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Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much Hardcover – September 3, 2013
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A surprising and intriguing examination of how scarcity-and our flawed responses to it-shapes our lives our society and our cultureWhy do successful people get things done at the last minute Why does poverty persist Why do organizations get stuck firefighting Why do the lonely find it hard to make friends These questions seem unconnected yet Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir show that they are all examples of a mind-set produced by scarcity Drawing on cutting-edge research from behavioral science and economics Mullainathan and Shafir show that scarcity creates a similar psychology for everyone struggling to manage with less than they need Busy people fail to manage their time efficiently for the same reasons the poor and those maxed out on credit cards fail to manage their money The dynamics of scarcity reveal why dieters find it hard to resist temptation why students and busy executives mismanage their time and why sugarcane farmers are smarter after harvest than before Once we start thinking in terms of scarcity and the strategies it imposes the problems of modern life come into sharper focus Mullainathan and Shafir discuss how scarcity affects our daily lives recounting anecdotes of their own foibles and making surprising connections that bring this research alive Their book provides a new way of understanding why the poor stay poor and the busy stay busy and it reveals not only how scarcity leads us astray but also how individuals and organizations can better manage scarcity for greater satisfaction and success
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This truly worthwhile book goes way beyond financial poverty and beyond the superficial effects of not having enough money to pay your bills.
Scarcity comes in many forms - money scarcity, time scarcity, companion scarcity, calorie scarcity, sleep scarcity, and on. Scarcity can make us more effective and less effective. Either way it affects our functioning in profound ways.
When you have a deadline, something happens to your brain that does not happen when you do not. The deadline forces you to choose to complete the report over browsing the internet or playing with your new puppy. The intense focus you have is a function of time scarcity, and ignoring distraction is not a choice.
Self-imposed deadlines come with a different level of choice; you can always decide not to observe self-imposed deadlines in favour of browsing, or the puppy.
In studies of business meetings, Connie Gersick observed that the first half of meetings is diffuse. Much of the conversation strays off the topic. The second half of the meeting nearly always produces more progress as the group realises they are running out of time.
A study of the effects of location was undertaken on a New Haven school situated next to a noisy railway line. It revealed that only one side of the school was affected by the noise. 6th graders whose classes were on the noisy side where academically behind the students on the quiet side - by a full year!
That interruption affects cognitive ability is no surprise, but how severely it does, is shocking.
In a recent study, students were asked to come to the laboratory around lunchtime not having eaten for four hours. Half the group was served lunch, and the other half told to begin the experimental work.
Words were flashed on a screen for one third of a second and then students were asked to identify the word they saw. Was it ‘rake’ or ‘take’. One might expect the hungry students to perform more poorly, but that was not the case. They did as well as the satiated students. However, they did better on words related to food.
In this case of calorie scarcity and in others cases of scarcity, brain functioning was affected at a level beyond conscious awareness.
Even theoretical decision-making is affected by scarcity. People in different economic strata were give this problem to solve: Your mechanic informs you that your car requires a repair that will cost $300 half of which will be covered by your auto insurance. You can still drive the car, but eventually the effect will necessitate a much more expensive repair.
Both those subjects coming from a lower and an upper economic group said they would do the immediate repair. The sensible decision.
However, when the sum involved was changed to $3000 the reactions of the different economic strata was stark. Those in the upper economic groups said they would repair now to avoid the higher cost later. Those in the lower economic groups said they would wait to repair the vehicle.
The salient point is that this was a hypothetical question – it was not their car and not their money. They may not even have owned a car!
Experiencing money scarcity would mean they had monetary issues close to top of mind. Once the experimenters stimulated that part of the brain, the all-too-real non-hypothetical thinking about scarcity came to the fore. Coming up with $ 1,500 was beyond them, the credit card was exhausted.. The minimum payment due is so large they would not be able to meet even that this month. Whom can they borrow from to this time?
A little stimulation raises a racket in their brains, and this racket affected their performance on a hypothetical problem! This is little different to the debilitating effect of a noisy train outside of a classroom.
The better off had no such stimulation, and so they could answer the hypothetical question more reasonably. The poor answered the question unreasonably. One could conclude that they were less intelligent or less capable of rational thought.
The waiter brings you a still water when you asked for a sparkling water. Is he concerned about his mother or his rent at a level that is pre-conscious? What does that do to a student writing an exam? Is it scarcity that is distracting and causing the poor performance and not the lack of intelligence or diligence?
The implications of scarcity go far beyond what I had thought. Therein lies the value of this book. It will make you think about the impact of various types of scarcity in ways you probably have never thought about before.
Readability Light --+-- Serious
Insights High -+--- Low
Practical High -+--- Low
Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy
A common criticism of this book is that the authors are frequently making elaborate demonstrations of the obvious. While the observation is fair to some extent, the circular-causation theory of perpetual scarcity presented in the work is intriguing and fills out our understanding self-perpetuating scarcity, espcially with respect to money. I've usually been a little skeptical of the usefulness/relevance of finding of behavioral economics, but I find this work to be an exceptional case; I gladly recommend it.