Two very similar theories but from two different backgrounds: CLT and the Scarcity Mindset

John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory has been quite successful for the past few years, with e.g. Dylan Wiliam calling it the most important theory in present day education. The essence is that our short term memory is limited in the number of elements it can contain simultaneously. I do prefer the distinction Sweller originally made between 3 different kinds of load:

  • Intrinsic cognitive load is the effort associated with a specific topic,
  • extraneous cognitive is produced by the demands imposed on learners by the teacher, or the instructions that they are asked to follow. This type of cognitive load is extraneous to the learning task, and is increased by ineffective teaching methods, which unintentionally misdirect students with distracting information or make a task more complex than it needs to be (source).
  • germane cognitive load refers to the work put into creating a permanent store of knowledge, or a schema.

In their 2013 book Hattie and Yates describe what can cause information overload, their version of extraneous load, such as (toxic) stress, too high demands, bad teaching, and so on…

I have been teaching this theory for quite a while – and it is also discussed in practical detail in my book – but I have been also teaching another theory about the scarcity mindset. This theory is based on the work by Mullanaithan and Shafir, something I also published about scholarly.

Taken from Wikipedia this sums up their theory quite nicely:

Scarcity affects the functioning of the brain at both a conscious and subconscious level, and has a large impact on the way one behaves. The authors suggest that Scarcity has a tendency to push us into a state of tunneling: a focus primarily on the scarcity of a resource, and a resulting neglect for everything else “outside” the tunnel. When in a state of tunneling, one automatically reverts to the immediate scarcity and concern at hand, which often is to one’s detriment. The underlying mechanisms that contribute to tunneling are discussed, such as goal inhibition: focusing on immediate goals (concerns) at the expense of considering how to achieve long term goals. The authors utilize the term tunneling tax to describe the cost of the things one has forgone in order to satisfy tunneling. Usually the effect of tunnelings are dire, and result in long-term consequences.

Scarcity also takes a toll on bandwidth, the cognitive space to think and process problems and come up with solutions. A lack of bandwidth inhibits the most necessary functions and capacities for everyday life such as fluid intelligence and executive control. Its effect on human bandwidth highlights the impact of scarcity on the way people behave, think, and make decisions. Ultimately, left unchecked, scarcity can make life a lot harder and can amount to be a serious burden. 

To me it seems that the idea of toll on bandwidth is actually extraneous load in cognitive load theory, with bandwidth describing the working memory.

Mullanaithan and Shafir (2013) do mention briefly the working memory, but never mention John Sweller in their book.

Maybe it is a good idea to bring these two theories together to a stronger unified theory?


  • De Bruyckere, P., & Simons, M. (2016). Scarcity at school. European Educational Research Journal15(2), 260-267.
  • Hattie, J., & Yates, G. C. (2013). Visible learning and the science of how we learn. Routledge.
  • Mani, A., Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E., & Zhao, J. (2013). Poverty impedes cognitive function. science341(6149), 976-980.
  • Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. Macmillan.
  • Sweller, J., Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning, Cognitive Science, 12, 257-285 (1988).

3 thoughts on “Two very similar theories but from two different backgrounds: CLT and the Scarcity Mindset

  1. Yes, yes, yes – I think this is a very important connection. I read Mullanaithan and Shafir’s book some time ago, and I agree 100% that scarcity is a form of extraneous cognitive load. It makes so much sense.

    There are probably numerous ways limits of cognitive load affect our everyday lives.

  2. I’ll try to take a look at this theory though I do see fundamental differences based on your description of scarcity. One correction: While many people still speak of a distinction between germane and extraneous load, John, Slava Kalyuga, and I (among others) have abandoned this distinction as it’s not correct and is also unmeasurable. Originally there was no distinction, then two researchers added this and it caught on (also by John and me), but it has now been abandoned and brought back to its origin.
    Citing myself in a recent article:
    Kalyuga (2011, p. 1), for example posited that
    [I]n its traditional treatment, germane load is essentially indistinguishable from intrinsic load, and therefore this concept may be redundant … the dual intrinsic/extraneous framework is sufficient and non-redundant and makes boundaries of the theory transparent. The idea of germane load might have an independent role within this framework if (as recently suggested by John Sweller) it is redefined as referring to the actual working memory resources devoted to dealing with intrinsic rather than extraneous load. As such, germane load is not treated as an additive source of load here.

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