain

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

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Andrea Cappelli/Picture Press, Getty Images/Picture Press RM

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.

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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.

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