Scarcity: Why having too little means so much

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The duetting professors present their adventures in metaphor as a kind of quest, though it is not always clear who is Quixote and who Sancho Panza. Their journey begins with the sort of revelation common to all such quests, a leap from the personal to the universal. The hypothesis to be tested is this: In other words, do the stressed-out time-poor of the west have common cause with the actual dollar-a-day poor of the developing world? If they do, it is Mullainathan and Shafir's contention that the link between these two states is "scarcity". If that link sounds tendentious, or even arrogant, then the American professors have no end of smart studies to back it up.

It is, to begin with, their provable belief that "scarcity captures the mind", and it doesn't matter whether the absent resource is time or food or money. Some of this understanding is not new: The subjects of the study who watched movies were interested only in the scenes in which food was mentioned; when they talked they made plans to open restaurants or become farmers when the study was ended; they hoarded cookbooks.

Further studies show this preoccupation to occur in far less extreme circumstances. In one experiment, a group is divided into those who'd had lunch, and those who hadn't eaten since breakfast. Both sets watched words flashed very quickly — at one-thirtieth of a second — on a screen. The hungry cohort identified as many of the words as the others except in one instance — they were far more likely to identify the word "cake" than their fully fed peers.

From such findings the authors begin to count the ways in which scarcity of all kinds — sleep, security, time, food, money — remodels patterns of thinking. Sometimes the results are counterintuitive. Thus, the lonely and isolated are far more alive to the nuances of facial gesture than the popular and sociable. Sometimes the "tunnelling" of vision is more creative: But always, the authors observe, such narrowing comes at a price.

The cost is an undue focus on the necessity at hand, which leads to a lack of curiosity about wider issues, and an inability to imagine longer-term consequences. The effect of this scarcity-generated "loss of bandwidth" has catastrophic results in particular in relation to money. While the poor have a much sharper idea of value and cost, an obsessive concentration on where the next dollar is coming from leads not only to poor judgment, a lessened ability to make rational choices or see a bigger picture, but also to a diminishing of intelligence even "feeling poor" lowers IQ by the same amount as a night without sleep , as well as a lowering of resistance to self-destructive temptation.

This "scarcity trap" provides an explanation for unpalatable truths, the authors argue. It shows why the "poor are more likely to be obese… Less likely to send their children to school… [why] the poorest in a village are the ones least likely to wash their hands or treat their water before drinking it. They are short on bandwidth.

New research shows how poverty can often be a self-perpetuating trap. View all 7 comments.

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Jul 14, Leland Beaumont rated it really liked it. Systems that are not resilient to congestion reach a point of overload where they experience a decrease in carried load even as offered load increases. The authors apply these principles, without the math, to analyzing several important social problems. Scarcity captures the mind; it focuses us on immediate needs while it diminishes the executive control functions we need for impulse control and to make good longer-term priority decisions.

Poverty results from a scarcity of money, aggravated by a scarcity of mental bandwidth needed to plan better use of the available money. Lonely people suffer from a scarcity of social contacts. The misery increases with each cycle. People embroiled in scarcity do not make the rational decisions predicted by traditional economics; instead they consistently make costly short-term decisions. Payday loans that charge exorbitant fees to lend money until your next paycheck arrives are one remarkably popular and costly example.

The present is crushing, the future is abstract. Borrowing goes hand-in-hand with scarcity. Poverty causes failure, not the other way around. The general solution they offer to breaking various scarcity cycles is to introduce slack into the system—capacity that is available to carry unplanned but inevitable surges in resource needs. For example, a chronic shortage of operating rooms at St. The steady flow of unscheduled emergencies was handled by this room without disrupting the scheduling of elective surgery. A focus on efficiency alone has to yield to planning for slack capacity required to handle the unplanned yet inevitable shocks to the system.

Henry Ford apparently knew this in when he famously adopted a shorter hour work week and gained an increase in output over the traditional hour work week.

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Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan

While traditional systems such as payday loans are often designed to exploit poor decision making during scarcity, systems can be redesigned to help people make better decisions during times of abundance. GlowCaps, pill bottles that glow and beep to remind you to take the medicine each day, are one good example. Sep 13, Kristof Smits rated it it was ok. I once heard Sendhil Mullainathan speak at an event in DC, and he was smart and engaging. He has a wry sense of humor and tells anecdotes from his personal life to make his economics work come alive.

And all of that is in this book, written with his long-time collaborator, Eldar Shafir, who's a Princeton psychologist. Still this book was a bit of a disappointment, possibly because I expected so much. A lot of the conclusi I once heard Sendhil Mullainathan speak at an event in DC, and he was smart and engaging. A lot of the conclusions are, well, obvious. The book's entire thesis can be summarized as: The book's chapters go like this Intro - definition of "scarcity" and overview of its consequences Chap.

On the positive side, the book contains some interesting stories, and a rich set of endnotes to track down the many studies the authors cite. On the negative side, the book keeps talking about how mainstream economics is traditionally for example, that people are "rational" decision makers , just so the authors can tear down the mainstream view.

Economists come across as completely clueless, which maybe they are. Is it really surprising that when you're poor, hungry, and stressed, that you would make less than rational decisions? Mullainathan and Shafir seem aware of this problem with the book. The explanation isn't compelling, and unlike most of their other claims, that passage doesn't have lots of studies to back it up. The most interesting study in the book is one about street vendors in India who are in perpetual debt from a loan-sell-repay cycle Chap.

The researchers give the vendors a cash grant to pay off their debts, which should have allowed them to start saving a little and eventually eliminate the need for borrowing altogether. One by one, though, the vendors fall back into debt. Any non-economist would see this as challenges of personality or habit. It's the same reason why couch potatos find it hard to get off the couch and exercise everyday. The authors, though, somehow turn this into a story of scarcity. How it was because there wasn't enough slack. Why don't they do an experiment where they give everyone a little extra cash to save?

They don't, though, and I'd bet good money that with additional cash, the vendors would still have fallen back into debt eventually. What the vendors need is some training and hand-holding. This study illustrates one of the biggest problems with the book. In order to make a case for the centrality of scarcity, the authors go too far. Not every bad decision is about scarcity. Sometimes, people are dumb, and sometimes there are dumb people.

And sometimes, people are smart, and there are also smart people. At one point, the authors write, "all people, if they were poor, would have less effective bandwidth. My grandmother managed seven kids and ran a shop, but she was dirt poor until her children grew up. View all 5 comments. Aug 22, Lena rated it really liked it Shelves: This extremely important book takes a close and counter-intuitive look at how the brain behaves when confronted with the lack of something. That something is often money, but it can also be time, or will power, or human connection. In a nutshell, it explains how the brain's default method of creating immediate solutions to urgent problems can very often create a much larger problem down the road.

The reason for this is that urgent problems causes the brain to tunnel, which takes a tremendous amou This extremely important book takes a close and counter-intuitive look at how the brain behaves when confronted with the lack of something. The reason for this is that urgent problems causes the brain to tunnel, which takes a tremendous amount of cognitive processing capacity.

Focus on the immediate problem creates a "tax" on processing power that impairs the ability to step back and take a wider view of the situation; in particular, it causes us to underestimate the long-term costs of what may seem on the surface to be a good short-term solution. This book is written in a fairly academic style and is somewhat repetitive in the first half. While it is not a self help book, it does contain critical information on how we can counteract mental habits that keep us in a scarcity loop.

It also contains scores of real world examples of the bandwidth tax in action, from farmers in India to small business owners in the Caribbean to air traffic controllers in the Midwest. That latter group offered a particularly unique example of the bandwidth tax - on days when flights were backed up and they were required to manage a heavier load of airborne planes than normal, they demonstrated decreased ability to parent their children in a consistent fashion.

I originally assumed this would be an academically interesting book that would be most useful to those who develop aid programs. It is definitely that, as the authors address how many programs designed to help people get out of poverty fail because their structure contributes to a worsening of this bandwidth tax. In reading it, however, I also saw more and more of myself in its pages.


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Though it took me weeks to finish it because I was trying to put out so many fires at work the irony of it ending up overdue at the library was not lost on me it gave me tremendous insight into how I had ended up so far behind and what I need to do to fix that. Thanks to Richard for encouraging me to bump it up my list. View all 4 comments. There is no scarcity of books about the brain and psychology and emotion. In fact, the shelves are groaning with them. But here's a psychological take on what you might regard as a problem of economics - and that makes it genuinely fascinating.

So it's a shame that it doesn't work better as a book - but this is one of those titles that you will want to read despite that. The authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir look at the nature of scarcity and, crucially, the effect it has on human per There is no scarcity of books about the brain and psychology and emotion. The authors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir look at the nature of scarcity and, crucially, the effect it has on human performance.

You might hear the term and think it's about going hungry - and that is one example of scarcity - but they also look at what happens when money, time and even friends are in short supply. Although they aren't exact analogues, all have related impacts on us as human beings. By referencing the best available studies and doing a few of their own , the authors come to some important conclusions.

Scarcity isn't all bad. It concentrates the mind - gives us focus. But there is a price to pay for being in that tunnel. It means that other essential aspects of life get ignored. And, most strikingly, what the authors call 'bandwidth' - a combination of cognitive ability and ability to concentrate - is reduced. They call this a 'bandwidth tax'. So far, so engaging. We aren't just offered the symptoms and diagnosis, but also some attempts to counter this. Pointing out, for instance, that it's better for people to make decisions and learn things when they are going through a good phase than through scarcity.

However I have two problems with this as a book. One is that while it's no textbook, it really isn't particularly readable - it takes a really interesting subject and makes it a bit dull. And the other is that there are strong signs that this is really a magazine article, not a book. For page after page the same thing is said in subtly different ways.

If I see the word 'bandwidth' again today, I'll scream. The meat of this book could easily fit in 4, words. So, paradoxically, I do urge you to read the book, as the subject is well worth exploring - but I can't promise that you will enjoy the experience. Oct 08, Avi Kalderon rated it liked it.

While I find the topic very interesting and the science and research put into understanding the scarcity factor intriguing, I think the book was overly long, repetitive and quite frankly circular. Many books are written in such manner especially when they deal with non-fiction topics and this book is no different. Editors must be gunning for volume and as such authors While I find the topic very interesting and the science and research put into understanding the scarcity factor intriguing, I think the book was overly long, repetitive and quite frankly circular.

Editors must be gunning for volume and as such authors are forced to write the same thing over and over again in different words. The book did a good job explaining the issue and yet did not offer much on terms of strategies to handle.


  • Timeline: Eine Reise in die Mitte der Zeit - Roman (Allemand) (German Edition).
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  • In short good albeit long and repetitive description of the problem and almost no solutions. Advice to new readers; You can bail out after the first third and not miss anything of substance. I stuck to the end and can attest to that. Sep 10, Jon Fish rated it really liked it. The premise of the book is that we have a limited amount of mental bandwidth and we use a bit of that bandwidth each time we address a problem. Poverty, time pressure, and responsibilities all tax our mental bandwidth, even when we are not actively thinking about them.

    The value of this text is not in highlighting that pressure from outside factors affects us all the time, but rather in explaining the importance of considering bandwidth in designing programs, assigning tasks, etc. A quick read, I highly recommend this to anyone who has ever been perplexed by the disconnect between knowing what to do and being able to do it.

    Some people say poor people have poor ways, the implication being that they are poor because of their poor ways. These authors maintain that the reverse is true, that people have poor ways because they are poor. They say it can be explained by the psychology of scarcity. What will suprise many readers is that rich or non-poor persons manifest the same behavior attributed to poor people when subjected to situations of scarcity e.

    In other words, the rich often have poor ways to Some people say poor people have poor ways, the implication being that they are poor because of their poor ways. In other words, the rich often have poor ways too, but they have enough money of cover the fiscal mistakes. However, the psycholgy of scarcity can show up in scarcity of time and friends as well as money and the psychology of scarcity can come into play for all social and economic classes. This book finds surprising links and similarities between the stressed-out time-poor of the west with the truly poor dollar-a-day workers of the developing world.

    Many wealthy people who are critical of the behavior of poor people will be surprised to learn from this book that they share the same behavior patterns as the very poor when in an environment of scarcity. The psychology of scarcity and its resulting behavior can be witnessed when there's a scarcity of time, money, or relationships with others.

    Two terms repeatedly used in this book are "bandwidth" and "tunneling. The results of this limited bandwidth leads to a kind of cognitive tunnel, limiting what a person is able to focus on at one time.

    Limited bandwidth and tunneling depletes self control and leads to impulsive and sometimes dumb behavior. Unfortunately this behavior can spiral into a trap of worsening scarcity. The authors bring an abundance of examples from their respective fields of study to support their descriptions of the psychological and behavioral consequences of the feeling of scarcity. Sendhil Mullainathan is a behavioral economist and Eldar Shafir is a cognitive psychologist. Nov 14, Laura rated it liked it Recommended to Laura by: Proposes that scarcity undermines rationality in consistent but unrecognized ways across human life.

    The schedule, the diet, the budget, the farm, the attempt to connect. The butter was spread a little thin, but I appreciate that this book attempted to be humane about human failings. Mullainathan and Shafir at least tried, though their suggestions did soun Proposes that scarcity undermines rationality in consistent but unrecognized ways across human life.

    Sep 02, Pete Welter rated it it was amazing. I'd put books like Thinking, Fast and Slow , Antifragile: They stretch your expectations and your perspectives. In this book, scarcity is considered in a variety of forms, including a lac "Scarcity" is one of those books that explains some aspect of the world in a way you hadn't though of before, in an accessible form, and backed by research results. In this book, scarcity is considered in a variety of forms, including a lack of wealth poverty , time overcommitted , food hunger and social contact loneliness. Through a variety of experiments from a behavioral economic point of view, the authors demonstrate that all of the varieties of scarcity share certain characteristics and that the results manifest themselves in ways that we might not have expected.

    However, they particularly focus on poverty, with good reason, because it is a form of scarcity that affects both individuals and society the most. As an example, take the idea of the lack of success of the poor. Are they not successful because they are poor, or are they poor because they are not as capable?

    Your answer to that may depend on your worldview or your politics, but it is a question worth asking, because without a solid answer, we have very little basis for finding solutions. The authors decided to see if someone's level of wealth would affect them intellectually. To do this, they started by giving a random group the scenario: Would you get it fixed? How would you decide?

    Immediately after this, they were given test of general intelligence Raven's Progressive Matrices to be exact - it's an IQ type test. In this case the result was that both poor and prosperous people come out very similar in their results. Their cognitive capabilities were nearly equal.

    They then changed the scenario to represent a larger financial hurdle: They presented this to a similar random group of subjects and the results were striking. After that scenario, the poor people performed significantly worse than the prosperous people. An equivalent of IQ points, or a greater effect than taking the test after being forced to stay up all night with no sleep.

    Note that this was at a subconscious level - the scenario is hypothetical in both cases. However, the mere distraction of the scarcity of money causes significant degradation of intellectual functioning. Moreover, the same effect happened when they run a similar test on executive function - that is, self-control and willpower. With the first scenario, no difference between poor and prosperous. With the second, significant differences. So, what does that tell us?

    That when we see the poor making choices that are clearly not helping their lives, or performing poorly in educational settings, or getting caught in behaviors that are downward spirals, we need to take into account that there are invisible for significant cognitive deficits that any one of us would be under if we were in the same financial circumstances. These are not character flaws, they are deeply embedded ways that the human brain deals with scarcity. We find similarly irrational behaviors in "successful" people whose scarcity involves lack of time, and not lack of money.

    This book is filled with experiments like this and the results, and the authors have done an admirable job conducting them to address some of the possible confounding factors. They also do an excellent job of communicating their work in a readable form. If you want a fantastic lens with which to examine some of the most perplexing questions facing our world today, this book is an excellent choice. As is usual with books like these, I thought that their "solutions" part of the book was weaker than the discussion. What books like this really spur - and why they are so important when they become popular - are new conversations and thoughts among many people that lead to a shifting of general perception, and ultimately, people using this perspective to find solutions that are far beyond what the authors would have ever dreamed.

    Although it's not perfect, this book fits that descriptions to a tee. Sep 26, Marcin Zaremba rated it really liked it. Feb 07, Danielle rated it it was amazing Shelves: This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. I venture in to nonfiction only based on strong recommendations. She had recently built a comprehensive suite of free services for low-income populations offered at locations within their neighborhood. Yet despite the no cost offering and the close proximity of those services to their target population, many of their clients continued to miss appointments or decline services altogether.

    She and her team were baffled.

    Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir – review

    My friend then came across Scarcity and said that it provided an inordinate amount of insight into the challenges of their clients and even helped them think about ways to restructure their program. Published in , the book is a study on the psychological impacts of scarcity — how people change their behaviors when they are in a situation of lack — whether it be for money, but also for time, for calories while dieting , or even a lack of companionship folks that are lonely. Data was aggregated across multiple sources, and they tested a whole host of variables in their subjects including geography, occupation, income, ethnic origin, and time.

    The surprising result — at least for me — was that every human when faced with scarcity of some form reacts in a similar fashion. These factors and others trying to preserve some of the ah-hah moments in the book , when compiled, make it nearly impossible to break the scarcity cycle. Providing amazing insight on how scarcity can impact the human psyche, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir present a thoughtful, brilliantly written and researched book on the impact that scarcity has on all of us.

    Oct 11, Jane rated it really liked it Shelves: Note the diverse shelves to which I assigned this title. If we're constantly worried about making ends meet and whether our children are going to bed hungry, we "tunnel," able to focus only on short-term fast f Note the diverse shelves to which I assigned this title. If we're constantly worried about making ends meet and whether our children are going to bed hungry, we "tunnel," able to focus only on short-term fast fixes.

    If bandwidth and scarcity of time affects them that much, might it be worth exploring what your current handling of abundance and scarcity are doing to your ability to make good decisions and be at your best? Perhaps more fascinating are the potential policy implications for helping people in poverty and for workplace "efficiency" measures. May 18, Ryan Bell rated it liked it. Excellent, accessible analysis of the problem of bandwidth tax and the way poverty causes more poverty. Their policy suggestions based on these observations are less inspiring and still enthrall to the same basic assumptions about poverty: They never consider that the thing that creates the bandwidth tax could be alleviated by universal basic income, for example.

    Then again, they are psychologists, not policy analysts. Their main job here is to share their findings and they do it well. Dec 12, Julie Davis rated it liked it. Read for my Catholic women's book club. This has value but would have been much easier to read if it had been written more for a general audience than for those who love diving head-first into studies and statistics.

    There would have been more value for me in seeing short summaries of the studies which the authors then used to support their main points, instead of having to read pages about each study. The whole study could have been in an appendix. It resulted in a lot of skimming to get the mai Read for my Catholic women's book club. It resulted in a lot of skimming to get the main point. Be that as it may, it does, as I mentioned, have value for examining the effect of scarcity in not just obvious things like money or food, but in time, relationships, and more.

    Considering how to limit scarcity and properly use abundance is something we can all benefit from. Jul 16, Dennis rated it it was ok Shelves: What do you know, having too much to do can cause one to lose focus, become scatterbrained, and experience frustration. And I'll be, working under pressure can lead to increased productivity if not better results. The authors' anecdotes were amusing. But overall this book was more "duh" than epiphany.

    I'm not so sure my scarce time and effort were best spent on this outing. Uma nova forma de enxergar os motivos, causas e efeitos da pobreza, falta de tempo, impulsos, dificuldade na dieta, enfim, tudo que envolve a escassez. Aqui fica bem explicado porque a escassez torna tudo mais complicado. Com as mentes focadas, tendemos a errar menos por descuido.

    Isso faz muito sentido: Dec 25, Sara rated it really liked it Shelves: This book, along with Better Angels Among Us, should be required reading for all legislators, educators, and managers, and certainly anyone working in public policy. It was an easily acces 5 stars for relevancy, interest and ability to make economic and psychological theories accessible. It was an easily accessible, fast read, and I found myself jotting down notes, and figuring out how to extend the premise to my staff, my children, and the way I view the world around me.

    Definitely worth the read. Oct 28, Amy rated it it was ok. When people are preoccupied with a lack of something, they find it harder to function. That's the whole goddamn book. Here I was, trying to expand my mind with non-fiction only to confirm that there's more truth and joy to be had in fiction. For me, at least.

    Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much

    This book whose authors are fantastic at TED talks, I'm told says what it needs to say in the first fifteen pages and drags out its basic, basic concept for the rest. The stories and studies mention Yawn. The stories and studies mentioned are interesting, no doubt, but a sincere waste of your time if you understand the idea upfront.

    Read the introduction and be done with it. Sep 01, JP rated it really liked it Shelves: Scarcity influences performance in both good and bad ways. It can focus our thinking and our resolve. It forces us to economize and choose. It also takes up our mental bandwidth, often with compounding effects as we borrow and reshuffle. Chronic scarcity also reduces the opportunity for slack, which means any extra draw on time or resources can create unrecoverable backlogs and shortfalls. I found this book interesting and useful for filling a topical gap I haven't seen covered so aptly.

    There i Scarcity influences performance in both good and bad ways. There is a lot of focus on poverty. It's an important topic, but I'd like to see a follow up work focused on time management implications and performance. Dec 12, Tara Brabazon rated it liked it. This is a very pleasant book to read. The style is evocative and engaging. Not an academic book, it is a bit too much like a Gladwell for my liking. But the case studies are fascinating and do build into a thesis, argument and the capacity for future work. The book investigates what scarcity - of money, food and time - does to people, organizations and systems.

    Of most use was the discussion of 'slack' in the system. The incredible value of space, time and 'slack' to create reflection, interpreta This is a very pleasant book to read. The incredible value of space, time and 'slack' to create reflection, interpretation and options was effectively demonstrated. Feb 19, Rachel Bayles rated it liked it Shelves: Good concepts imperfectly presented. A bit repetitive, with some of the more promising ideas brought up in the conclusion.

    The evolutionary role of scarcity probably should have been included more, and the function of abundance should have been given greater play.


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    In general, there is a bit too much of some information, and not quite enough of other types that would have made the arguments more complete. Mar 31, Inez rated it it was ok. Rather disappointing and pointlessly repetitive. As one reviewer has said - The book's entire thesis can be summarised as: You don't need to read a book that just describes behaviour, but offers no attempt to overcome some of the more negative aspects of this behaviour.

    Oct 02, Mehrsa rated it it was amazing. Best book I've read recently. This will change the way you think about poverty and other sorts of scarcity. Since I read it, I keep bringing it up in conversation. If you work with anyone that is poor or are involved in social policy whatsoever, you must understand this fascinating research.

    Oct 12, Frank D'hanis junior rated it it was amazing.