financial scarcity, graduate students, self-undermining behavior, borrowing


Recent economic trends and wage stagnation are putting employees in challenging financial situations that may impact their contributions at work. This study draws on scarcity theory (Mullainathan & Shafir, 2013) to investigate how perceived financial scarcity and the experience of a scarcity mindset might impact early career professionals (i.e., graduate students) over a short period of time. A scarcity mindset is characterized by changes in people's thinking, such as increased attentional focus and neglect (i.e., tunneling), increased consideration of sacrifices (i.e., trade-off thinking), and increased cognitive load (i.e., the bandwidth tax; de Bruijn et al., 2021). These changes in cognition are associated with certain behaviors (i.e., borrowing and self-undermining) that create a self-perpetuating cycle of scarcity known as the scarcity trap. To test the model proposed by scarcity theory, the present study used a daily diary design and Multilevel Structural Equation modeling (MSEM). Doctoral students (N=93) reported perceived financial scarcity and changes in cognition and behavior via daily surveys. Across 19 days, participants reported 351 financial events, 211 of which were scarcity-inducing (i.e., shocks). The two most common shocks were related to food and housing, suggesting that the financial cost of meeting basic needs was enough to constitute a shock. When graduate students experienced a shock and an associated increase in their perceived early financial scarcity, they were more likely to make mistakes due to their cognitive resources being consumed by scarcity. Tunneling and trade-off thinking mediated the relation between perceived financial scarcity and financial borrowing. The bandwidth tax mediated the relation between perceived financial scarcity and self-undermining behavior. The existence of the scarcity trap was also partially supported by the reciprocal relationship between financial borrowing and future financial scarcity. These findings suggest that graduate students experiencing financial scarcity were more likely to borrow money and undermine themselves in their work (e.g. making mistakes). These behavioral changes may be attributed to the experience of a scarcity mindset through trade-off thinking, tunneling, and the bandwidth tax. In sum, this study offers support for scarcity theory as an explanatory mechanism for short-term changes in employee thinking and behavior that may perpetuate financial scarcity and its negative effects in the long run. Implications for research and practice are discussed.

Completion Date




Committee Chair

Fritzsche, Barbara


Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


College of Sciences



Degree Program

Psychology; Industrial and Organizational Psychology






In copyright

Release Date

May 2025

Length of Campus-only Access

1 year

Access Status

Doctoral Dissertation (Campus-only Access)

Campus Location

Orlando (Main) Campus

Accessibility Status

Meets minimum standards for ETDs/HUTs

Restricted to the UCF community until May 2025; it will then be open access.