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Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much Hardcover – September 3, 2013

4.2 out of 5 stars 157 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. The struggle for insufficient resources—time, money, food, companionship—concentrates the mind for better and, mostly, worse, according to this revelatory treatise on the psychology of scarcity. Harvard economist Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Shafir examine how scarcity in many forms, from poverty and scheduling pressures to dieters' food cravings and loneliness—a kind of social scarcity —force the brain to focus on alleviating pressing shortages and thus reduce the mental bandwidth available to address other needs, plan ahead, exert self-control, and solve problems. The result of perpetual scarcity, they contend, is a life fixated on agonizing trade-offs, crises, and preoccupations that impose persistent cognitive deficits—in poor people they lower mental performance as much as going a night without sleep—and reinforce self-defeating actions. The authors support their lucid, accessible argument with a raft of intriguing research in psychology and behavioral economics (sample study: We recruited Princeton undergraduates to play Family Feud in a controlled setting ) and apply it to surprising nudges that remedy everything from hospital overcrowding to financial ignorance. Mullainaithan and Shafir present an insightful, humane alternative to character-based accounts of dysfunctional behavior, one that shifts the spotlight from personal failings to the involuntary psychic disabilities that chronic scarcity inflicts on everyone. 8 illus. Agent: Katinka Matson, Brockman Inc. (Sept.)


“Extraordinarily illuminating. . . . Mullainathan and Shafir have made an important, novel, and immensely creative contribution.” ―Cass R. Sunstein, The New York Review of Books

“Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir offer groundbreaking insights into, among other themes, the effects of poverty on cognition and our ability to make choices about our lives.” ―Samantha Power, The Wall Street Journal

Scarcity is a captivating book, overflowing with new ideas, fantastic stories, and simple suggestions that just might change the way you live.” ―Steven D. Levitt, coauthor of Freakonomics

“Compelling, important … Scarcity is likely to change how you view both entrenched poverty and your own ability -- or inability --to get as much done as you'd like… It's a handy guide for those of us looking to better understand our inability to ever climb out of the holes we dig ourselves, whether related to money, relationships, or time.” ―The Boston Globe

“Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir are stars in their respective disciplines, and the combination is greater than the sum of its parts. Together they manage to merge scientific rigor and a wry view of the human predicament. Their project has a unique feel to it: it is the finest combination of heart and head that I have seen in our field.” ―Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow

“The scarcity phenomenon is good news because to a certain extent, we can design our way around it...What's particularly useful about the idea of scarcity is that it is overarching; ease that burden, and people will be better able to deal with all the rest.” ―The New York Times

“Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir show how the logic of scarcity applies to rich and poor, educated and illiterate, Asian, Western, Hispanic, and African cultures alike. They offer insights that can help us change our individual behavior and that open up an entire new landscape of public policy solutions. A breathtaking achievement!” ―Anne-Marie Slaughter, professor emerita, Princeton University, and president and CEO of the New America Foundation

“A key point of Mullainathan and Shafir's work is that we may all experience different kinds of scarcity, accompanied by the same hyper-narrow focus and costs in lost attention elsewhere.” ―The Atlantic

“Here is a winning recipe. Take a behavioral economist and a cognitive psychologist, each a prominent leader in his field, and let their creative minds commingle. What you get is a highly original and easily readable book that is full of intriguing insights. What does a single mom trying to make partner at a major law firm have in common with a peasant who spends half her income on interest payments? The answer is scarcity. Read this book to learn the surprising ways in which scarcity affects us all.” ―Richard H. Thaler, University of Chicago, coauthor of Nudge

“[Mullainathan and Shafir] examine how having too little of something first inspires focused bursts of creativity and productivity--consider how looming deadlines can motivate us. But a long-term dearth can result in fixations that hinder our decision-making...Less is not necessarily more.” ―Discover Magazine

“With a smooth blend of stories and studies, Scarcity reveals how the feeling of having less than we need can narrow our vision and distort our judgment. This is a book with huge implications for both personal development and public policy.” ―Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and To Sell Is Human

Scarcity is certain to gain popularity and generate discussion because it hits home. Everyone has experienced scarcity, and the research cited will likely alter every reader's worldview.” ―American Scientist's "Scientists' Bookshelf"

“Insightful, eloquent, and utterly original, Scarcity is the book you can't get enough of. It is essential reading for those who don't have the time for essential reading.” ―Daniel Gilbert, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of Stumbling on Happiness

“The book's unified theory of the scarcity mentality is novel in its scope and ambition.” ―The Economist

“A pacey dissection of a potentially life-changing subject.” ―Time Out London

“A succinct, digestible and often delightfully witty introduction to an important new branch of economics.” ―New Statesman

“One of the most significant economics books of the year.” ―Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

“The struggle for insufficient resources--time, money, food, companionship--concentrates the mind for better and, mostly, worse, according to this revelatory treatise on the psychology of scarcity . . . The authors support their lucid, accessible argument with a raft of intriguing research . . . and apply it to surprising nudges that remedy everything from hospital overcrowding to financial ignorance . . . Insightful.” ―Publishers Weekly (starred review)


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Times Books (September 3, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805092641
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805092646
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (157 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #139,274 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I once heard Sendhil Mullainathan speak at an event in DC, and he was smart and engaging. He's a MacArthur Foundation genius, a Harvard economist, and a TED speaker. 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 conclusions are, well, obvious. The book's entire thesis can be summarized as: "People make bad decisions when they are resource-constrained, whether the resources in question are money, time, food, or something else." Some of it recaps what has been said before about hyperbolic discounting in economics.

The book's chapters go like this...

Intro - definition of "scarcity" and overview of its consequences
Chap. 1 - The good: scarcity can cause focus. The bad: focus can mean inattention to other things.
Chap. 2 - Scarcity causes an internal disruption that makes it harder to make good decisions.
Chap. 3 - Slack (the opposite of scarcity) allows better choices and reduces the bad consequences of failiure.
Chap. 4 - Poor people are sometimes more realistic about estimating costs, because they have to be.
Chap. 5 - Borrowing when you're short of cash leads to a descending spiral of debt.
Chap. 6 & 7 - Poverty is a vicious circle of scarcity leading to bad decisions leading to scarcity...
Chap. 8 - Poverty can be alleviated by creating slack, such as extra cash or day care to create more time.
Chap. 9 - Efficient use of resources and division of labor helps organizations become more efficient.
Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
There's a passage from the introduction where the authors tell a colleague about their research for this book, and the colleague replies, "There's already a science of scarcity. You might have heard of it. It's called economics." The authors then go on to defend why their particular focus is unique, though I must admit I was skeptical too. I just didn't see how this subject would go from the abstract to something nearer to my own experience. Fortunately, my concern was unfounded. Some fancy-sounding words are thrown about (tunneling, bandwidth and slack, for example, sound more mathematical than not) but how they're applied in real life is what makes the study of scarcity practical and familiar.

I've had a saying for years now, "When you're up and life's going your way, the choices are easy. It's the choices you make when you're down on your luck or in failure's grip that says the most about your character--about who you really are." This book is a partial scientific explanation about why this is true. The sections on poverty, especially, demonstrate just how limited the choices are for the poor. Certain groups of people--those in positions of power, the wealthy, the well-educated--they simply have more resources to weather the bumps in life.

I recommend this one. The playing field may never be leveled though that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. What's important is that in the process of doing so we need to be aware that everyone faces life's problems from different starting points and often with a wide variety of advantages and disadvantages.
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There is a popular misconception in America, one few outside our borders understand, that the poor among us are financially constrained because they deserve it, they earned it, they aren't smart enough to avoid it. They make worse choices than the haves because they don't think things through, and have to live with those consequences. Explain, then, the experiment in which Princeton students (hardly an unintelligent lot) are randomized to "wealthy" vs "poor" teams in a game at the end of which the wealthy consistently do better than the poor. Underlying intelligence didn't drive the result; randomization to wealth vs poverty, to nonchalance vs desperation, did. That decision-making under pressure is often sub-optimal may seem obvious to some, but it is easily forgotten by others. And it is not a problem of just the poor, due to financial constraints, but of the high-powered business elites due to time constraints, and hopeful obese in their calorie constraints. The main difference being, of course, that no matter how busy you are, you can take a break from business by going on vacation. No matter how much weight you have to lose, you can take a break from your diet, and splurge on dessert one night. But if you're poor, there is no break, no respite, no time-out to allow you to recharge. And that makes all the difference.

Understanding this fundamental challenge can help each and every one of us in daily decision-making for ourselves (build in slack if you're busy; set reasonable goals for a diet), but more importantly, encourages us to soften our critique of the poor decisions we judge in others. This book couldn't have arrived at a better time in American politics. I only hope the busy judges among us find the time to read it.
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